Whichever we look at it, all the talk about church growth is not being matched by actual “on the ground” growth in many places.
It’s a paradox really. Never have there been so many books, tapes, videos and conferences all focusing energetically on the most effective ways to grow the church. This is the seeker sensitive, user friendly era where connecting with rank outsiders is the top priority. Good stuff, you’ll agree.
The Stalled Church…
But this is also the era of the plateaued church and the stalled congregation where real growth stopped some time back. Lethargy, complacency and uncertainty have shaped a spiritually comatose agenda which is often not easy to pick.
It can be hard to identify the church which is going nowhere: a full car park, plenty of people, a bag full of programs and good works, a balanced budget and happy fellowship can all be characteristics of a stalled church which is no longer winning people for Christ.
Numbers may be up but it will be mostly through Christians from elsewhere, the good old shifting-the-sheep-around-the-paddock syndrome which delivers nothing for the Kingdom.
Is A “Country Club” Church
This is the classic Christian country club. It is not really a church. The warmth of fellowship is directed inwards not outwards thereby discouraging newcomers from returning. Tight friendship circles are hard to break into. Outsiders who appear to be too way out will soon feel gentle but definite side lining because they may not “fit in.”
The church culture and jargon so well understood by the in-crowd is a total mystery to those who are out. Finding a niche to belong to and serve in amounts to mission impossible. Yet the preaching and the music may carry all the marks of enthusiasm and dedication (with the church running energetically up and down on the same spot without realising it).
There is no meaningful engagement with the surrounding community which votes with its feet and goes in the opposite direction.
Indicators Of Country Club Malaise
This underlying malaise is revealed by some obvious indicators: the preaching is pitched at the converted with no significant response really expected; the congregation lacks good process for welcoming and integrating newcomers; and the list goes on…endlessly.
In this climate of zero anticipation one wonders how a church slips into country club mode:
* Is there a crisis of confidence in the power of the Jesus to change lives?
* Has the pluralism of the post modern age robbed the Gospel of its unique punch?
* Has a commendable commitment to sound theology and mission somehow diminished a fervor to share the faith actively?
* Does the unsettlement and change which comes with increased numbers of brand new Christians seem to hard to handle?
* Are there too many distractions getting in the way of an evangelistic focus?
The Strategic Role of the Pastor
The role of the pastor in shifting the church from a country club to a church on mission is strategic. For all our insistence on everybody having a role to play in the life and ministry of the congregation, it is the pastor who sets the example in the long run regardless of all the creative initiatives which others may be undertaking.
Now someone is bound to point out that Jesus said He would build His Church, that He is responsible for the outcomes. Yes! But it is also our task to follow Him and be the “fishers of men and women.” It is all too easy to cop out and hold the Lord of the Church, or anybody else or circumstance for that matter, accountable for what is not happening.
The Role Of The Pastor Is Key
Many ordination and induction services refer to the pastor as one who “does the work of the evangelist.” Interestingly, many pastors prefer to describe themselves as “Bible teachers,” “equippers” or “pastoral care-ers.” Very few make claims to be evangelists.
Now to be doing the work of an evangelist does not mean that a pastor has to be a gifted evangelist, or be the planter, the waterer and the harvester all in one (to use Paul’s helpful division of labour). But it does question what has now happened in many churches where the pastor has become the managing director, the franchiser of the faith, the CEO, the facilitator, indeed almost any role but the one of being able to lead someone to faith in Christ.
The Bottom Line
Now this is not to suggest that it is only the pastor who carries the responsibility for helping the searchers for faith to become Christians.
But it is to suggest that the pastor should be a capable spiritual midwife if the occasion for the birthing of a new life in Christ is in the offing. It does mean that the pastor should have a finely tuned antenna for those who have not yet made their peace with God, to be able to nurture those who are spiritually lost people towards the grace of God as provided for by Jesus.
So the bottom line is simply this: do pastors know how to engage those who are being prepared by the Holy Spirit for conversion and then lead them to new life in Christ as the opportunity presents itself?
Recognizing Re-Birth Opportunities
This birthing of a new life in Jesus is not about manipulating a set formula of handy proof texts, a sanctified sales pitch from a holy entrepreneur. It does require us, however, to know what we are about, how to connect the new life of Jesus with the experience of the searcher so that genuine conversion occurs.
Now this may not be as easy as you think. Communicating with the cyberspace generation assumes an awareness of their thought patterns and needs. The poetic language of King James will not hit too many home runs these days. The remarkable and stunning technological revolution happening all around us demands crash courses in cross-cultural and cross-generational dialogue. Most of us need to do some catching up here. It is all part of being able to share the faith effectively in a world which is changing each day.
Take Advantage Of The Opportunities
While the evangelistic service is still an avenue for the invitation to faith to be offered, there are endless other opportunities, most of which grow out of relationships being built over an extended period in numerous ways and not simply within a congregational environment.
Spiritually hungry people are to be found in odd places (up trees a la Zacchaeus), or on lonely personal journeys (remember the “Woman at the Well”?), or trying to figure out the mysteries of God while tearing down the freeway (like the inquisitive charioteer from Ethiopia whom Philip led to Christ).
