(Here is my final installment in my series of blog-posts: “Lessons on the Porch”)
When God began to move my heart to pray more faithfully, more frequently, more fervently I knew that prayer was a clear command and emphasis of the Bible. I didn’t need any confirmation of that. All I had to do was open the Bible and read the place of prayer in the life of men and women of God, the place of prayer in the life of the church, and the place of prayer in the life of our Savior, Jesus. But there was something more that troubled me and has for many, many years.
I have read dozens of books, scores of articles, and I have attended conferences and had hundreds of conversations with fellow pastors who’s ministry skills I admire, to discover the adjustments that need to be made to see increase in the church.
Church increase is a good thing, if it is something that God has given, but there can be a painful, dangerous, subtile idolatry in it for me. If I’m not careful the default setting of my soul will tell me that all that is wrong will be right if there are more people in the pews and if the church prospers as an organization. I can depend too heavily on the numbers for a sense of personal affirmation and that is a painful trap for a pastor.
There is the temptation to try to be someone you are not in ministry–to try to copy the ministry gifts and leadership styles of people who have experienced the increase you desire. God has gifted each of us uniquely. To try to reproduce the leadership stye of another is like trying to defeat Goliath in Saul’s armor.
The roots of this weakness are deep in my heart. I was only fourteen when I knew that I would pursue pastoral ministry. I began immediately to be a student of the pastoral calling. My Dad is a pastor, my grandfather was a pastor. The continual conversation around our dinner table and on long car rides was speculation about what it was that made churches flourish. How could we see more people become followers of Jesus? What should we emphasize? What did other people do to achieve such impressive attendance numbers?
The Church-Growth Movement
Dad read inspiring stories about growing churches with dynamic pastors and flourishing ministries, but that level of success always eluded us. The churches Dad pastored always grew. He was faithful and sincere. Mom and the whole family were engaged in the ministry, but the level of increase was modest. As a result Dad usually was bi-vocational. He would take a small church that could not afford a full-time pastor and he would get a school-teaching assignment within commuting distance. With this bi-vocational arrangement and in churches that were often small for very good reasons, the kind of growth that you read about in ministry success books was unlikely. It didn’t happen for us. Longing for a ministry of a thousand we usually had a ministry south of one-hundred.
Sometimes churches were small because they were not healthy. There are people in control who should not be in control and they are unwilling to do the things they should do to see the church be what God wants it to be. Conflict or friction and tension between people and pastor and in-fighting makes increase impossible, but it is not always the fault of the people.
Other times small churches or churches that are declining or plateaued are not growing because pastors feel pressure to make them grow and they import programs from other churches and force them on the people. They assume that because they worked in one place they will work in every place, but they don’t take into account other factors, like the location of the church, the skills and gifts of the people, the providential factors that make the church unique, or the leadership skill of the pastor himself. The people try to follow the pastor, but the efforts they make don’t bring increase and they end in frustration. Often the church suffers leading to a pastoral change and the new pastor comes into town with a new bag of ministry tricks and the people have to go through the whole frustrating cycle again.
Ministry and Idolatry
God was showing me the ministry idols in my heart. He was helping me discern my own gifts and skills and leadership style. Now, entering my ninth year of ministry here at Evangel I had plenty of time to evaluate and meditate on what kind of pastor God wanted me to be and what I should depend on for the flourishing of the church. That led me to the emphasis on prayer and personal pastoral care. It brought me full-circle to a way of seeing ministry like a village parson. I saw that I should not primarily concentrate on trying to do things go get the church to grow. I should not put inordinate pressure on the people to use them to grow the church. Instead I should know the state of the flock. I should arrange for the care of every member of the body. I should faithfully and passionately preach. I should identify other men who have natural leadership in the church and inspire them to inspire others. I should lead the way God gifted me to lead and not frustrate myself by trying to be someone I am not and hurt the people by pressuring them to be something they are not.
You’re Not Spurgeon
Years ago my secretary said; “Pastor, I think you should put your sermon titles in the bulletin.”
“I’m not sure what my sermon titles are until just before I preach the message,” I said. “Charles Spurgeon did not write his Sunday morning message until Saturday night and he did not write his Sunday night message until Sunday afternoon.”
She said; “Well, you’re not Charles Spurgeon.”
