There is a troubling little secret in ministry that that often goes unnoticed by the average church member, but it can have toxic and dangerous implications on us in pastoral ministry. It’s the dangerous combination of personal ambition, the need for validation from others, and the tendency to base “success” in ministry solely on pragmatic valuations like growing numbers or statistics that are most quoted and measured in denominational headquarters. The result is that many people I know in ministry seldom see past their own church’s mailbox. Sure, we all know how to give external lip-service to the fact that when it comes to evangelical churches, we are all on the same team. Even while we do so, we often secretly harbor thoughts of envy, skepticism, or comparing statistics. We know how to say “Amen” when a brother shares that he had three new families join the church Sunday. As we do so, some of us are actually affirming other voices inside our heads and hearts. “I’m a failure because nobody moved an inch after my sermon.” “Yeah, if I had his location and his budget and his building, I would have people walk down each week too.”
This dangerous mix shows up subtly in several ways. First, there is the inevitable barrage of questions at pastor’s meetings, “How many are you running in Sunday School?”, “So, have you guys gone to two services yet?”, “Did you hear about _________ Church and how many they had on Easter Sunday morning?” The hidden suggestion is that success is measured mostly by numbers. Increasing numbers equates to ministerial success and pastoral fidelity. Very rarely do I ever talk to a brother in the ministry whose first question to me is “How’s your time personally in God’s word lately?” or “What are some ways that you’ve been wounded in ministry recently and how can I pray for you?” When I do meet someone who displays such an others-first spirit, I usually want to stay around a while and talk.
The other way this often shows up is in the sanctified “pastor brag”. In this case, pious ministers have learned the art of touting their recent successes followed by a quick “Praise the Lord” or “It’s all God’s doing. Nothing I’ve done.” I have noticed that these pastors are usually very quick to tell you how many people have walked an aisle or been baptized recently, but they are often silent about the people that have left the church. I don’t usually hear stories from these men about having a two-hour lunch with a young man who just needed to be discipled and know God’s word better. Sometimes I think the pursuit of the one gets lost in the midst of pursuing the ninety-nine.
Recently I found myself in another such meeting where some of these dynamics were at play. After about 20 minutes of the usual pastoral bloviating about numbers and statistics, we heard someone speak about the work that God was doing among an unreached people group in another part of the world. We heard stories about how the gospel had been changing lives and bringing hope to a place that had no access to the gospel just a few years before. We also heard about a vision to partner with existing churches to plant gospel-centered churches among unreached people groups. We were reminded in a very powerful way that lostness is a global problem and that there are great pockets of the world that have no access to the gospel. We were reminded that the task of planting churches falls on existing churches. Missions organizations don’t plant churches. Healthy churches plant churches. It dawned on me that with so many “successful” churches in our midst that surely there will be a rush to partner to accomplish the task of expanding the gospel to unreached people groups. When the speaker finished, he gave time for any follow-up questions. Surely this would be the moment when the light bulb would go on and a new vision for global ministry would be ignited. Sadly, that was not the case. One of my fellow ministers asked a question about what the process would be like if his church wanted more info. (I also found out later that he actually did schedule a follow-up appointment for his church to begin partnering with the organization.) After that was answered, there was a minute of awkward silence, followed by a thanks to the speaker for coming. That was it. No other questions asked. A few warm handshakes and let’s all get back to our offices. After all, who has time for anything else when you have so much success coming in your own front door? Anyways, isn’t the task of global missions best accomplished by writing a check to missions agencies and letting them deal with the issues?
I came away from that meeting with the same feeling I have had dozens of other times. When it comes to ministry, most of us in church leadership have a hard time seeing past our church’s mailbox. We all want to see the yearly ACP statistics at the annual associational meeting to see how we stacked up against the other churches in the area. When a family leaves one church to start attending another church down the road, seldom does the pastor of the new church ask why they left the old church, much less suggest that the family needs to go have a talk with the former pastor to make sure they are leaving for a biblically sound reason. After all, why run off a good prospect? Church members who transfer from another church usually make better tithers than new people that we reach.
The fact of the matter is that any and all statistical analysis about church membership in the United States shows the same facts – church attendance and identification are declining while population in the United States is increasing. The vast majority of our metro cities in the United States have larger numbers of unreached people than some countries around the world. There are still over 6,000 unreached people groups in the world representing a population of over 3 billion people. Meanwhile, in the places where the largest representation of evangelical Christians live, we are so busy swapping sheep and fighting over wayward church members that we don’t even see the vast mission field that God has called us to. Surely we can do better than that.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not mad at anybody. The reality is that I know that deep in my heart is that same propensity to only see my church in my local geography and try to create pragmatic ways to get the numbers up so that I can get the validation of my peers. Often I want people to walk an aisle on Sunday just so I can have something to share at the minister’s meeting on Monday. But, I know that God has called me to more than that. I know that God has placed in my life a strategic opportunity to partner with a fellow pastor in Boston who has the opportunity to reach more Indians and Asians in greater Boston than reside in my whole county. I know that God has placed an opportunity for my church to be able to seed the seeds of the gospel bear fruit in Northern Uganda among a people group that can have life-changing effects on that country for generations. These endeavors are costly and time-consuming. And they don’t always increase the bottle line on the ACP. But, as a friend of mine said recently, “We do this because the gospel changes all things for all people.” And, God keeps reminding me every day that His church doesn’t stop at my mailbox.