Our “fishing” expeditions for Jesus will be mostly in the marketplace, not in the sanctuary at 10.00 am on Sunday. This is where the pastor’s role is so crucial: are we willing to share the faith wherever we are, on the run, down the street, around the corner?
We cannot expect our people to be on the lookout for opportunities to share the faith if we are not on the lookout ourselves. It is not enough to be on the job only when we are in full flight in a worship service or working in the church office.
Do You Have The Capacity To Recognize Opportunity?
Further, it also implies that there is a capacity to see the relevance of faith to life in general terms. How many human traumas have come to pass primarily because there was a profound, underlying spiritual problem?
Unless this spiritual need is addressed, it is unlikely that other relational issues will be satisfactorily resolved no matter how wise, caring and discerning a counselor might be in trying to pick up the pieces.
Behind so much of the anguish we encounter in the lives of people is a spiritual malnutrition. We can labour away with a good heart attempting to resolve deep personal issues without seeing the spiritual poverty behind it all. This is not to suggest that all personal pain can be treated with spiritual resources alone but it is to say that Jesus is still the healer of broken people and without His touch there will not be real wholeness.
There’s No Substitute For Strategic Pastoral Ministry
Multiple programs, great worship times and wonderful strategies are no substitute for a pastor who is able to raise with an unconverted person the possibilities of friendship with Jesus, who can explore their needs, offer the invitation to join the family of Christ and to assist them in the making of a commitment to Him.
The pastor who does the work of the evangelist may need much help in fulfilling this responsibility but in so doing redefines for the congregation what its agenda should be. This active concern for the well-being of spiritually lost people adjusts all the good things which may be happening within and through the congregation anyway. A desire for effective evangelism evolves and gives life and energy to all that the congregation is already undertaking together.
New Christians: The Key To Mission Transformation
A new joy emerges for pastor and people alike whenever a person becomes a new creation in Christ. It gives new life and anticipation to the church too. It sharpens the cutting edge for mission and is the perfect antidote to lethargy and discouragement.
A congregation intent on making disciples for Jesus soon rediscovers the importance of prayer, of being increasingly aware of the role and power of the Holy Spirit, of trusting the Lord of the Harvest to add to the church those who are being saved. Celebration is not too far away.
So is change. The country club really does turn into the mission base. The visitors are welcomed; the friendship groups loosen up; newcomers find their niche. The renewed congregation expects to see God at work and functions on the assumption that He is. Previously, God was often not seen to be at work because He was not expected to be at work.
The Shift: It’s Not Instantaneous!
The shift from country club to mission base does not happen overnight. One reason why so many people are reluctant to interest friends and neighbours in their church arises from an awkwardness about the very nature of the church itself. The lack of reality, the irrelevance of so much of how we go about being and doing church effectively cancels out any likelihood of the local church ever becoming the mission base.
So often people do not trust their own church to be accepting of their non-church contacts. And the same may be true of the Lord. Is He likely to trust the country club with keen new Christians who will only get bogged down and disorientated by an introspective church culture?
Hardly. He needs churches which can flex to meet the needs of new brothers and sisters in Christ, places where they can be fed and nurtured safely without getting lost again.
Equipping…But Not Copping Out
There is one line sometimes used by pastors who are discomforted by the notion of doing the work of the evangelist. Their plan is to train others to do the evangelising, of equipping the saints to do the work of the ministry. Now this is eminently worthy, thoroughly biblical and it would make Paul very happy.
But it can amount to a cop out. The pastor who leaves the work of the evangelist to others has not understood what pastoral leadership is about. Certainly it is a work to be shared but it is not a responsibility to be handed over holus bolus.
Perhaps some pastors are cautious about being confused with the old style “hot shot” Gospeller stereotypes with their fancy jackets, white shoes and gargantuan insecurity parading as healthy self-esteem. Perhaps they do not want to be seen as “Bible bashers” insensitively dropping the faith on the unsuspecting from a great height–thereby vaccinating them against the Good News of Jesus. But the fear of misguided enthusiasm is not an excuse for no enthusiasm at all.
It’s Time To Ask Strategic Questions
Now is the time for us as pastors to ensure that country club spirituality belongs to the past:
* Are we managing a country club or coaching a mission team?
* Although we may not see our primary gifting as being that of an evangelist, are we still committed to doing the work of the evangelist?
* Are we on the lookout for those needing to meet Jesus wherever we may be and are we ready to pass on the Good News to them?
* Do we know how to lead someone to Christ?
* Do we believe that God is at work in the lives of people through the Holy Spirit?
* Is the congregation anticipating the joy which comes from seeing lives being made new through Jesus?
* Are we helping our people to be open to all who cross their path by being open ourselves?
* Do we make space in our services for new Christians to tell their story?
Sharing the faith is not and never has been simply a Sunday come-to-our-turf-to-hear- the-Gospel enterprise. It is the Lord’s wish that we should be fruitful wherever we are and that we should be modeling for our people the life of one who does the work of an evangelist.
In so doing we will not only see our own trust in the Lord increase; we will see our people thinking about sharing their faith in new ways too. In turn He will surely add to the church daily those who are being saved.
Rev. John Simpson
This article is reprinted by permission of the author. It originally appeared in Ministry Perspectives,
a publication of the Baptist Union of Victoria, Australia.