We in the SBC have sanctified the bottom line. Good pastors grow churches. If your ministry is plateaued or declining (as the majority of SBC churches are) there is something wrong with you, your ministry, your priorities, or your people.
In a Facebook exchange recently, a couple of online friends unwittingly drove knives in my heart when they said that churches that are plateaued or declining should stop playing church, close their doors, and give their buildings to new churches that can be replanted in their facilities.
It hurt because after a long ministry in my current church, I do not exactly have numbers to crow about. This church is smaller than it was when I came. I’ve had “successful” ministries before. I’ve seen churches triple in attendance over the course of a couple of years. I’ve been asked to speak at statewide gatherings to share the secret of my success with other pastors who were looking at how to make their churches grow as well.
No one is going to ask me to share the secret of my success here in Sioux City.
I could make plenty of excuses. I saw the problems from the moment I arrived and have been trying to address them, but nothing I throw at the wall seems to stick. I’ve emptied my magazine and done little damage. I’ve used every lure and gotten few bites. My tools seem to have gone dull. (How many more metaphors can I use?)
I realize that increasingly I am a dinosaur in the modern church world. A lot of the new tricks leave me cold. I am fairly old-fashioned in my views of worship. We are not into skits or interpretive dance and there are no laser light shows or fog machines in operation here. We sing God’s praises, preach God’s word, pray for God’s power, and seek to fellowship with one another. We may not always do these things well, but we try.
Over the years, we’ve had a lot of people come to Southern Hills, but we’ve had a lot of people go as well. We have lost a lot of people to local cemeteries – I mean a LOT. A few to nursing homes. We’ve had more than a few join what I call the “Dave Miller fan club” – there are quite a few blog commenters and discernment bloggers in that club. They get mad at me for one reason or another and take their talents elsewhere. We’ve quite a few move away.
So, here’s the reality: if success or failure is judged wholly by growth, then my ministry here in Sioux City has been an unmitigated disaster and the church should fire me and find a new pastor.
I am not saying that to evoke sympathy or gain words of support. It is simply a true statement. If a ministry is a failure because it hasn’t shown growth, and that has become the rubric by which we judge success in the SBC, then I have failed.
Do Numbers Mark God’s Favor?
Even when I was leading ministries that were viewed as successful on numerical terms, I did not buy into the idea that numbers were the marker of God’s favor.
In my all-time top-5 favorite books is an easy, quick-read book by Kent and Barbara Hughes called “Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome,” a book I read many years ago. In the book, they define success on spiritual terms instead of numerical, things like obedience and faithfulness and diligence and holiness instead of numbers.
The prophets’ calling was not easy. When Isaiah said, “Here am I, send me” God gave him this mandate (Isaiah 6):
Go! Say to these people:
Keep listening, but do not understand;
keep looking, but do not perceive.
Make the minds of these people dull;
deafen their ears and blind their eyes;
Basically, God promised him that no one would ever listen to him. His hearers would have dull minds, would not perceive or understand what he was saying. Can I get a witness?
Jeremiah’s interchanges with God in Jeremiah 11-22 are humorous. God gives him an unpopular message that people would reject and that would arouse anger. Jeremiah returned to God to complain about his treatment and God gave him a more intense message to preach. It kept escalating. Jeremiah complains to God and God gives him a harder job. In all that time, no one paid attention to him.
The prophets were not considered unfaithful because the people refused to listen.
I remember reading a letter written by Jonathan Edwards about the genesis of the Great Awakening in Northampton, Massachusetts. He shared how he had preached at his church for 17 years with essentially no response. None. I am frustrated at the response at Southern Hills over the last 14 years, but we’ve baptized as many as 13 people in one year. We’ve seen God change lives. If an SBC church had not had a single baptism in 17 years, I think we’d consider that ministry a complete failure. Then, it happened – the greatest revival in our nation’s history began there.
Maybe our numbersolatry is a little misplaced.
