We had a married couple visiting from Jackson, MS in worship today They are visiting a family in our church for the July 4th holiday. He told me he was minister of music at Castlewoods Baptist Church and I immediately said, “Oh, I’ve heard of that church. I came from Meridian, you know.” Meridian is only 90 miles from Jackson. He said, “You’re probably thinking of Crossgates Baptist Church. We’re a lot smaller than they are. Folks confuse us all the time. It’s something we’re used to.” I said, “You’re right. I was thinking of that church.” We got a good laugh out of it, but my perspective changed. One moment I was talking to a staffer from one of the largest churches in Jackson, the next I was speaking to a man from a church running about 50 in Sunday School.
This seemingly innocent conversation had an unexpected impact on me. I was reminded of an article in The Baptist Record (MS state paper) years ago entitled, “The Search for the Significant Church.” I can’t remember the specifics of the story, but I think it had something to do with how we measure the importance of churches. The larger congregations seem to get more attention, especially when you factor in the 3 B’s: buildings, budgets, and baptisms (preacher talk). It’s no wonder many smaller churches have an identity crisis and have pastors who struggle with the significance of their work. Now, I know that churches aren’t supposed to compete with each other. After all, we’re all on the same team. Still, there is that commercialism lurking just underneath the surface that rears its ugly head from time to time. Church members add to this perception by looking down the road and saying “just look at all the programs THAT church has. Why can’t we do that?” Oftentimes they have no clue as to the differing budgets and staff sizes and how these differences are important.
Preachers deal with this sort of thing all the time. That’s why I choose my conferences carefully. I’ve attended pastors’ conferences that were supposed to be learning opportunities but turned out to be bragging sessions about church statistics, finances, and church growth. The guest speakers are introduced with something like “Under Dr. So and So’s dynamic leadership and preaching, his church tripled their membership from 500 to 1500 in two years!” I’ve been waiting to hear something like “Dr. So and So has served 3 years at his church and they’ve been losing in SS attendence and struggle with their budget. He doesn’t know what to do!” That would pack them in, would it?
What I don’t need is a pastor who has relocated his church to a suburb where folks are moving to in droves to tell me that “if you’ll do what I did you’ll double your church in three years.” It irks me when a pastor won’t acknowledge that he’s benefitted from the growth of his town or city, or especially if he gained a lot of members at the expense of another church’s problems. Almost without exception pastors of “blowing and going” churches are asked to lead conferences attended by ministers whose churches run less than 200 in Sunday School. These smaller church guys are doing good work without the benefit of new folks moving into the area. I have spoken to pastors who have stopped attending conferences because they get so discouraged by them (actually, by national standards, churches running 200 are among the larger congregations).
You hear in seminary that 75% of Southern Baptist churches are declining or plateaued. What you don’t find out until after graduation is that many of these “declining” churches are located in rural areas with static growth numbers (it’s also interesting that “moderate” congregations were accused of being unevangelistic yet SBC stats are pretty much the same without them–we all have work to do in this area). You never hear much about any ministry going on or how hard pastors work day after day with little results. It’s no wonder pastors are discouraged. This isn’t an excuse for laziness, but an effort to be real with the numbers, location, and context of each church situation. The Annual Church Profile, which gives stats for membership, giving, and baptisms only tells part of the story.
Chapel wasn’t mandatory at NOBTS, but I did attend most of them, unless a faculty member was speaking whom I didn’t care much about. One time Dr. Ed Young, Sr., pastor of Second Baptist Church in Houston, TX came and I made sure I heard him. I remember that day because he left the pulpit and came down to the pews to “talk church.” One student asked about how he could get his church to grow and if there was anything out there he hadn’t tried. Dr. Young answered and said there were three keys to growing a church: “location, location, and location.” Surprisingly, it wasn’t about great preaching, ministries, or service, even though he mentioned the importance of them. It was about WHERE the building was located. I’ve thought about that statement a lot, and believe there is merit to it.
One thing I’ve tried to do is move away from the “church growth” model to a “church health” mentality. Every good pastor will tell you that he wants his church to grow, but not every good pastor is able to pull it off. I’ve seen pastors draw a large crowd through some type of sensational event, even stooping to bizarre tactics. I read about one country pastor who said he’d kiss a pig if his church got 200 in SS–they ran 50. His folks invited everybody and anybody for the Sunday in mind not so much for the glory of God but to see their preacher kiss a pig (I guess I could shave my head, but that wouldn’t be a great loss).
There are many large churches out there but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are healthy. Church health opts for a slower, more gradual and intentional approach in helping people grow as disciples rather than determining how many people were in church on a given Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll check the giving records and SS attendance on Monday morning. Nowadays though, I don’t get my value as a person or minister from them. This has been a liberating discovery. I aim to do my best and leave the rest to the Lord. After all, growth is God’s job (Acts 2:47b; I Cor 3:6).
Consider the ministry of Jesus. I’ve searched the gospels pretty thoroughly and can’t find a single occasion when the Lord said, “Look at a what a big crowd we have today!” That’s something I would say, but not him. He loved the crowds and had compassion on them, but transformed persons on a more personal and intimate level. Growing disciples was his concern, and it should be ours as well. Any church that is worshipping the risen Savior, loving one another, and sharing the gospel is an important church to the Kingdom of God. These churches give their monies to missions, go on mission trips, teach the Bible, do VBS, attend weddings and funerals, cook food for sick folks, and love one another through the joys and difficulties of life. Their size (or lack of it) doesn’t keep them from making a difference for Christ. That guy out of Jackson serves a church like that, and that makes it important in the Kingdom. I don’t know him all that well, but at least we have that much in common.