Pastor, Why Do You Want a Big Church?

Does that strike you as a strange question? Of course we want big churches because that will mean more people know and love the Lord Jesus Christ. That may be true, but not in all cases. Let us not forget Jesus’ warning that Satan can grow the church or fall into that trap that equates attendance with faith. I have written other posts exploring whether pastors should be passionate about numerical growth, and I have offered a few cautions about the role of metrics in ministry. In this post I hope to explore the pastor’s desire for a big church. This desire is surely in many cases a healthy and prayerful longing for evangelism and conversions. However I think that we are deceiving ourselves if we deny that mixed motives may lie behind it. Pastors are, after all, sinful, limited and self-seeking human beings. It is this darker side of the pursuit for big ministries that I hope to address below.

Idolatry

Church growthAs with many of the things we make into idols the thing desired may be morally neutral, and in many cases positive. A large as well as healthy church is undoubtedly an honourable aim and God-honouring ambition. But this means that it easily becomes a noble idol, similar to a happy family or success in the workplace. Pastors can very easily slip into desiring something good over and above God, which is a decent but limited definition of idolatry. Surely if I can make something as ostensibly God-given and wonderfully satisfying as marriage into an idol I can do the same with growing and pastoring a large church. In many ways this point will underpin the rest, which are struggles that I believe show we are bowing to the idol of a big, successful ministry instead of the God who grants us the privilege and task of ministry.

Desiring recognition

Linked with the above, Iain Duguid describes idols as things we demand from God in order to give us significance. It is not hard to see how being at the helm of a big church could lead to locating your meaning and even your identity in that, instead of Christ. I imagine this temptation develops the longer one is in ministry. After years of faithfully teaching the Bible, caring for God’s flock and making the many sacrifices involved in full-time ministry the hunger for recognition must cry out. Other pastors less gifted than yourself are enjoying success and growth. As you compare your own work to others you become racked with insecurity that insists you deserve recognition. This will only happen if your significance has shifted from Christ to being the leader of a big and successful church. 

Discontentment

Similarly to the point above, perseverance in ministry can quickly give way to discontentment with the church God has given you. Make no mistake: the church you pastor is God’s treasured possession bought with the blood of his Son and entrusted to undeserving men and women to lead. In his Institutes, commenting on sin in Genesis 3, John Calvin writes, “Ambition and pride, together with ungratefulness, arose, because Adam [was] seeking more than was granted him” (2.1.4). Adam spurned God’s great bounty. Like our first parents who were far too easily persuaded that God was holding something back from them, pastors grow discontent when their churches remain small. Ingratitude causes many pastors to overlook the glorious gift of God’s church – and their responsibility to it – in their longing for a bigger one.

Failing to accept your limitations

MinistryIt is ironic how proud those in service of the crucified Christ can become. Pastors speak about growing churches, assuming that they will be able to cope with its compounded pressures and demands. The proud pastor forecasts numerical growth as if he is in control and without accepting that he may not be gifted and godly enough to manage that growth. There are two problems here: the first is that it is God alone who gives the growth, who begins and finishes his work in people while using weak and often unwitting humans in the process. Secondly, being aware of his own failings and limitations, his very humanity, the pastor should recognise that the reason his church has not broken the 1000 barrier is simply because God in his perfect wisdom knows he will not be able to lead a church that size. God can grow a church despite its pastor in the same way he can keep growth from those who seem to have all the gifts necessary in leading a megachurch. The point is we do not determine that. However grand our vision for church growth we must face reality: God grows his church and we do not. Furthermore, our limitations do not limit God’s action, though in his kindness he may prevent your church from growing to a size that will crush you.

Seeking comfortable ministry

When I was heading up a youth ministry a few years back one of the teens told me that his aim was to become filthy rich, so thathe could be really generous to gospel ministry. Despite not knowing the hearts of men – much less teenagers – I asked him if his desire was not simply to be rich and comfortable. Recently I have wondered if the desire to pastor a big church, the goose that lays the golden egg, is little more than wanting to be comfortable in ministry, the pastor of an affluent church. IX Marks recently published an excellent book that highlights an uncomfortable pattern: churches are typically concentrated in middle to upper-class areas. Obviously I am not suggesting we swing the pendulum but merely that we recognise the self-preserving tendency we all wrestle with. The desire to pastor a big church can be the veil for desiring a plush position in a wealthy church, just like my teen’s intention to be generous towards gospel work was most likely a mask for his desire to be rich. 

If you have enjoyed any of the points made in this post and would like to think more about church size I highly recommend Karl Vaters’ blog, Pivot. If you are going to read just one of his posts then I would urge you to make it this one: 11 Advantages Of Having 50 Churches Of 100 Instead Of 1 Church Of 5,000.