Are Numbers Irrelevant?
Am I saying that numbers don’t matter? Should we ignore numbers?
I am not. The statistical decline of my church bothers me and if your church is the same it should bother you. It is not normal for a healthy church not to grow or to reach people. To be plateaued or on decline and to be unconcerned is spiritual carelessness.
And please, let’s drop this old cherry. “Our only job is to sow the seed. It is God’s job to bring the harvest.” That is an example of a truth being used to tell a lie. Think about what we are saying with that cliche. “We are doing our job around here. God is the one who is not holding up his end of the bargain. We are sowing, but God isn’t saving.” Whatever the problem is at my church, whatever the reason is that we aren’t growing, it isn’t because God has let down on his end and failed to save sinners!
Numbers should not be the engine of the church, but they can be a gauge. A church can grow and have great numbers while operating in the flesh – numbers are no absolute signifier of God’s pleasure. And a faithful pastor can run into circumstances that prevent growth. But when numbers go negative, they serve as gauges, as indicators that all is not well internally at the church. They may not be able to tell us exactly what is wrong, but they tell us something isn’t as it should be. I would be a fool to whistle a merry tune as my church’s baptistery sits dry week after week. Negative numbers must cause me to pray, to analyze and evaluate, to enter discussions with my leadership, and to open my heart to the Lord and see if I am hindering the church in any way.
What Am I Saying?
I have thought about this a lot. I’ve brooded. I’ve lost sleep. I’ve gotten angry. And I’ve drawn some conclusions about pastoring a plateaued or declining church.
1. My church, though struggling, is not useless and should not be thrown away.
My friends were absolutely wrong. While our numbers will not impress anyone, the ministry at Southern Hills Baptist Church in Sioux City is not a waste of time and the man who said that churches like mine were useless and should just shut our doors was ignorant of the value of smaller, even struggling churches.
- Our church is a generous giver to missions, having led the state in Lottie Moon giving every year I’ve been here and I think a few before that. We led out in giving to Annie Armstrong as well. We give 10% to mission through the CP, even during a recent severe budgetary crisis (there were a few months we had to hold back until we had enough to send it all).
- Our church is actively involved in outreach programs into the community in a number of ways. We have an Upward program that we make sure is evangelistic in tone. We do Good News clubs at elementary schools and 5-Day clubs in the community. We have done outreach groups in mobile home parks and various other ministries. We’ve reached people through these, though they generally found their way to other churches.
- We have had strong children’s and youth programs that have tended to defy the statistics about how many kids grow up and leave the church or leave the faith. While many of them may leave our church for more contemporary worship experiences, they have tended to remain in the faith.
- People have been saved. Not as many as I’d like – not even close. But we have seen people saved.
Just because we aren’t setting the world on fire doesn’t mean there isn’t some heat!
2. Don’t live in denial.
Bad numbers are not the problem, but they are an indicator that a problem of some sort exists. Don’t make excuses. Don’t give trite answers. Examine the church, the leadership, everything you are doing to see if there is anything you are doing that could be hindering the blessing of God. Examine yourself. Be willing to change.
3. Remember 2 Timothy 4:3
This is a dangerous verse, which can be both a comfort and a tool of abuse. It reminds us that people will turn from truth and want to listen to those who tickle their ears with palatable messages instead of preaching the full counsel of God. I know it is true that if I preached more messages designed to help people feel good about themselves, instead of confronting people with hard biblical truths, it would help attendance. Many (not all) of the biggest churches in America have abandoned biblical preaching.
On the other hand, this can become an excuse we pastors use. “Those people left because they can’t handle the truth.” I talked to someone last week about a non-SBC Baptist church in his city that treats anyone who leaves as anathema, as apostates. We must not do that.
4. Do not let your self-worth be tied to numerical success.
Pastors, can I tell you something? There is another word for ministry hype. It is called lying!
