This is the eighth chapter in a series about 21 years of overcoming conflict and opposition as I’ve tried to learn how to minister and speak the truth in Garland, Texas. You can read the first seven parts at www.deorl.wordpress.com or in my notes on www.Facebook.com/deorl.
I don’t want to sound jaded or cynical, but so much of what I see in regard to church and ministry may be explained by the politics of the playground. You remember elementary school, right? Actually, this applies to school all the way through college, but the playground is a seedbed and an accessible example. Starting in kindergarten there are popular and unpopular kids, as well as many in the middle. Those in the middle determine who is popular by virtue of whom they decide to follow.
There was a game that was often played when I was in grade school that illustrates this. A group of kids would join hands and walk shoulder to shoulder through the playground chanting, “Hey, hey, get out of my way, I just got back from the USA!” The group grew when other kids joined it by taking the hand of a member at either end of the chorus line. If the kids at both ends thought you had cooties or something, then you didn’t get to join that group. There were usually competing groups marching around and chanting loudly. Sometimes two groups would stand opposite one another and battle by screaming, perhaps bumping each other. A kid or two might join an opposing group, usually because it was larger, or had more popular people in it. The larger groups gained members quickly, while the smaller groups grew more slowly or simply disbanded (some or all of their members joining a larger group). Many people like to be a part of something big.
None of these groups was spontaneous; someone started each one by recruiting the first members, then marching and chanting to advertise for more. I’m sure you’ve already jumped ahead to my intended application. Churches are really no different than these chorus lines on the playground. Although, I would hope a church has higher aspirations than merely gaining more members. If the main point of a church’s existence is increasing numerically, then how is that church any different from, say, a gym, a restaurant, or a store? All of these are striving to gain more loyal customers.
The word for church in the original Greek means “called out.” I have always believed the New Testament teaching about church: it is a community God has called out from the world to worship him, support one another, learn to follow Christ’s teaching, and offer the Gospel to the world (see Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 2:42-47 & 4:32-35). As we proclaim the resurrected Jesus and live out his love in the world, God calls people to become a part of his Kingdom and join our communities. “And he added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
Therefore, the big difference between playground politics and church membership should be the God factor. We (pastors, teachers, evangelists, every day Christians) broadcast the Good News and those who receive it are called by God to be part of a community of fellow believers. That call happens when God’s Holy Spirit draws or compels a person to become part of a local church. Here is where I get negative, perhaps you would say skeptical (hopefully not cynical). I don’t think most people are paying attention to the Holy Spirit’s leading. Many misconstrue their own feelings as God moving. The reality is, a lot of people are just following the popular impulse to attend a particular church because others like them are there. Many seek to identify with an attractive brand, or affiliate with what appears to be a trustworthy institution. The pastor and his family look like our kind of people, so we want to be a part of their group.
The “why” of popularity has been a source of consideration and consternation for me since first grade (I never went to kindergarten). Why am I not popular? I remember running for class office in fourth grade. I spent all night putting together packets with candy to bribe class members into voting for me. I got two votes (yes, mine was one of them). In high school I would never have dreamed of trying to run for office, but in government class my senior year there was an election for some office. I ran on a platform that included legalization of marijuana (a transparent attempt to get the stoner vote), and lost. In college I started a Bible study at the Baptist Student Union. I put up flyers all over campus. I had one freshman who kept attending, and that was it. I tried to get on the BSU steering committee and was denied by the BSU director. He said that my efforts at personal evangelism would somehow be hindered by having a position on the committee. In the end he just didn’t like me (not hostility, just simple rejection). Why don’t more people like me?
We started the church I lead the same year as two others in our region. Both of these churches are large, ours is not. I’m sure that there are other congregations that started the same year which don’t even exist any longer. Reportedly, 32% of all new church plants fail within five years (NAMB report http://www.namb.net/namb1cb2col.aspx?id=8590001104 ) I know of one congregation in our city that started several years before ours, became quite large, then folded. Perhaps focusing on our continued survival could be a source of consolation for me, but it isn’t. I always thought if God led me to start a church, it would grow large. I was saved in a large church. I know the importance of evangelism and preach the Gospel. I once ran a ministry that introduced thousands of people to Christ (House of Judgement was used to lead over 10,000 people to pray a prayer of salvation). So, why in heaven and earth has the church I lead not grown beyond a hundred or so (at times a few more, at others, many less)?
Perhaps it is because I am not married. People are looking for a pastor who is a family man, for a father of children, for a husband of a lovely wife. Sorry, that’s not my call. God hasn’t shown me anyone to marry, and I will not jump into a relationship to make other people happy with me. Perhaps it is because I do not have an appealing appearance. I have crooked teeth and don’t smile as often as I’d like to because of self-consciousness. I guess this is my fault by now. If I spent money on the dentist like I have Apple products, I’d have a beautiful smile. But wait, I thought the church was, well, supernatural, a community of people who have been called out of the world, not a social group who have decided to cluster around a handsome, charismatic leader. As a reminder, last Monday (11-19-2-13) marked 35 years since 900 people committed suicide at the command of cult leader Jim Jones.