Pastor, You are Dispensable

Non disposableThe confluence of social media, celebrity pastor culture, hugely successful churches and the millennial assumption that everyone is exceptional has lead many pastors to a dangerously over-exaggerated view of themselves. I realise that on the other hand these forces can cause discouragement, as we measure ourselves against John Piper or Matt Chandler. But that is not what I want to address in this short post. My aim here is to challenge the notion that any specific pastor is indispensable. When we begin to imagine that without us this ministry or church would no longer function let alone flourish one thing is certain: we have developed far too high a view of ourselves. A second thing may also be true: we have created an unhealthy, not to mention unbiblical, ministry structure or strategy that makes us appear not only integral but indispensable. But God does not need us. You may think your church needs you but bear in mind that it is Christ’s church, not yours. It got to where it is because of his sovereign grace and God willing it will continue long after you are gone.

The apostle Paul understood this well, especially when we consider his significance in the early church. Writing to the Philippians he said, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (1:6). Paul was not issuing platitudes. He was writing from prison. Incapacitated, Paul needed a confidence that exceeded his leadership, influence and abilities and he enjoyed that in God alone. The great apostle is in chains yet he wants his readers to know that the gospel is not bound (1:12-18a). The survival of God’s church is not dependant on men and women, not even on great ones like Paul. Yet how quickly we deceive ourselves, and often others, into believing that this church or that ministry would collapse without us. In his superb book The New Pastor’s Handbook, Jason Helopoulos reminds those in ministry that they are nothing more than ordinary men and women with extraordinary callings. He goes on to say that pastors must give their accountability partners the right to challenge them regarding any growing “superhero complex”. Do you believe that God is powerful enough to accomplish his will without you? Are you fully persuaded, as Paul was writing from prison, that God will finish the good work he has started, whether he uses you or not? If your instinct to those questions is not genuinely affirmative then you need to repent.

In a section of his Institutes, titled “Why does God need men’s services?”, John Calvin makes a few more important points on the dispensability of pastors, or any Christian for that matter. Though God uses the ministry of men and women “to declare openly his will to us by his mouth, as a sort of delegated work, not by transferring to them his right and honour, but only that through their mouths he may do his own work—just as a workman uses a tool to do his work” (4.3.1; also see 4.1.5). Those who teach, preach and lead in the local church are nothing more than tools in the hands of our omnipotent God. He may pick up one of these tools and wield it mightily. But we must never forget what we are, lest at the same time we forget who God is. Calvin goes on, “He could indeed do it either by himself without any sort of aid or instrument, or even by his angels.” If we understand what Calvin is saying, we would wash our mouths of phrases such as, ‘He grew that church.’ God grew that church. Furthermore, he did not need that specific pastor or ministry team he used to do so. The succinct answer to Calvin’s question is that God does not need men’s services. Pastor, God does not need you. You are dispensable.

While Calvin does insist that honour is due to those serving as pastors in local churches (4.3.3), echoing the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 5, this still does not mean any of them are indispensable. Let me conclude by encouraging pastors with something D. A. Carson said at the TGCA launch last year. When was asked which theologians and leaders he foresees stepping into the vast gap his death will create he essentially dismissed the question as irrelevant. But he went on to give an answer that was truly astonishing, for two reasons. Firstly, he told us that it is very likely we do not yet know the names of the men and women who will lead Christ’s church in the future. Secondly, he does not even consider himself to be of any major significance in Christ’s church. How could he give such an answer, when he is undoubtedly aware of the most likely unrepeatable impact he has made for Christ and God’s people people? He believes God can raise up whoever he needs and will continue to use weak tools by his unfailing strength. Carson understands Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

If you enjoyed this post, keep an eye on Rekindle because I am planning to write a few more in this ‘Pastor…’ series. In the mean time you can read the previous post: Pastor, You do not release potential.

Pastor, You do not Release Potential

Discover potentialI was reminded recently in a conversation about Nicene Christology how crucial and significant our choice of words is. For the theologically uninitiated, that specific historical debate swirled around a single iota (Greek letter). Ink flowed at that time as theologians fiercely disagreed about how to most faithfully organise and communicate God’s self revelation in Scripture. Laying the political and personal agendas aside, we must surely conclude that precise terminology matters, which makes much of what I hear in the church today deeply disturbing. Though there are countless examples of careless wording to choose from — pastor as CEO or boss, eldership as board of directors, and target markets — in this post I want to address the language of helping people unlock their potential. And while the language of releasing potential is plied in a broad spectrum of churches and in numerous ways, for the reasons outlined below I think it is language we should avoid in the pursuit of clarity and faithfulness to the Scriptures.

