Monthly Archives: March 2010
The Foundation which bears my name and which I began less than a year ago is dedicated to achieving understanding, action and reconciliation between the different faiths for the common good. It is not about the faith that looks inward; but the faith that resolutely turns us towards each other.
Bringing the faith communities together fulfils an objective important to all of us, believers and non-believers.
But as someone of faith, this is not enough. I believe restoring religious faith to its rightful place, as the guide to our world and its future, is itself of the essence. The 21st Century will be poorer in spirit, meaner in ambition, less disciplined in conscience, if it is not under the guardianship of faith in God.
I do not mean by this to blur the correct distinction between the realms of religious and political authority. In Britain we are especially mindful of this. I recall giving an address to the country at a time of crisis. I wanted to end my words with "God bless the British people". This caused complete consternation. Emergency meetings were convened. The system was aghast. Finally, as I sat trying to defend my words, a senior civil servant said, with utter distain: "Really, Prime Minister, this is not America you know."
Neither do I decry the work of humanists, who give gladly of themselves for others and who can often shame the avowedly religious. Those who do God’s work are God’s people.
I only say that there are limits to humanism and beyond those limits God and only God can work. The phrase "fear of God" conjures up the vengeful God of parts of the Old Testament. But "fear of God" means really obedience to God; humility before God; acceptance through God that there is something bigger, better and more important than you. It is that humbling of man’s vanity, that stirring of conscience through God’s prompting, that recognition of our limitations, that faith alone can bestow.
We can perform acts of mercy, but only God can lend them dignity. We can forgive, but only God forgives completely in the full knowledge of our sin.
And only through God comes grace; and it is God’s grace that is unique.
John Newton, who had been that most obnoxious of things, a slave-trader, wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace".
"Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear. And Grace, my fears relieved."
It is through faith, by the Grace of God, that we have the courage to live as we should and die as we must.
When I was Prime Minister I had cause often to reflect on leadership. Courage in leadership is not simply about having the nerve to take difficult decisions or even in doing the right thing since oftentimes God alone knows what the right thing is.
It is to be in our natural state – which is one of nagging doubt, imperfect knowledge, and uncertain prediction – and to be prepared nonetheless to put on the mantle of responsibility and to stand up in full view of the world, to step out when others step back, to assume the loneliness of the final decision-maker, not sure of success but unsure of it.
And it is in that "not knowing" that the courage lies.
And when in that state, our courage fails, our faith can support it, lift it up, keep it from stumbling.
As you begin your leadership of this great country, Mr President, you are fortunate, as is your nation, that you have already shown in your life, courage in abundance. But should it ever be tested, I hope your faith can sustain you. And your family. The public eye is not always the most congenial.
I was reminded of this, as I waited in London in the snow to fly to America and made the mistake of reading a British newspaper. It was the very conservative Daily Telegraph. A few days ago I gave an interview in which I remarked how much cleverer my wife was than me. The Telegraph has a famous letters page. In it was a letter from a correspondent that read something like: "Dear Sir, with reference to your headline ‘Blair admits wife more intelligent than him’, I fail to see why this is news. Most of us have known this for a long time." As a PS perhaps: "the bar, however, has not been set high".
I finish where I began: in the Holy Land, at Mount Nebo in Jordan, where Moses gazed on the Promised Land. There is a chapel there, built by pilgrims in the 4th Century. The sermon was preached by an American, who spent his life as an airline pilot and then, after his wife’s death, took holy orders. His words are the words of a Christian but they speak to all those of faith, who want God’s grace to guide their life.
He said this:
"While here on earth, we need to make a vital decision … whether to be mere spectators, or movers and shakers for the Kingdom of God… whether to stay among the curious, or take up a cross. And this means: no standing on the sidelines … We’re either in the game or we’re not. I sometimes ask myself the question: If I were to die today, what would my life have stood for… The answer can’t be an impulsive one, and we all need to count the cost before we give an answer. Because to be able to say yes to one thing, means to say no to many others. But we must also remember, that the greatest danger is not impulsiveness, but inaction."
