This morning I saw what I thought was a promising headline: “Confessions of a Former ‘It’ Church Pastor” (HT: Aquila Report). My first thought: “Great! This will be an account of a pastor who woke up one day and realized that the whole idea of being “successful,” of winning the “Killer Bs” was wrong-headed.” I was wrong. Instead we find an anonymously written piece in which the former pastor of what he describes as the “it” church in town narrates the rise and fall of the church largely brought about through political intrigue within the congregation, whereby a member used social media to alienate much of the congregation from the pastor. He reached a crisis when their “numbers plateaued.” That means, the church stopped growing dramatically. Church growth leveled off. He chronicles how he learned to respond by, wait for it, becoming a pastor.
So every day I looked for ways to be faithful. I started by simply getting up and serving. That became my way to live from a place of victory and calling, instead of letting my spoken pain and unspoken profanity win out. Close friends became praying confidants. I decided that, if our numbers couldn’t grow, our character would—starting with me. Instead of putting out human-sized fires, I committed to helping start a God-sized fire through prayer, evangelism, and discipleship.
He goes on to explain how ultimately a church down the street became the “it” church about which he says in an aside, “(They’re rocking it, by the way).” Ultimately, the former “It” church decided to move on without him and he is now looking for a call.
Now, to be sure, it is encouraging to see that this pastor learned to become an ordinary minister of the Word but it was discouraging to how easily he seemed to accept what is essentially a sub-Christian view of the church, how prepared he seemed to be to think of the church in terms of buildings, bodies, and budgets and how what confessional Reformed folk regard as the ordinary (i.e., the ordained and the usual) ministry of Word and sacrament, the ordinary ministry of shepherding and caring, of being with God’s people in their daily lives, seemed to him so extraordinary.
As has been described in this space before, this is great (even if unspoken) pressure on all pastors to “grow the church.” Pastors are not the only ones who measure the success or health of the church by bodies, buildings, and budgets. When we ask a pastor, “How is the church?” what we typically mean is: “How is your attendance?” This is the “bodies” of the Killer Bs. The number of bodies on a given Lord’s Day comes to be the measurement of “success” in ministry upon which the others (buildings and budgets) depend.
We speak about church “planting,” which is a good metaphor. “Planting” requires care, watering, and patience. Sometimes, however, the metaphors change. Sometimes we speak of a “launch” (sometimes even a “quiet launch”) or an “opening.” Is it a coffee shop, a cell phone store, or a congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ? Contrast our careful, strategic, and business-influenced approach to Paul’s approach in Philippi:
So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay” (Acts 16:11–15; ESV).
Was it “strategic” to go to a quiet place outside the city, by the river, where some ladies were praying? Perhaps but if so, it was a different sort of strategy than that found in the “church growth” manuals. Yes, there is more to the story of the planting of the Philippian congregation but there is not much prima facie evidence of long-range plans, vision casting, (let alone vision statements), and the like.
Replace the word “church” with the word “restaurant” in our anonymous pastor’s account and what we have is a story that gets told daily by business leaders on LinkedIn and elsewhere. I have friends in the business coaching business and they tell the same stories to try to get secular business leaders to understand the importance of service in forming a successful, sustainable company. There is nothing particularly Christian about seeing the necessity of self-sacrifice and service for “success.”
What sets the church apart is not our self-sacrifice and service to others. The Kiwanis does that very well. What sets apart the church is its story of Jesus’ self-sacrifice and service for us. This was Paul’s message to the Philippians.
Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice (Phil 1:15–18; ESV).
What mattered to Paul was not who was “winning” or “losing” but whether Christ is preached. His indifference to the sorts of things over which we obsesses is jolting. His model was not a manual for success but Christ, who refused to do what Satan had done, but instead poured himself out like a drink offering for us, was humiliated and suffered all the way to the cross (Phil 2:1–11). We serve him and one another, in union with Christ, by the power of the Spirit. Most people despise Jesus and few recognize who or what he is—but one day the empirical evidence shall be overwhelming and then every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.
Paul warned the Philippians about self-seeking preachers of self and law (they are the same lot). He called them “dogs” because, as Judaizers, they regularly referred to those whom they regarded as unclean as “Gentile dogs” (Phil 3:2). He told them his own story, about his self-seeking and law-keeping on the path to salvation. By God’s sovereign grace, however, he was given new life and true faith in Jesus the humiliated and risen Savior (Phil 3:3–20). In chapter 4 he urged them not to think of the church as “mine” but as Christ’s and thus to repent of their factions and to unite in service to the risen Christ.
There was some excitement around the founding of the church in Philippi but it was never the “it” church. Really, we are talking apples and oranges are we not? The Philippian congregation was “the church.” It was not competing with other congregations for bodies, buildings, and budgets. It was Christ’s church. Her minister, elders, and deacons were nothing but Christ’s servants. Christ is the Lord of the church. He gives the increase (or not). The truth is, in the apostolic history and afterward, most of the Christ’s servants have been anonymous because the church was never about them, their ego, their personality, or their popularity. It was about Christ: his obedience, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension for us, for you, and for me.
The morning’s testimony is from an anonymous pastor who has learned some good lessons about dying to the gods of success but he has more dying to do and so do we all.