Firstly, within the biblical economy of grace I am uncomfortable with the language of potential in principle. Carl Trueman writes in Grace Alone, “Grace is not God giving wholesale advice or a helping hand. It is God raising someone from the dead.” Later he writes, “The problems we face in our churches and in our individual lives are not ones that can be solved by mastering better and new techniques or simply by learning more information. We need more than how-to manuals and life coaches.” According to God, our problem is not ignorance of our purpose and the frustration of our potential. We are, as Paul regularly and not uncomfortably puts it: dead. The dead have no potential. At creation God breathed life into dust and today he breathes life into spiritual corpses. We do not need God to unlock our potential. We are lost unless he gives us new life. Hear Trueman once again, “We do not need spiritual healing, for that would imply we are merely in need of repair. We need spiritual resurrection. And resurrection is the unilateral act of God, not a cooperative exercise between the living God and the dead.”

FaithSecondly, and linked to the above point, our lack of potential is not limited to initial or saving faith. It extends into the Christian’s entire life. There is a well established biblical pattern of God using those who are weak in the eyes of the world. This is not because their potential was previously unseen but because his strength is made perfect in our weakness. To believe that we have some kind of raw and impressive potential reduces God to sports coach trying to spot future stars on the field. Listen to Samuel Rutherford, in his letter to Robert Gordon: I am “like one stupefied with cold under the water that would fain come to land but cannot grip anything casten to Him. I can let Christ grip me, but I cannot grip Him. I love to be kissed and to sit on Christ’s knee; but I cannot set my feet to the ground, for afflictions bring the cramp upon my faith. All that I can do is to hold out a lame faith to Christ like a beggar holding out a stump, instead of an arm or leg, and cry, ‘Lord Jesus, work a miracle’.” God does not link arms with the strong and influential to do great things, he lifts up weak and drooping arms and with them accomplishes his perfect purposes.

Thirdly, as D. A. Carson writes in The Gagging of God, the terminology of unlocking our innate potential is in fact borrowed from the New Age movement. Therefore, though using this language does not necessarily make your church New Age it might reveal that movement’s dangerous influence. Carson comments on New Age spirituality, “The aim is not to be reconciled to a transcendent God, who has made us and against whom we have rebelled, but to grow in self-awareness and self-fulfilment, to become self-actualized, to grow to our full potential, until we are rather more at one with the god/universe that we otherwise would be.” While I am convinced God directs, fulfils and gives us purpose, these experiences have little to do with my potential and everything to do with his grace. Churches that exist to help people discover their purpose laden potential are in danger of suggesting that God exists for me. He does not. He created you. Your life is his.

Finally, in many churches that I have visited, the language of releasing potential to powerfully impact our cities for Christ has supplanted – and in many cases – completely replaced the New Testament’s emphasis on obedience to Christ. This might be a good place to gently remind my reader that potential is not a New Testament word. On the other hand, Christ’s lordship, faithfulness, putting sin to death and living a life pleasing to God through fruitful obedience are words as well as themes found throughout. Perhaps you are sitting waiting to learn what your potential is, wondering when it might be made plain so that you can finally accomplish what God has planned for you. Stop. He has already told you what he desires: obedient worship and bold witness, in all of life. Sure, we are all unique but that does not mean any of us are or will be exceptional, once we unlock our potential. Most Christians will strive together with their church family to merely persevere until the end while glorifying God in the mundane. Words like faithful and godly may not be as sexy as releasing potential but they go much further in describing the ordinary life of obedience every Christian is called to.

Thank God for the Old Testament

Icon HabakkukHabakkuk opens with a question, “O LORD, how long shall I cry out for help and you will not hear?” But I imagine many people were asking another question as we started a three part preaching series in the book: “Why Habakkuk?” This was certainly the opinion of one older man in my church, proving that grey hairs are not synonymous with wisdom or maturity. But if you look at your Bible side on and split it at the page between the Old and New Testaments you will notice that the Old accounts for more than three quarters of God’s Word. Either God is a prodigious abuser of words and trees or he wants us to read all of Scripture.

Sadly, today many churches and those in them consider the Old Testament to be outdated, irrelevant, and too confusing to be of any real worth for living and following after our Lord Jesus Christ. This has lead to the call for the 21st century church to unhitch from the Old Testament. Others are less bold, expressing their low view of the Old Testament more subtly as a preference for the New Testament. This was clearly illustrated to me recently when someone thanked me for choosing to study James in our home groups after a trudging term in Amos. Unfortunately these attitudes are out of whack with Christ himself, who said in Luke 24 that the law, prophets, and writings (the Old Testament) testify to him. Very briefly, by looking at two New Testament passages and making two linked points, I hope to convince you of the God-given value possessed by the Old Testament, from Amos to Zechariah.

1. The Old Testament testifies to Jesus Christ

The apostle Peter writes in his first epistle, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (1 Peter 1:10-11). The Old Testament speaks of Christ, both in anticipation and even by explaining aspects of his life, death, and resurrection. When we read the Old Testament one of the questions we should be asking is: ‘How is this fulfilled in Christ?’ or ‘How does this point to him?’ Peter goes on,  “It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel” (1 Peter 1:12). Therefore, in God’s wisdom the Old Testament given to the nation of Israel is also for his church today, which brings us to our second point.