It is fitting at this extraordinary moment in your country’s history that we hear that call to action; and we pray that in acting we do God’s work and follow God’s will.
And by the way, God bless you all.
(February 10, 2009)
It is an honour to be here. A particular honour to be with you Mr. President. The world participated in the celebration of your election. Now the hard work begins. And now, also we should be as steadfast for you in the hard work as in the celebration. You don’t need cheerleaders but partners; not spectators but supporters. The truest friends are those still around when the going is toughest. We offer you our friendship today. We will work with you to make your Presidency one that shapes our destiny to the credit of America and of the world. Mr President, we salute you and wish you well.
After 10 years as British Prime Minister, I decided to choose something easy. I became involved in the Middle East Peace Process.
There are many frustrations – that is evident. There is also one blessing. I spend much of my time in the Holy Land and in the Holy City. The other evening I climbed to the top of Notre Dame in Jerusalem. You look left and see the Garden of Gethsemane. You look right and see where the Last Supper was held. Straight ahead lies Golgotha. In the distance is where King David was crowned and still further where Abraham was laid to rest. And of course in the centre of Jerusalem is the Al Aqsa Mosque, where according to the Qur’an, the Prophet was transported to commune with the prophets of the past.
Rich in conflict, it is also sublime in history. The other month in Jericho, I visited the Mount of Temptation. I think they bring all the political leaders there. My guide – a Palestinian – was bemoaning the travails of his nation. Suddenly he stopped, looked heaven wards and said "Moses, Jesus, Mohammed: why did they all have to come here?"
It is a good place to reflect on religion: a source of so much inspiration; an excuse for so much evil.
Today, religion is under attack from without and from within. From within, it is corroded by extremists who use their faith as a means of excluding the other. I am what I am in opposition to you. If you do not believe as I believe, you are a lesser human being.
From without, religious faith is assailed by an increasingly aggressive secularism, which derides faith as contrary to reason and defines faith by conflict. Thus do the extreme believers and the aggressive non-believers come together in unholy alliance.
And yet, faith will not be so easily cast. For billions of people, faith motivates, galvanises, compels and inspires, not to exclude but to embrace; not to provoke conflict but to try to do good. This is faith in action. You can see it in countless local communities where those from churches, mosques, synagogues and temples, tend the sick, care for the afflicted, work long hours in bad conditions to bring hope to the despairing and salvation to the lost. You can see it in the arousing of the world’s conscience to the plight of Africa.
There are a million good deeds done every day by people of faith. These are those for whom, in the parable of the sower, the seed fell on good soil and yielded sixty or a hundredfold.
What inspires such people?
Ritual or doctrine or the finer points of theology? No.
I remember my first spiritual awakening. I was ten years old. That day my father – at the young age of 40 – had suffered a serious stroke. His life hung in the balance. My mother, to keep some sense of normality in the crisis, sent me to school. My teacher knelt and prayed with me. Now my father was a militant atheist. Before we prayed, I thought I should confess this. "I’m afraid my father doesn’t believe in God". I said. "That doesn’t matter" my teacher replied "God believes in him. He loves him without demanding or needing love in return."
That is what inspires: the unconditional nature of God’s love. A promise perpetually kept. A covenant never broken.
And in surrendering to God, we become instruments of that love.
Rabbi Hillel was once challenged by a pagan, who said: if you can recite the whole of the Torah standing on one leg, I will convert to being a Jew. Rabbi Hillel stood on one leg and said "That which is hateful to you, do it not unto your neighbour. That is the Torah. Everything else is commentary. Go and study it."
As the Qur’an states: "if anyone saves a person it will be as if he has saved the whole of humanity".
Faith is not discovered in acting according to ritual but acting according to God’s will and God’s will is love.
We might also talk of the Hindu "Living beyond the reach of I and mine" or the words of the Buddha "after practising enlightenment you must go back to practise compassion" or the Sikh scripture: "God’s bounties are common to all. It is we who have created divisions."