Is it my sin that keeps the church from growing? Yes, I sin. No, I’m not smoking meth and seeing prostitutes (as the prominent pastor of a large church in Colorado was discovered doing several years back). I’m not stealing from the church or manipulating people to give money (there are plenty of ministry leaders who have been caught doing so). I’ve never had sex outside marriage. I don’t even look at porn– I cannot say I never have, but it’s been a very long time and even then it was quite brief. I do get angry. I do use some obscenities on occasion (usually when alone and yelling at some piece of errant technology). I do have to exercise constant restraint on lustful temptation. I’m sure I’ve offended people by saying or doing the wrong thing. I usually to make this right in the end, though that doesn’t always result in the person or people continuing to be members of our church. I do keep writing honest exposés like this one, and some people would prefer to have a fairy tale pastor. There may be some in my community that which I’d just get over myself and stop writing like this. Maybe I should heed that perceived advice.
Is it my lack of personal evangelism that keeps the church from increasing? Perhaps. I do know how to share the Gospel with people. I am simply uninterested in appearing like a salesman. I’ve also lost a lot of confidence in recent years. I feel like people will not want to listen to me, so perhaps I don’t share when I should. I lack urgency in this area, but I don’t believe in the dictum: “if it is to be, it is up to me.” I’m not a Calvinist, though. It’s just, God doesn’t need me. Heck, sometimes I don’t even feel as though he likes me. I’ve told God recently that if I got it wrong and I’m not supposed to be in ministry, then show me something else to do. I’d probably be unhappy, but I’m miserable when our attendance and offering is low. I take it personally. I mean why am I here? There are worthy men and women in my church whom I’d love to pay to do the work of ministry. They need the money. We cannot pay them because I cannot get enough people to attend and continue supporting this ministry. It is one thing to fail yourself; believe me, it is a devastating to fail others.
Sometimes, I become tired of trying. I’m tired of preparing for a Wednesday night Bible study where five or six people show up. I’m tired of fluctuating Sunday worship attendance: one week 80 or 100, the next week 45-50. I’m tired of people who refuse to continue living for Christ. Half the people I’ve mentored over the years are not living for Christ with any passion, and probably half of those aren’t actively following Jesus any longer. Most of the leaders I looked up to over the years have shown cracks in their armor, and some failed morally. If I look at all of this, it makes me sad and depressed. In fact, I’ve evaluated myself, and at times over the last 15 years I’ve shown signs of clinical depression. I’m beyond burned out; I’m sick and sad and in need of a miracle. This is exactly where God wants me to be so that he gets all the credit and all the glory.
I’ve come to the conclusion that this life is all about being broken. Self-confidence is deceptive. Pride is original sin. When I trust in me, there is little room for God. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). There is a huge problem with narcissism in our nation. People have been brought up to believe they need to love themselves in order to love others (a gross misinterpretation of Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” but that’s a topic for another blog). Many of us are inveterate self-promoters. I need more followers on Twitter, more “likes” for my page or my post on Facebook. Indeed, I have to be careful that my desire for higher attendance at our church is not motivated by selfish ambition. Maybe that’s the problem. Don’t worry, I’ve been evaluating that possibility for some time. God’s purpose is not to raise me up and give me glory. My purpose is to worship him, praise him, give him glory, and to lead others (by word and deed) to do the same. In order for that to happen, “He must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30). “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God that he may raise you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:6). Jeremiah the prophet was led into the potters house where he watched the craftsman make a pot, then break it down to remake it because it had become marred on the wheel (Jeremiah 18). I am marred. He is remaking me.
I still believe. I still love Jesus. I still love my people. I’m still in ministry. I’m still trying. I continue clinging to the promises that brought me to Garland, Texas 21 years ago. If you’ve been reading these articles, you are a trooper. They are pretty negative at times. However, God has not left me. Even though I complain, quarrel and test him like Israel did, he remains my rock. I wrote these eight reflections on ministry as a way of reminding myself that the scripture God used to bring me to this city was prophetic and necessary to keep me from failing and falling. I’m still looking for vindication. I’m still believing God. I’m still trying to change. One thing is for sure: no weapon formed against me shall stand; no scheme against me shall prosper. Yes, I still believe. “Though he slay me, still I will serve him.” Here is a final reminder of the prophecy I seek to (re)establish in my life.
From Isaiah 41
8 “But you, O Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
you descendants of Abraham my friend,
9 I took you from the ends of the earth,
from its farthest corners I called you.
I said, ‘You are my servant’;
I have chosen you and have not rejected you.
10 So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
11 “All who rage against you
will surely be ashamed and disgraced;
those who oppose you
will be as nothing and perish.
12 Though you search for your enemies,
you will not find them.
Those who wage war against you
will be as nothing at all.
13 For I am the Lord, your God,
who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
I will help you.
14 Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob,
O little Israel,
for I myself will help you,” declares the Lord,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.
15 “See, I will make you into a threshing sledge,
new and sharp, with many teeth.
You will thresh the mountains and crush them,
and reduce the hills to chaff.
16 You will winnow them, the wind will pick them up,
and a gale will blow them away.
But you will rejoice in the Lord
and glory in the Holy One of Israel.
17 “The poor and needy search for water,
but there is none;
their tongues are parched with thirst.
But I the Lord will answer them;
I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.
18 I will make rivers flow on barren heights,
and springs within the valleys.
I will turn the desert into pools of water,
and the parched ground into springs.
19 I will put in the desert
the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive.
I will set pines in the wasteland,
the fir and the cypress together,
20 so that people may see and know,
may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
that the Holy One of Israel has created it.