A Call to Church Leaders: How to Overcome Pharisaism in the 21st-Century Church
A Call to Church Leaders: How to Overcome Pharisaism in the 21st-Century Church

By Jeffrey Derico

Two critical challenges facing churches and their leaders today are to identify hurdles that undermine relevant ministry and then to eliminate them. The stakes are high because failure to overcome either hurdle will result in countless people never hearing the gospel, and eventually that church will permanently close its doors—and neither of these are acceptable outcomes. Yet both are becoming more common as churches across America struggle to effectively live out the Great Commission and then decline to the point they can no longer afford to pay the bills.

During nearly two decades of teaching and consulting with church leaders, I’ve heard many explanations for why churches struggle. Here is one of the most common: “Ministry is getting incredibly difficult because people outside the church increasingly view Christianity with indifference, disdain, and even hostility.” While the ministry landscape is indeed changing, the truth is unbelievers generally ignore churches by simply writing them off as irrelevant. Here’s the startling truth: Most problems facing churches aren’t coming from outside; they are self-inflicted.


The Root Cause of Church Struggles

It might seem unimaginable that a church would choose to remain irrelevant or ineffective, particularly due to self-destructive attitudes and behaviors, but trust me, it happens more often than anyone would care to admit. And it’s likely you have witnessed it. For example, have you ever found yourself in a heated debate about changing the location of the Communion table, American flag, or organ? Has there been an argument about changing the order of service or design of the bulletin? If you have served in a church, you’ve undoubtedly been there.

And all of these—and many similar issues—take up a lot of time and energy, even though they fall in the spectrum somewhere between “not particularly important” and “not at all important.” And yet ministers have been fired, churches have split, and churches’ reputations in the community have been irreparably damaged over issues such as these. The incongruity between their importance and their consequences surely is obvious, and the root cause to explain this disconnect is a 21st-century version of Pharisaism.

You might reject the Pharisee implication and defend your flock by saying, “People in my church care very much about those things.” Fair enough; you are God’s agent in your congregation and people don’t like change. But just because people care about something doesn’t mean it’s worth idolizing, arguing about, protecting, damaging relationships, or allowing it to hinder the church’s effectiveness. And it certainly doesn’t mean you as a leader should embrace it, legitimize it, or perpetuate it.

The Pharisees cared very much about their long list of rules and regulations, too. But Jesus consistently rebuked them for presenting and imposing manmade obligations under the guise of a divine mandate. Stated another way, Jesus condemned religious leaders for pretending things were doctrinally essential and critically important to God’s kingdom when they actually were nothing more than clubhouse rules that justified arrogance and restricted membership. These manmade rules and traditions produced only division, confusion, and misplaced allegiance, and they distracted people from God’s true mission.


A Guideline for Decision Making

The leadership challenge, then, is to distinguish between legitimate concerns (e.g., things to protect, such as the authority of Scripture, the role of baptism in salvation, and weekly Communion) from manmade traditions (e.g., things not worth arguing about, such as the position of furniture, the order of service, and the style of music). Fortunately, a simple guideline can be applied when making a decision, responding to a potential or unexpected change, or dealing with congregants who are unhappy about a change. It is this. Never make decisions based on the following values:


We’ve always done it that way. This destructive motivation for making decisions is one of the most common. We all generally agree we should no longer read Scripture in original languages from papyrus scrolls, yet many church leaders staunchly refuse to make basic changes to their current activities, programs, and environments, even when they are known to be equally inefficient, ineffective, or irrelevant.

It should be noted we do many things in a particular way because they align with a biblical mandate. For instance, we share in Communion every week because that was the practice of first-century churches. A devotional given by an elder prior to Communion, however, is not a biblical mandate and therefore could be changed, particularly if the strongest argument for doing it is, “We’ve always done it that way.”

The key principle to remember is that your role as a church leader is to pastor and protect the congregation; it is not to perpetuate the way your church looked, felt, or operated in the past.


I personally want/like/prefer . . . This motivation is the easiest to understand, though it arguably is the weakest reason to continue doing something a certain way because it boils down to selfishness. The obvious problem is the tendency to make decisions based on the belief that my desires are more important than your desires, or worse, that my comfort, security, or agenda are more important than the church’s efforts to achieve its mission and vision.

That people don’t want to be somewhere or do something that is offensive or unpleasant is understandable, but let’s be honest: Not everything that falls outside “my perfect scenario” is synonymous with “offensive or unpleasant.”

The key principle is this: Your role as a church leader is to help establish a culture where people willingly set aside their personal preferences for the sake of the kingdom, and then to make strategic decisions that promote cultural relevance and effectiveness.