Each faith has its beliefs. Each is different. Yet at a certain point each is in communion with the other.
Examine the impact of globalisation. Forget for a moment its rights and wrongs. Just look at its effects. Its characteristic is that it pushes the world together. It is not only an economic force. The consequence is social, even cultural.
The global community – "it takes a village" as someone once coined it – is upon us. Into it steps religious faith. If faith becomes the property of extremists, it will originate discord. But if, by contrast, different faiths can reach out to and have knowledge of one another, then instead of being reactionary, religious faith can be a force for progress.
(February 10, 2009)
Good morning. I want to thank the Co-Chairs of this breakfast, Representatives Heath Shuler and Vernon Ehlers. I’d also like to thank Tony Blair for coming today, as well as our Vice President, Joe Biden, members of my Cabinet, members of Congress, clergy, friends, and dignitaries from across the world.
Michelle and I are honored to join you in prayer this morning. I know this breakfast has a long history in Washington, and faith has always been a guiding force in our family’s life, so we feel very much at home and look forward to keeping this tradition alive during our time here.
It’s a tradition that I’m told actually began many years ago in the city of Seattle. It was the height of the Great Depression, and most people found themselves out of work. Many fell into poverty. Some lost everything. The leaders of the community did all that they could for those who were suffering in their midst. And then they decided to do something more: they prayed. It didn’t matter what party or religious affiliation to which they belonged. They simply gathered one morning as brothers and sisters to share a meal and talk with God.
These breakfasts soon sprouted up throughout Seattle, and quickly spread to cities and towns across America, eventually making their way to Washington. A short time after President Eisenhower asked a group of Senators if he could join their prayer breakfast, it became a national event. And today, as I see presidents and dignitaries here from every corner of the globe, it strikes me that this is one of the rare occasions that still brings much of the world together in a moment of peace and goodwill. I raise this history because far too often, we have seen faith wielded as a tool to divide us from one another—as an excuse for prejudice and intolerance. Wars have been waged. Innocents have been slaughtered. For centuries, entire religions have been persecuted, all in the name of perceived righteousness.
There is no doubt that the very nature of faith means that some of our beliefs will never be the same. We read from different texts. We follow different edicts. We subscribe to different accounts of how we came to be here and where we’re going next—and some subscribe to no faith at all.
But no matter what we choose to believe, let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate. There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know.
We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to "love thy neighbor as thyself." The Torah commands, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow." In Islam, there is a hadith that reads "None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists. It is, of course, the Golden Rule—the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.
It is an ancient rule; a simple rule; but also one of the most challenging. For it asks each of us to take some measure of responsibility for the well-being of people we may not know or worship with or agree with on every issue. Sometimes, it asks us to reconcile with bitter enemies or resolve ancient hatreds. And that requires a living, breathing, active faith. It requires us not only to believe, but to do—to give something of ourselves for the benefit of others and the betterment of our world.
In this way, the particular faith that motivates each of us can promote a greater good for all of us. Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times. This is not only our call as people of faith, but our duty as citizens of America, and it will be the purpose of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships that I’m announcing later today.
The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another—or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state. This work is important, because whether it’s a secular group advising families facing foreclosure or faith-based groups providing job-training to those who need work, few are closer to what’s happening on our streets and in our neighborhoods than these organizations. People trust them. Communities rely on them. And we will help them.
We will also reach out to leaders and scholars around the world to foster a more productive and peaceful dialogue on faith. I don’t expect divisions to disappear overnight, nor do I believe that long-held views and conflicts will suddenly vanish. But I do believe that if we can talk to one another openly and honestly, then perhaps old rifts will start to mend and new partnerships will begin to emerge. In a world that grows smaller by the day, perhaps we can begin to crowd out the destructive forces of zealotry and make room for the healing power of understanding.
This is my hope. This is my prayer.
I believe this good is possible because my faith teaches me that all is possible, but I also believe because of what I have seen and what I have lived.