2. The Old Testament was written for Christians

Listen to 2 Peter 1:19, “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Here Peter calls the prophetic message of the Old Testament as something we should pay attention to. At best, most Christians are happy to consider the Old Testament reliable, because what was promised about the future has reached a partial culmination in Christ. But that is to wrongly limit three quarters of the Bible to foretelling Christ, stripping it of any importance or relevance today, for the Christian church. This is a huge mistake, tantamount to confusing Nahum (an Old Testament minor prophet) with Nostradamus. We must not lose sight of the prophets as a light shining in the present to which we must look, which is how Peter describes them. It is for this reason that Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that the Old Testament is profitable or useful in teaching and equipping us how to live.

In conclusion, the entire Old Testament is inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). That explains the anticipation and promise of Christ but also impresses on us that it is for God’s people today. So let’s read it in order to have our faith in Christ enriched and learn how to live for Christ while we wait for his return.

How’s It Going? Part 6: Build your own

Idea generation pageThis is the last in a series of posts on church metrics. We’re going to close off this series with some how-to tips.

We’ve seen that a metric is any quantifiable measure, any piece of data, which is linked to a goal. The closer a set of measures identifies how we are doing in relation to the goal, the more effective it is as a metric. For example, if you play cricket and want to be a great batsman, you would measure your strike rate and batting average.

It’s a bit tricky to nail down what this would look like in any given situation, because life is incredibly colourful. That said, below is a set of questions to ask yourself. These will hopefully take you some of the way toward developing your own set of metrics that help you get to where you believe God wants you to be.

How would our ideal situation look and feel? Paint a vivid picture of where you want to be, in your mind or on paper.

What are some key ideals? From your vision of the future, list some key concrete aspects which can be measured (e.g. amounts, quality, characteristics, purchases, etc). Measure those.

How does our current situation look and feel? Like the above, consider the current status quo. Pay special attention to the differences between the future and the present.

What are the key differences to overcome to get to our future state? Your answer to this question may help you identify further important concrete aspects of the future which you can measure.

What impacts my list of concrete measures? Identify, with your team, as much of the funnel of inputs and outputs which have a bearing on your metrics above as possible. From that funnel, select the aspects which have the most significant impact, and track those.

How could people potentially manipulate these measures? If you can see a way to ‘game the system’, include measures to help avoid that.

What actions can I take to move towards that future state? Identify the actions you can take to influence the key changes that need to take place. Put these in your diary and stick them on your wall. Bear in mind that these may change, so use your metrics as your conversation partner, and constantly adjust.

And that’s that. Our series on metrics has come to an end. My hope is that it will contribute in some way toward us being more faithful in our service to the Lord who has commissioned us.

How’s It Going? Part 5: Pitfalls

Man stepping in gum on the street If you are gung-ho and ready to go, I want to help you avoid some landmines. Below are two common pitfalls. Avoiding them will save you much frustration.

Unintended side-effects

One of the major problems with setting anything up are the unintended side-effects that sneak up on us. That is just as true when considering how and what you measure. Why? Because people can’t help but play to the numbers. So, make sure your numbers have balances in place, and explain the rationale of each metric to those engaging with it.

For example, if we decide that maturity is best developed through one-on-one discipleship meetings, we may set the goal of getting all our people into meetings like this. We assign this to our ministry staff team, and decide that the way we will measure their performance in this area is by asking, “How many one-on-one discipleship meetings have you had in the last month?” One possible side-effect of this is that the team will drastically lower the quality of their meetings so they can churn out more meetings. And according to your scorecard, they’re doing great.

Measuring the wrong point of the process

Another problem is measuring at the wrong point. It is possible to assess an outcome when you are really wanting to figure out the impact of your actions on factors which influence the outcome. So, make sure you identify which stage of a multi-stage process you are wanting to measure.

For example, let’s say giving is currently down in your local church and your leaders have decided that, if the situation hasn’t changed by a given date, specified actions will have to be taken. They’ve appointed someone to attempt to get things back on track by then. When that person jumps in, they take a shotgun approach to seeing the needle lift on the total income graph – perhaps even throwing in a few unethical approaches for good measure. Now, if they are successful (or unsuccessful), how do you critique what they did and if they created the kind of change you wanted? Because of what we failed to measure – whatever impacts the end result [1] – we have to assume they did everything right (or wrong).

What other pitfalls have you noticed?

——-

[1] Perhaps the percentage of members who are giving and the percentage of new members who have received teaching about finances. Knowing the answers to those questions will give you far more insightful and actionable information than if you limited your attention to the bottom line.