As you can imagine, that is not my favorite memory, but it is an important truth. A pastor should have a good awareness of how God has gifted him and where God has placed him. I’m not Spurgeon. You are problably not Spurgeon either. Spurgeons are rare. But I can be faithful and fruitful even though I am not Charles Spurgeon. I am people-oriented. I am creative. I have a busy mind and high-energy. I am verbal. It’s been that way for years. You can see it on every one of my report cards from my school days. Everyone who knows me knows that to be true. I am not linear and left-brain in my thinking. My thought-process is more like fire-works than a flow-chart. I have many tabs open on my mental browser all the time. I am not a high-powered Teddy Roosevelt, “Let’s-charge-San-Juan-hill” kind of leader. I am not John Wayne or William Wallace. I’m Ken Pierpont. God led me to be a pastor. God gifted me to be a pastor, but I don’t leap tall buildings in a single bound, I’m not faster then a speeding bullet, I’m not more powerful than a locomotive, and I don’t walk on water.
I can call on you when you are in the hospital. I can pray for you by name. I can go to your child’s soccer game. I can weep with you when you grieve. I can rejoice with you when you have something to celebrate. I’m actually pretty good at that. I can pray and study the Bible and pay careful attention to your life and preach and teach in a way that is directly applicable to your life and family, because I know you and I live where you live. Your favorite ministry mega-gifted star cannot do that for you.
God has gifted and called local parsons to do that and they should not spend their time spinning their wheels trying to be the local reincarnation of Bill Hybles, Rick Warren, Charles Stanley, Charles Swindoll, Chuck Smith, or David Jeremiah. If pastors try to do that they are going to hurt themselves and they are going to hurt their people. Pastors are shepherds who know the flock and care for the flock. They should work intimately among their people until the sheep know their voice and follow them even as the under-shepherd knows the voice of the Chief-Shepherd and follows Him.
I’m not Charles Spurgeon. When I was very young and occasionally even now I fantasize about what it would be like to preach to thousands and have people in foreign lands snatch up and read everything I write. There is a lot I’m not sure about but one thing I know: “I’m not Charles Spurgeon, or Charles Stanely or Charles Swindoll.” I’m just Ken, the village parson. You will probably never meet the great Charles Pastors, but if Evangel is your church home and you need me I will do my best to be there for you and I will pray for you by name continually. I will pray for your children. I will pray about the state of your soul and try to shepherd your heart godward every week.
The heart of all of that is prayer, personal, frequent, faithful prayer by name for each of those who are in my flock. How do I know what people need? How do I know what temptations they face? How do I know who needs help, when and what kind of help they need? All this begins in the morning when I mention them by name one at a time to the Lord.
Would God Confirm This Direction?
I was sure God was at work in my heart. I asked Him to give me a confirmation that this new emphasis on faithful, fervent, frequent prayer was what He wanted me to emphasize in my ministry. The week of my experience on the porch I began to create prayer lists of all the families in the church and I began to pray for them by name, dividing the list so I would pray for about 50-60 families a day. I created files on Evernote so the lists would always be with me on my phone and they would be easy to edit.
While I was praying that first week I came upon a name and had a sense that I should connect with this young husband and dad. Later that morning I called him. I said, “The Lord put you on my heart today and I wondered if you would like to grab coffee sometime?”
He said; “Well, I’ve been pretty busy and I’ve been working six days a week so I’m not off work until Saturday at 2:00.” Then he said something that surprised and humbled me. He said; “So i could meet you at 3:00.” The first free hour he had after a long busy week of work he was willing to give to me, because I prayed for him and I cared about him
We met for coffee. We had a great talk. I learned a lot about him and his little family, his dreams, frustrations, temptations, pressures and successes. It was a good meeting.
Sunday morning when I stood to preach he and his wife were in the front row. I had prayed that week for a clear confirmation that this emphasis on prayer was the direction that God wanted me to take for the flourishing of the church when I saw that couple in the front row I knew the God had confirmed the direction He gave me.
That week I spoke to the people about what God was teaching me about prayer. I told the people this; “Today I am going to just tell you what God has been teaching me. I want you to let me know if any of you feel He has been saying the same thing to you.”
Often people are slow to adopt new ideas and lacking in enthusiasm about any new emphasis. In this case one after another the people have come to me to tell me they believe God has been saying the same thing to them. Over and over God has confirmed to me that this emphasis on prayer is Biblically-sound, pleasing to God, and universally applicable to any church anywhere at any time.
November 18, 2015