I was not raised in a particularly religious household. I had a father who was born a Muslim but became an atheist, grandparents who were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists, and a mother who was skeptical of organized religion, even as she was the kindest, most spiritual person I’ve ever known. She was the one who taught me as a child to love, and to understand, and to do unto others as I would want done.
I didn’t become a Christian until many years later, when I moved to the South Side of Chicago after college. It happened not because of indoctrination or a sudden revelation, but because I spent month after month working with church folks who simply wanted to help neighbors who were down on their luck—no matter what they looked like, or where they came from, or who they prayed to. It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God’s spirit beckon me. It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose—His purpose.
In different ways and different forms, it is that spirit and sense of purpose that drew friends and neighbors to that first prayer breakfast in Seattle all those years ago, during another trying time for our nation. It is what led friends and neighbors from so many faiths and nations here today. We come to break bread and give thanks and seek guidance, but also to rededicate ourselves to the mission of love and service that lies at the heart of all humanity. As St. Augustine once said, "Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you."
So let us pray together on this February morning, but let us also work together in all the days and months ahead. For it is only through common struggle and common effort, as brothers and sisters, that we fulfill our highest purpose as beloved children of God. I ask you to join me in that effort, and I also ask that you pray for me, for my family, and for the continued perfection of our union.
Thank you .
7. Bad health.
Anyone who has spent time in more than a few churches can see that some are just unhealthy. And by that, we do not mean they are small—they are sick. You can be small and healthy; behold the hummingbird.
An unhealthy church is known more by what it does than by a list of characteristics and attributes. A church that runs its preachers off every year or two is unhealthy. A church that is constantly bickering is unhealthy. A church that cannot make a simple decision like choosing the color of the carpet, adopting the next year’s budget, or accepting changes in an order of worship may be unhealthy.
So, what is a healthy church? Entire libraries could be filled with books written on the healthy church, and consultants abound ready to assist congregations toward that purpose. But Romans 12 is God’s blueprint for a healthy church: Verses 1-2 call for each individual to make a personal commitment to Christ ("present your bodies as a living sacrifice"); verses 3-8 call for each one to find his/her place of service where they can use their spiritual gifts; and verse 9 through the end of the chapter describes the relationships within a healthy, loving fellowship of believers.
Show me a congregation where members are wholeheartedly committed to Jesus Christ, each is using (or learning to use) their God-given spiritual gifts in the Lord’s service, and their fellowship is sweet and active—and I’ll show you a healthy church.
8. Lousy fellowship.
This overlaps with the last point, but it deserves a spot by itself. For my money, the best thing a church has to offer individuals and families in the community—other than the saving gospel itself—is a place they will be loved and welcomed and made part of an active, healthy family. It’s what we mean by "fellowship."
There are ways to tell if the fellowship in your church is unhealthy: Visitors are basically ignored, even resented in some areas. No one follows up with visitors to let them know they are wanted or to give information on the church. There’s no attempt to get people to visit your church in the first place. Everything is orderly in the worship service, but it’s the same order you’ve used since forever. The singing is lifeless, and any departure from the norm is verboten. A new hymn or chorus, a different kind of musical instrument, a testimony here, an interview there, a short drama or video—no sir, not in our church. There’s no laughter, nothing spontaneous. The invitation time is tacked on, lifeless, and without any response—ever. The prayers are stale and filled with platitudes.
When the Old Testament prophets called on God’s people to "break up the fallow ground"—Hosea 10:12 and Jeremiah 4:3—they wanted to see evidence of brokenness, a willingness to change, a desire to bear new fruit. Fallow ground is soil that has laid unproductive for several seasons. The hard crust requires a deep-turning plow to open it up, and even then the soil may require more preparatory work before it is productive.
A church with poor fellowship is not failing to have enough socials and dinners. The church is failing in the most basic of area of discipleship: a failure to love. Jesus said, "By this shall all men know you are my disciples, that you love one another" (John 13:35).
