Last Sunday I had to sit on the floor along with about a dozen of our teens so that chairs would be available for others as a couple hundred crowded into our room to witness a number of baptisms. I loved it. And more are coming next Sunday. There is a dearth of growing churches in Rockford, but the ones that are growing are remarkably Gospel-saturated and they are defying the church experts by also being remarkably unremarkable. And yet, there are several unremarkable places in this area alone where the churches are filled to the brim and overflowing and people are getting saved. They’re just not mega churches and their pastors aren’t celebrities.
The local church is a body brought together by God and where it is healthiest a close examination shows that the reasons for its success can rarely be attributed to any thing humanly reproducible. Recently I sat at a table with a pastor who boasted that his church had a state-of-the-art gymnasium and café that was certain to draw many people to their ministry. He hires and fires staff at will. And they come and go through his dying ministry. But though he gave credit to God for building the gym and running track, he seemed to forget that men can actually build those things. No big deal. A living local church, however, is built by God. And a tiny living flower is much more miraculous than a 300,000 ton piece of concrete. Little did he know that I’d rather be sitting on my behind with a pack of teens sitting cross-legged looking up at our borrowed baptistry as men who were nurtured and developed in this ministry plunged converts into the unheated waters.
I was a spectator. I couldn’t fire those guys that were ministering; nor did I hire them. They are a part of this body. I couldn’t have converted one soul that got baptized; nor could I have breathed warmth into their cold hearts. They are a part of this body. And I’m just a member as well. It’s too bad that too many pastors forget that they are only one member of many. The real story is never about the member, but always about the body.
In my article on numbers, I commented on the fact that some pastors are looking at the wrong data and therefore not having the right kinds of thoughts concerning their ministries. Some should be very dismayed; despite huge facilities, bulging budgets and large crowds the actual number of growing disciples is diminishing year by year. Others should be encouraged; despite less flashy accoutrements of American churchianity there are measurable increases in fruit from month to month. I think too many pastors are losing confidence in what really matters most: the Gospel and its power to have an effect.
The Gospel must have an effect. A Gospel minister that is not having an effect is not a Gospel minister. There should be repentance or riots. Obviously, that’s a bit hyperbolic. Certainly, there are times when the minister of the Gospel passes through dreary seasons when there seems to be nothing but a flatline in the pulse of his ministry, yet God is doing something under the surface. However, the problem is usually that too many pastors are satisfied when they shouldn’t be. Or, some have this detached feeling about their church as if they are a hired expert brought in to oversee the congregation. They don’t realize that if their church is sick, they’re sick. If they’re church is holy, they could be benefitting even if they’re unholy. They are only members in a body. Yet, we tend to make celebrities out of a body part and pay no attention to the body. We know a MacArthur, but not his church. A Piper, but not his church.
But the time comes when a pastor begins to realize that he is not the church and the church is not him. The story of Charles Haddon Spurgeon is only one chapter in the story of an amazing church, a church that is three hundred years old and still preaching and worshiping as it did when it started, the Metropolitan Tabernacle! The story of James Boice is only one chapter in the story of an amazing church, Tenth Presbyterian Church. When Spurgeon arrived at the Tabernacle it was already a praying church. He hadn’t taught one word. In his history of Tenth, Boice is obviously marveling that he is only a part of a great work that God had been doing for a long time in a local church.
I imagine that when we get to heaven we will find out that too much attention was given to celebrities and that the real story is that their churches were comprised of many faithful Christians with strong convictions, tender hearts, and self-denying servants’ dispositions; people who had lost their individualism in the corporate life of a local church.
I know that is true for me. I’m afraid to say it because people will think it is a feigned humility, but I know — KNOW — it is true that I am a small part of a very interesting work that is a trophy of God’s power and grace even though it won’t make headlines as a mega church. I look into the faces of people every Sunday that I know contribute more to the church than I do by their devout and quiet godliness. We have an unusually high percentage of strong leaders and good preachers. This church is steadily growing in a city that is shrinking. We have long services, long preaching, conservative music, and no money. Yet, this assembly has aggressively reached out to do help the needy and has tackled some remarkably huge projects for as small a group as it is.
