My latest column at Christian Week:
The late John Miller, a pastor from Philadelphia, once told a pastor to stay in one place until he had been humbled. If a pastor moves too quickly, people don’t get to see how impossible ministry is. Stay until you’re broken, Miller wrote, to abandon pride and move into Jesus’ love.
I’ve just finished ten years as pastor in a church, and I know what Miller meant. I came to the church wanting to bring change. A decade later, I’ve been humbled. Surprisingly, it’s freeing. I no longer think that the church’s effectiveness rides on being ahead of a trend, or in becoming relevant. Here’s what I’ve learned.
I had to change. I came with an agenda to change the church. What I didn’t realize is that God had an agenda to change me. It’s no accident that Spurgeon’s book Lectures to My Students begins with a chapter called “The Minister’s Self-Watch.” I’ve learned that before I can affect change in others, I myself need to be changed by God. It took me a few years to realize that I needed transformation more than the church did.
I had to stop chasing fads. I recently read the story of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s first pastorate in small church in Wales. The church was in decline. People wanted to know what Lloyd-Jones would do to attract new people to the church. Would he start new programs? Make the church more attractive? Become more relevant? Lloyd-Jones rejected these approaches. “The church was to advance,” his biographer writes, “not by approximating to the world, but rather by representing in the world the true life and privilege of the children of God. The fundamental need was for the church to recover an understanding of what she truly is.”
For a while I thought that the church needed to chase fads to be effective. Now I believe the church – and I – need to rediscover the gospel and realize all that God has given to church to accomplish its task.
I had to stop caring. It’s easy to be driven by all the wrong things: approval and statistics, for instance. But you don’t last long in ministry if you crave people’s approval. Statistics are useful, but they don’t measure everything that’s important. Numbers can even become idols. Author Will Mancini writes, “An idol is anything we add to Jesus in order to make life work. The irony is that in the call to preach the gospel many fail to apply the gospel personally in ways that free their heart from a performance trap.”
One of the biggest performance traps is attendance. Attendance matters, but not because I need to validate my existence. I’ve had to learn to stop living or dying according to how many people like me, or what the numbers say. “You don’t have anything to prove to us or the world,” Jack Miller wrote. “The work is finished at Calvary, and that work alone has unlimited meaning and value. Keep your focus there.”
I had to start caring. I have a friend whose church is written up in magazines. He speaks at conferences. He’s considered successful, and I think he is. But the church he pastors languished as a small group for months when it started. It only changed after they began getting together weekly to confess that they didn’t care about their neighbors. They didn’t love the people that God loves.
We don’t have a how-to problem, my pastor friend says. We have a want-to problem. I need to start caring about the people God cares about, people who are often overlooked in the busyness of church life.
I’ve learned that it’s up to God. Author Reggie McNeal, a writer on missional living, says, “Unfortunately it [the church growth movement] fell victim to an idolatry as old as the Tower of Babel, the belief that we are the architects of the work of God. As a result we have the best churches men can build, but are still waiting for the church that only God can get credit for.”
I’ve stayed in one place long enough to be humbled, and I wouldn’t trade being humbled for the world.