The disciple who is close to Christ loves the brethren. As such, a congregation that is unloving toward one another may be said to be far removed from the Lord and in a backslidden state. It’s a simple deduction. "Draw near to the Lord and He will draw near to you" (James 4:8).
9. A state of neglect permeates the church.
Not always, but often, a dying church shows signs of its weakening condition by the disrepair of its buildings and the neglect of its appearance. The interior walls haven’t been painted in years and bear the collective fingerprints of a generation of children. The carpet is threadbare, the piano’s keys stick, the pulpit chairs need reupholstering, and the outside sign is so ugly it would be an improvement if someone knocked it down.
Dying churches do not tend to their business. They let problems fester and divisions go unaddressed. Listen closely and you will hear a leader speak those infamous words: "These things have a way of working themselves out." And so they do nothing, and the church trudges on toward the grave. No one gets saved, no one joins, people drift away, the community becomes less and less aware of the existence of that little church, and the remaining members complain that people just don’t love the Lord the way they used to.
10. No prayer.
It’s tempting to make a little joke here and say, "Such churches do not have a prayer," but they could if they chose to. When King Saul was bemoaning the woes that had descended upon him as a result of his rebellion against God, one of his chief complaints was that God no longer heard his prayer. "He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer…" (I Samuel 28:6) Luke tells us, "Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up" (Luke 18:1). Pray or quit. Those seem to be the alternatives.
Want to give your congregation a little test, pastor? Next Sunday, call for your people to meet you at the altar for a time of prayer. Do not beg them or cajole them. Just announce it, then walk there yourself, kneel, and begin praying. See if anyone joins you. Notice who comes and pay close attention to who does not. It won’t tell you everything you’d like to know about your church, but it will say a lot.
A friend on Facebook requested prayer for his new ministry. When I asked him about it, he responded privately that in addition to pastoring his church, he was working for the state convention in his region. He said, "Almost all our churches in this part of the state are dying. We have buildings that were constructed for hundreds now running 15 or 20." The plan, he said, is to get systems in place to re-evangelize those regions as the old-line churches die off. I hope they don’t wait until those churches actually close their doors; a lifeless church can take a long time to give up the ghost.
The best solution would be for those stagnant, dying congregations to awaken and get serious about becoming vibrant again. This would mean taking the unprecedented step of doing whatever it takes to re-establish their witness and presence in the community. Unfortunately, in almost every case I know personally, this doesn’t happen. The leaders would rather see their church disappear from the earth than to do anything new or different.
That is as sad a sentence as I’ve written in a long time.
Let us pray. "Father, we do like our routines and ruts. Forgive us for limiting you by asking you to adapt to us instead of the other way around. Lord, in the words of the old hymn and the older Psalm, ‘Wilt thou not revive us again that thy people may rejoice in Thee?’ We ask this for Jesus sake. Amen." (Psalm 85:6)
Dr. Joe McKeever is a preacher, cartoonist and the retired Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Currently he loves to serve as a speaker/pulpit fill for revivals, prayer conferences, deacon trainings, leadership banquets and other church events. Visit him and enjoy his insights on nearly 50 years of ministry at JoeMcKeever.com.
3. Domination by a few strong members.
The process by which a man (it’s almost always a man) becomes a church “boss” is subtle and rarely, if ever, the result of a hostile takeover.
Say the pastor of a small church leaves for another town. The pastorless congregation looks within its membership for leaders to rise up and "take care of things" until a new pastor arrives. So two or three faithful and mature (we assume) members are chosen. They do their job well. If the next pastor leaves after an unusually short tenure for whatever reason, the congregation resorts to the fallback position: They enlist the services of those same two or three mature—and now experienced—leaders.
That’s how it happens that one of them—or possibly all of them—begin to make important decisions for the body, and everything works out. When the new pastor arrives, they let him know that for anything he needs to know, he should call on them. The pastor quickly sees that these men have set themselves up as a layer of authority between the hired man (the preacher) and the congregation.