I want pastors to know about this. You may be doing exactly what you are doing but you are in a church that will not live. Some pastors are doing all the wrong things, but they are in a church that cannot die! We sometimes see a thriving ministry and want to find out what the leadership is doing right so that we can emulate them in the expectation of getting the same results where we are. However, what we fail to realize is that the leadership is doing the right things because they were put in that thriving ministry. Bill Cosby quipped that good kids make good parents. There’s some truth to that even with churches.
In other words, God designed pastors for the spot and the spot for them. They can write a book if they’d like, but do they mention Jeanne, the paraplegic, that prays an hour a day for the pastor? You have to have a Jeanne. Do they write about Tom, the dad of six, who spends 14 hours a day laboring to provide food for his family, but listens to countless hours of sermons on his MP3 player developing strong convictions about the local church, biblical preaching, and worship? You have to have a Tom. Do they mention Grandma Lucy who, though she is losing her mind, still has the warmest smile on earth and can somehow make the most jaded visitor of all time feel welcome with her motherly hug and loving interest and then prays for them during the entire service, almost unable to hear for herself what the pastor is saying? You have to have a Grandma Lucy. Do they remind you that you need a deacon who wears an old polyester suit and loves to serve the needy and show practical, Gospel love to anyone in the church? You have to have the deacon like that. Does the celebrity pastor write about the John and Jill who are stalwart pillars in the church who function as an Aquila and Priscilla to the pastor, counseling him and rebuking him, purchasing things he needs (like a laptop or dishwasher) behind the scenes so that he can do his ministry and yet not burden the church budget? You have to have a John and Jill.
The books on church growth and the biographies never mention the essentials: Jeanne, Tom, Grandma Lucy, John and Jill, and the list goes on and on and on.
The Gospel radically changes over time a self-absorbed, self-reliant Lucy into a Grandma Lucy and by the time she is ready to be that Holy Spirit-empowered prayer-warrior the young and cocky but gifted preacher shows up to take his place in the limelight. He may think that by virtue of being their leader he is their superior, but when sins, mistakes, blunders, and grace conspire to mature him, he will realize that he is merely a disposable tool in the hands of God to shape his superiors. He would be a fool to not recognize the fact that after having preached to others he could become a castaway unless he too craves the grace that shapes the lives of his flock.
The church where God is working defies the experts. And that is what Morning Star is doing. There is no reason why we should be enjoying the growth and spirit we have enjoyed. None. The only reason is the Gospel. And I am almost afraid to say anything lest we should somehow take credit for it. So I find myself as desperate as I felt eight years ago, hoping that God will continue to show mercy to us and make His Word prosperous; praying that he will give us grace despite us.
But I want to encourage my brother pastors. We sing as a church Watts’ words because we mean it, ” We long to see Thy churches full,” and my heart breaks that some pastors are convinced that the circumstances haven’t fallen in their favor.
God can grow flowers out of concrete, brothers. Quit focusing on concrete and start praying for life.
That’s why I like what James Boice said in Making God’s Word Plain: Tenth Presbyterian Church 150 Years (1829-1979).
Is Tenth a rich church with a large endowment to allow it to swim for a while against the growing tide of urban blight? No, Tenth has virtually no endowment, nor does it have many wealthy members. There are many more doubleknits than fur coats in the pews. Has Tenth survived by becoming a secular institution, a sort of churchified social club? If so, where is the gym, swimming pool and basketball court? They are not there. It has been said that you need a homogeneous congregation, that you need to be part of a prosperous, growing community, that you need all sorts of fancy facilities to grow. Yet Tenth has none of these.
“Well, then,” one may ask,”if there is no secular appeal, no endowment or parking, isn’t the place on its last legs?”
If you think Tenth is anything but very much alive, try arriving just before 11:00 A.M. some Sunday and attempt to find an unoccupied seat with a view of the pulpit. On normal Sundays the church is packed. Of 166 churches in the presbytery of Philadelphia only thirty reported any growth from 1970-1975. Out of the hundred or so churches actually in the city of Philadelphia only ten reported growth, and the growth for all but one or two was negligible. Tenth grew more than any other Presbyterian church in the area. There were 500 members in 1968. By the summer of 1979 there were 740.
Tenth has the gospel of Jesus Christ as its foundation, and it has been blessed by a succession of ministers who have labored to expound this gospel to its fullest extent. It is this above all else that explains why Tenth prospers, why God continues to use it for the work he has to do in Philadelphia.