In my devotional message to a group of church pastors and elders a couple of Saturdays ago I mentioned that I had read a number of articles in a popular Christian magazine about “successful” pastors in different parts of the country. The articles gave glowing reports about how their churches were flourishing, even though they were new. Of course the articles don’t give the story behind the stories. Like a dozen years ago when I heard and read about a church in our small city that went through phenomenal growth in just a year. Turns out the real story was they had a huge revolving door. They had a core group of faithful, regular and active members to support the 87% of the people who came, stayed three months and left. All they were really doing was attracting spectators, and hundreds of them! Any way, rather than encouraging me, those articles had the opposite effect. I was very disheartened. Questions came to me, such as: “Why isn’t our church growing like that?” “Why doesn’t God bless the ministries I’ve been in like that?” “Why does God prefer those men over me/us?” “Does it really have to take the latest church growth fad or craze to launch or grow a church?” Note: when it comes to throwing pity parties I'm a pro!
The articles were even more disconcerting when I read the short biographies on these great and wonderful new pastors: they were former, successful businessmen! Contemporary church growth ala Moody and Finney. As I told the men at the meeting, “I did not go to seminary and invest all that time and all that money to become a religious businessman! If that is what it takes to pastor a church then I’m finished.” Hey! I left the world of business to enter into a new kind of service. I’m called to teach and preach and pastor; you know, all those antiquated, outmoded roles for leading a church.
As I reflect on the matter (not a day passes when I don’t reflect on the numerical growth of our church), it can be overwhelming to think of all the things the contemporary (read: postmodern) pastor is supposed to be and do. Maybe God’s gifts and call to Christ-like character and Christ’s work is obsolete after all? Somebody should tell him, you think?
Oh…but wait. If we are living in the postmodern era (lots of debate on that issue, but that’s what “they” say), and the postmodern era has many things similar to the Roman and Hellenistic culture of the early church, then maybe the method for church growth that “worked” then (speaking like a good American pragmatist, because I am trying to be culturally contextual), would work today? What method was that? Reaching one person-family at a time. Their methodology was to build the church one person-family by person-family at a time, primarily in the big, strategic urban areas of the Roman empire. Their methodology was to proclaim the Good News to anyone who would listen in any social context available (the individual, the family, the synagogue, the local marketplace, before civil officials, etc.). Notice, there was no singular, successful model. Their message was to call them to radical repentance and supernatural faith in the new, true Emperor Jesus and to enter into his kingdom. A kingdom, by the way, that was and is not so much culturally relevant as it is counter-culture and often irrelevant. After all, what is so relevant about being morally upright and sexually pure in a society that pushes more and more for immorality and sexual liberty?
We should applaud God for the numerical growth in his church. It comes in many forms, but never with one particular model (remind me to tell you some time about one effective outreach a pastor in Alaska used: church growth by rhubarb picking). However, I’m done applauding men and models. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not against finding viable ways to reach and serve our local communities. And I’ll continue to rejoice with those who rejoice over new converts. However, I am saying that all the hype about this new model or that new method is tiring and too often irrelevant for the average local church. Besides, doesn’t anyone find it disingenuous that those who criticize the American evangelical Church for losing people and failing to grow will enthusiastically promote methods and models for growth, while at the same time providing statistics that show the Church is not really growing (defined as adding more new converts than it is losing) but shifting (attracting and collecting converts from other churches and denominations)? The reality is that most of these new-fangled concepts and methods are church shift models.
I want to see great growth in our church. I’d love to see the fruit of talking to our church visitors, our neighbors, PTA members, city officials, clerks at our grocery store, our child’s friends and their parents, and so many others. It would be a life-long dream to see dozens of dozens of people coming to faith in Christ in our church, and having the awesome privilege of discipling each one. At the same time I want to be able to serve God according to the gifts and calling he has given. And do so as a biblical (read: ancient model) pastor. I’m not a computer techie, a creative entrepreneur, a cutting-edge manager, a charismatically talented entertainer, a successful fundraiser, a famous celebrity, nor a brilliant theologian who develops new paradigms and perspectives on old doctrines. I’m not any of those things that it apparently takes these days to grow a church. I’m a simple man saved by the grace of Christ, with a couple of God-given talents and spiritual gifts who regularly pleads with God to use me to serve his church in a diligent and faithful manner, and from time to time to be blessed with the ability to witness deep spiritual growth of our people, in tandem with a consistent addition of new disciples of Christ to our local assembly. If that’s not sufficient, then perhaps I should go back into business?