These “bosses” explain that they are protecting the congregation. "We don’t like to upset them with matters like this." "These things are better off handled by just a few." Pity the young idealistic pastor who walks into that church unsuspecting that they lie in wait to—ahem—"give direction to his ministry." Or, as one said to me, "We thought you would like to have some help in pastoring this church."
Such self-appointed church bosses tend to frustrate the pastor’s initiatives, block his bold ventures, and control his tendencies to want the church to act on (gasp!) something he calls faith! Result: The church stays small. No normal family coming into the community would want to join such a church.
The remedy: The congregation must see that key lay positions in the church rotate, that no one stays chairman of deacons for thirty years or church treasurer for a generation. Members of the congregation should feel free to respectfully ask questions about why decisions are made. Church bosses cannot stand the light of day shown on their activities (“They wouldn’t understand”), even though they convince themselves what they are doing is in the interest of the congregation. Read about Diotrephes in the little epistle of III John. He "loves to have the pre-eminence."
4. Not trusting the leaders.
Interestingly, the opposite phenomenon often occurs with the same result. I’ve seen this phenomenon occur in small churches (and never in large ones) at the monthly business meetings. In the small-and-determined-to-stay-small church, discussion centers on why 35 cents was spent on call-forwarding and $2.00 on paper for the office. Leaders and pastors alike are always frustrated that the congregation doesn’t trust them with $20.00, let alone $200.00.
The determined-to-stay-small church is far more concerned about the dollars and cents in the offering plate than about the lost souls in the community. This church would never step out in faith and does something bold to reach the lost and unchurched, and if they did, unless their mindset changed, they would then harass their leaders into the grave demanding an accounting of every dime spent. Instead, small churches should elect good leaders and—within reason, as mentioned earlier—trust these leaders to do their work.
5. Inferiority complex.
I was a seminary student when called to my second pastorate, a church, which had been stuck at 40 in attendance for years. I discovered that small churches often are stymied by inferiority complexes. "We can’t do anything because we’re small. We don’t have lots of money like the big churches in town." So, they set small goals and ask little from their members.
One day, I was visiting in the First Baptist Church of a nearby community. In no way was it what we would call large, but it was three or four times the size of mine. The pastor and I were chatting about some program or other. He said to me, "My people won’t attempt anything like that. They’ll say, ‘We’re not large like the First Baptist Church of New Orleans.’"
That’s when it hit me: Feelings of inferiority can be found in any size church. I wouldn’t be surprised if the members of FBC-New Orleans were excusing themselves for their inaction by saying, "We’re not Bellevue in Memphis or the FBC of Dallas."
The remedy is to put one’s eyes on Jesus Christ and ask, "Lord, what do you want us to do?" Peter said, "Lord, what about John here? What do you want him to do?" Our Lord said—and thus set a wonderful pattern for all of us for the rest of time—"What is that to you? You follow me!"
Want your church to reach people and expand and grow? Get your eyes off what others are doing. Many of them, to tell the truth, are declining at a rate so fast it can hardly be measured. You do not want to take your cues from them. Ask the Lord, "What would you have us to do?" Then do it.
6. No plan.
The typical, stagnant small church is small in ways other than numbers. They tend to be small in vision, in programs, in outreach, and in just about everything else. Perhaps worst of all, they have small plans. Or no plans at all.
The church with no plan—that is, no specific direction for what they are trying to do and become—will content itself with plodding along, going through the motions of "all churches everywhere." They have Sunday School and worship services and a few committees. Once in a while, they will schedule a fellowship dinner or a revival. But ask the leadership, "What is your vision for this church?" and you will receive blank stares for an answer.
When Peter and John were threatened by the religious authorities who warned them to stop preaching Jesus, they returned to the congregation to let them know of this development. Immediately, everyone dropped to their knees and began praying. Notice the heart of their prayer, what they requested: "Now Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to…(what? How they finished this is how we know their plan, their chief focus)…to speak your word with great boldness." (Acts 4:29) When the Holy Spirit filled that room, the disciples "were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly" (v. 31). Clearly, this means they spoke it into the community, the world around them, and not just to one another.