I was clearing out a room full of junk in my first ministry and I came on a box of old newsletters from the tenure of one of the previous pastors. This church had forced out 6 pastors in 16 years in its dark days. I picked them up and glanced through the April weekly missives from the pastor. Each week he gave glowing reports about how heaven was coming down and glory was filling their souls as they gathered in worship on Sunday. The last newsletter of the month carried his resignation. I knew that he was forced to resign in a time of deep conflict – heaven was not coming down and glory was not filling souls in the weeks leading up to his termination! That pastor had his ego tied up to the success of his church, so he wrote lies in his church newsletters week after week.
I wish he was an anomaly.
My dad and I had a discussion years ago that has led to a working theory I find accurate. Churches that have meaning-names often are the opposite of their names. The most legalistic church in one town I served was “Grace Baptist.” Churches with names like “Unity” or “Friendship” tend to be plagued by splits. My dad remembered a church called Bykota Baptist (Be Ye Kind One To Another) – said they were mean as snakes.
We pastors are bad at presenting an image to the world, especially to other pastors, that often does not reflect reality. Ever had another pastor ask you how things were going at your church and you, well, “fudged” the facts a bit?
I have to admit that writing this has been painful and humiliating for fear of what people will think of me. Pastor, realize that you are called to be obedient, faithful, and persevering. Let your success be found in God, not in the opinions of others.
5. Realize that not all of us are meant for the megas.
I thought, when I was a young whippersnapper, that one day I’d stand behind the pulpit of a megachurch somewhere. Don’t we all start out thinking we are destined for Bellevue or Summit? But somewhere along the line, I realized it just wasn’t in my future. At Pastors’ Conferences, megachurch guys would tell me if I’d just imitate them, I could do as they do. “If you’d just do what I do, you could have a church like mine.” But I’ve come to realize that megachurch is a calling for a certain personality – I don’t have it. I wasn’t constructed that way.
Be content with who you are. Strive for who God is making you to be. But don’t feel as though you have to attain a church of a certain size to have value. That message comes from someplace other than heaven and certainly not from the word of God.
It is a noble thing to faithfully pastor a smaller church, even one that struggles.
6. He who endures to the end…
I come back to the story of Jonathan Edwards and his 17 years with no response. That had to be brutal. But eventually, God brought revival.
I realized something years ago as I read through the entire Bible, examining the character qualities of the people God used to do great things. Looking for a pattern, I found two qualities that were consistently found in these characters. They often did not have natural talent or leadership ability and God never came to them asking them to find creative and innovative solutions to problems. God asked them to obey him. They did what God told them to do. And contrary to what we often think, when they obeyed God, things tended to blow up in their faces. That is the key to great success in the kingdom of God. What did they do when they obeyed God and it all went wrong?
Every great act of God in the Bible comes when a servant of God obeys him, then, after it all blows up, he keeps on obeying God and doing what God said even when it gets tough.
You may have failed God. I look back at my 14 years at Southern Hills and I can see decisions I made (or failed to make) and I would love a do-over. I made some big mistakes. If you’ve been at a church any length of time and don’t see mistakes you’ve made, I question whether you are looking honestly at yourself! But I have preached the word of God and persevered through good times and bad. I’ve stuck it out when my heart told me to cut and run. I have tried to be faithful and I keep hoping and praying for that moment when God acts in power.
I was on a long walk recently and songs were shuffling on my phone. One came on that made my heart leap.
Greater things are yet to come and greater things are still to be done in this city.
I long for the words of that song to come true. I sat at a church’s 50th anniversary celebration some years ago and all they could talk about were things that happened back in the 60s. I do not want to pastor a church whose greatest days are in the past. I’m flummoxed about how to get from here to there, and maybe it will be the next pastor who will see those days. But I long to see the Spirit of the Living God fall fresh on this place and see a powerful new day of growth.
Lord, let it happen in the life and ministry of this failure.