It will upset . . . Every congregation has a demographic that represents potential trouble if one or more of its members gets bent out of shape, but no group can generate more fear and trepidation than the primary financial givers. Make a wrong move and the regular tithers might get upset and either reduce their giving or stop contributing altogether. And where would that leave the church? In a state of disaster—at least, that is the commonly presented narrative.

This motivation is a close cousin to “I personally like or prefer . . .”; the only difference being that instead of a church leader personally holding the value, the opinion is attributed to someone else who has the real or perceived ability to create substantial conflict, dysfunction, or financial ruin. And the all too common consequence is that the church’s mission and vision are held hostage.

This is the key principle to remember: Your obligation as a church leader is not to make everyone happy. You can and should create alignment and buy-in, but your ultimate responsibility is to make strategic decisions that help your congregation live out its mission and achieve its vision.


Strategies for a Healthy Leadership Culture

If your church is struggling to define or build momentum around the mission and vision, or if it seems continually besieged by conflict and dysfunction, it is likely key decisions are being driven by one or more of the values identified above. But don’t despair, don’t let regret paralyze you, and most importantly, don’t allow it to continue. Instead, use the following strategies to develop a healthy and biblical leadership culture that will empower your church to achieve its vision:


Formalize the church’s mission and vision. This step is essential because it establishes a rationale for why your church exists, what it seeks to accomplish, and how it engages the neighborhood, nation, and world. If you haven’t formally adopted a mission or vision, invest the necessary time and energy to create them, or simply revert to the Great Commission with an emphasis placed on presenting the biblical gospel in relevant and effective ways in the 21st century. Put your mission and vision on paper and ensure that all of your key leaders wholeheartedly affirm them.


Adopt new values, attitudes, and behaviors. A shared understanding and ownership regarding the church’s mission and vision are essential, but it will fail to produce the desired effects unless the church leaders break the cycle of Pharisaical decision-making described earlier. Publicly declare these two values (in order of importance): “We will be biblical” and “We will be culturally relevant.” If an opportunity doesn’t contradict a clear biblical mandate or pattern, if it is feasible, and if it will enhance the relevance of your church’s ministry or environments, make it happen.


Standardize a decision-making process. Most change efforts don’t survive beyond the decision-making process because that typically is when the tension between the new values (relevant and effective) and the old values (comfortable and popular) comes to a boil. Avoid endless debates, political maneuvering, and bad decisions with this standard list of questions that reflect the new values: Would this contradict a biblical principle or mandate? Would this help us be more relevant or effective? Why wouldn’t we make this change? Cross-reference your answers against the Pharisaical values listed earlier.


Develop an accountability system. Habits are hard to break, even when a structured decision-making process exists that reinforces new values, attitudes, and behaviors. Old patterns are often deeply embedded; the desire to revert to the tried-and-true, familiar, and comfortable can be overwhelming as doubt creeps in, attacks increase, and the path forward seems unclear. Cultivate an environment in which church leaders have permission to acknowledge temptations to revert to old habits, to safely process the tensions, and to hold each other accountable for making strategic decisions.


Anchor strategic decision-making in the church’s culture. Organizational culture is similar to fabric intricately woven from hundreds of strings to achieve a specific feel, design, and function. Instead of strings, though, a church’s culture is comprised of its communication strategies, the language it uses, its physical environments, its branding, how resources are allocated, how it engages the community, and many other factors. To make strategic decision-making a permanent fixture, ensure that it is reflected in and reinforced and facilitated by every aspect of your church’s culture.


Seek opportunities to improve. After new decision-making values are adopted and grounded into the church’s culture, actively seek opportunities to improve them. This requires proactive leaders who regularly evaluate every aspect of the church (using suggestion boxes, surveys, interviews, or other tools) and who then advocate for changes when appropriate. The key is for the church’s leaders, teachers, and teams, along with the facilities, communication, equipment, environments, activities, and ministries, to be regularly evaluated to ensure that they are effective and relevant.

Countless forces are actively working to undermine the relevance and effectiveness of the local church, and sadly, some of them are permitted, and even encouraged, by the people entrusted to lead the congregation. But Christ’s bride deserves better, and a lost world desperately needs more than an internally focused and out-of-touch church down the street. Help propel your church to its kingdom potential by eliminating tradition, pride, personal comfort, and fear as values that drive decision-making. Instead, replace them with innovation, humility, self-sacrifice, and trust that God is able to do more than all we ask or imagine.


Jeffrey Derico serves as a content specialist with the Center for Church Leadership in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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