A number of leaders have shared with me why they think so many small churches do not grow: "They need to focus on the two or three things they do best—not try to be everything to everyone." Some churches need to focus on children’s ministry, others on youth or young adults, young families, or even the oldsters. Some will focus on teaching, others on ministry in the community, some on jail and prison ministries, and some on music or women’s or men’s work. This is not to say that the church should shut down everything else to do one or two things. Rather, they will want to keep doing the basics, but throw their energies and resources, their promotions and prayers and plans, into enlarging and honing two or three ministries they feel the Lord has uniquely called them into.
By Joe McKeever
I know more about getting smaller churches to grow than larger ones. I pastored three of them, and only the first of the three did not grow—I was fresh out of college, untrained, inexperienced, and clueless about what I was doing. The next two grew well, and even though I remained at each only some three years, one almost doubled and the other nearly tripled in attendance and ministries.
By using the word “grow,” I do not mean in numbers for numbers’ sake. I do not subscribe to the fallacy that bigness is good and small churches are failures. What I mean by “grow” is reaching people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. For example, if you are located in a town that is losing population and your church manages to stay the same size, you’re probably “growing” (i.e., reaching new people for the Lord). In addition, any church—large or small—that does not place a high value on evangelism and outreach to the unchurched can’t expect to grow…period. But countless articles and books have been written on that subject. Now, after working for years among hundreds of small congregations, I speak here to the subtle growth barriers that tend to go unnoticed or unaddressed in stagnant churches.
I send these observations forth hoping to plant some seed in the imagination of a pastor or other leader who will be used of the Lord to do great things in a small church. The "ten reasons" that follow are not necessarily in the order of importance or prevalence, and there are probably other reasons individual churches might not be growing, simply because no two churches are alike. But this is the way they occurred to me, and the order seems right.
1. Wanting to stay small.
"We like our church just the way it is now." While this attitude usually goes unspoken—it might not even be recognized by its carriers—it’s widespread in many churches. The proof of it is seen in how the leaders and congregation reject new ideas and freeze out new people.
The process of rejecting newcomers is a subtle one, never as overt as snubbing them. They will be greeted and chatted with and handed a printed bulletin. But they will still be excluded: "Bob’s class is meeting this week over at Tom and Edna’s. Come and bring a covered dish." "The youth will have a fellowship tonight at Eddie Joe’s. We’re serving pizza and you don’t want to miss it." Unless you know who Bob, Tom, Edna, and Eddie Joe are and where they live, you’re out of luck.
Pastors who want to include newcomers and first-timers should use full names from the pulpit. This allows newcomers to learn who people are. "I’ll ask Bob Evans to come to the pulpit and lead us in prayer." "For those who need directions to Eddie Joe Finham’s house for the youth fellowship, he’s the guy with the crewcut wearing the purple shirt. Raise your hand, Eddie Joe. He has printed directions to give you."
No one can promise that just because a church wants to grow, it will. However, I can guarantee you that if it doesn’t, it won’t.
2. A quick turnover of pastors.
A retired pastor who served his last church some 30 years was supplying for a small congregation south of New Orleans. He told me of a discovery he made: "On Sunday afternoon, I had several hours to kill before the evening service. In the church office, I was reading their history and discovered that in their nearly 50 years of existence, they’ve had 22 pastors." He was aghast. "Think of that. If they had around six months between pastors, that means the average tenure was less than two years." He was quiet a moment, then said, "They didn’t have pastors. They just had preachers."
It takes at least a couple of years for a pastor to become the real deal for a church—a pastor in more than name only, one who has earned the right to lead the congregation. With larger churches, the time period is more like six years.
Again, no one will promise you that keeping a pastor a long time guarantees the church will grow. But I can assure you that having a succession of short-term pastors will prevent it from growing as surely as if you had taken a vote from the congregation to reject all expansion.