Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I Will Make of You a Great Church

"It is easier to deliver a baby than to raise the dead."

And with those words a couple of decades ago, an acquaintance described to me his rationale for determining to be a church planter rather than to be open to serving as the pastor of an existing church. After all, who can argue with the logic? If you go to an existing church, you're going to have to work within existing structures of other people who are trusted by the congregation as much or more than you are, and consequently who have a lot of independent influence among the people. You'll encounter traditions that may be different from your own (and brother, believe me, you've got your own). And the people in the church can be stubborn and cause you lots of problems. They grumble sometimes. They aren't always very appreciative of your efforts. If you start your own church, then nobody has been a member any longer than you have, and nobody ever joined without knowing on the way in about your expectations and visions of ministry. But at an existing church, you're the newcomer for a long time in some people's eyes, and their perspective will influence their decision whether to follow your leadership.

Church planting is hard work, but I don't doubt that in some ways it is a lot easier than pastoring in an existing congregation.

Nevertheless (you knew there was a "nevertheless" coming, didn't you?), I think we pastors can all learn something from the heart of Moses. In Numbers 32:9-10, while Aaron et al were down frolicking with the golden calf, God made this offer to Moses:

I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.

Imagine for a moment that you as a pastor have just sunk into your office chair after a particularly brutal meeting. God shows up and says, "These people at this church are all wrong and you are all right. I'm mad at them with you. Let's leave this church behind, and you let me send them off into oblivion. Let's go deliver a baby instead of trying to raise these dead. I will make of you a great church!"

How do you reply to God's offer?

Here's what Moses did: He loved His people, even in spite of the fact that they were all wrong and he was entirely right and they were constantly, stubbornly giving him terrible trouble. Moses took it upon himself to talk God out of it. Moses harbored no ambitions of personal greatness; he wanted to serve God and love God's people in spite of themselves. He had to be really patient. He had to endure a lot of sidetracks. But in the end, God accomplished all that He had promised.

So, do you love the church and her people that passionately? Do I? And don't we serve a God whose calling card is the fact that He can, has, and does indeed raise the dead?

Somehow in my cutting and pasting, this original ending didn't make it into the post until now. Sorry:

Of course, Paul did have that desire not to build on another man's foundation, and church planting is a critical part of what we need to do to reach the world with the gospel. But the search for what is "easier" doesn't lead people to plant churches in the difficult pioneer and missions area that need our attention so acutely. I wouldn't begrudge anyone for faithfulness to follow the calling of God. We just need to make sure that we serve where we serve because of His calling, and not because of our quest for whatever is easiest or whatever is most likely to contribute to our own personal greatness.


Bob Cleveland said...

I don't know what an old layman can add to a dissertation which seems oriented at pastors, but I lean to Revelation 3 on this kind of thing, as it seems to establish a principal:

"To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.

Revelation 3:1-2 (NIV)

Seems a worthy goal.

Anonymous said...

Very good point about Moses and his attitude toward the people of Israel. May we love our churches as much.

While I don’t like having to deal with them any more than the next pastor, I’ve found that some of those problem members can inadvertently bring you closer to the Lord. Be longsuffering and pray for them, and either they will get better, you will get better, or both.

After all, there must be a reason for cantankerous Baptists. God made so many of them.

He also seems to pretty evenly distribute them among the churches.
David R. Brumbelow

Baptist Theologue said...

Bart, this is a wonderful and timely topic. I'm certainly not an expert on this subject, but I'll share some opinions that I've formed during my career as a church staff member, senior pastor, and church planter both at home and abroad.

1. In a lot of established churches, there is a probation period where the pastor has to earn the title. It seems like the first two years are usually very difficult (as in many marriages), and a lot of guys want to move before they make it to the third year. Sometimes a good man and a good church just don't match well, and the good man can find himself without a job, thus making it difficult to move to another church. The pastoral candidate and the church should thoroughly investigate each other before a vote is taken. When a candidate preaches in a church looking for a pastor, there is often something akin to "new car fever" that Sunday on the part of both candidate and church, and the judgment of both can be clouded because everyone involved is putting on their best face (kind of like a blind date).

2. Unfortunately, the success of both the church planter and pastor is often judged on the basis of numbers. Evangelism is much tougher in our culture today than it used to be. For at least a decade, 70% of our SBC churches have not grown in numbers. Does that mean that 70% of our pastors are not successful? Nope. Our culture is more difficult to evangelize these days. This cultural situation also affects church planting. It takes longer to plant a viable church these days. For the pastor, church planter, and church members, patience is needed. For some reason, church plants seem to have more growth potential than do established churches, similar to the fact that new Sunday School classes grow faster than old Sunday School classes. If the SBC planted more viable churches, we might begin to see better denominational growth statistics. The unselfish team approach is crucial. Church planters need help from established churches.

3. Both church planters and pastors of established churches need fellowship and encouragement. Everyone has discouraging times in the ministry. If we get isolated, like Elijah in 1 Kings 19:3-4, we can lose perspective and bail out too quickly. Church planters and pastors need to be around other church planters and pastors. Such fellowship has helped me through the hard times. God designed us to work as team members, not as lone rangers.

D Burchfiel said...


I have personally struggled with everything you listed in your post. I'd bet that I even had class with the person who told you that planting a church is better than going back into an established church.

For me the struggle has been with the "Noise" of a traditional church. I listened to the complaints and treats by church members when I started to lead them to reach out. In listening and believing the noise I became demotivated and hurt.

The change happened when I realized that there will always be noise and that there is normally nothing to fear from the people making the most noise.

Your point on loving people is key and I enjoyed your calvinistic statement that God raises the dead

D Burchfiel said...


treat = Threat

Bart Barber said...

You guys have offered some great comments here:

Bob, that's a worthy goal, indeed. Where established churches are "about to die" we ought to be even harder at work. I should also note that on at least some occasions when that introductory birth-death analogy is made, "dead" simply means "different from the style that I personally consider to be lively."

David, "there must be a reason for cantakerous Baptists. God made so many of them." Brother, I'm sending you the medical bill for the repair of my split sides. :-)

Malcolm, extremely wise, pastoral content, my brother.

D. Burchfiel, God needs to let pastors live longer—it seems to take me so long to accumulate the wisdom that I need just to get started at REALLY pastoring! Thanks for sharing some of how God has worked to mature you in your ministry.

Todd Benkert said...

In my opinion, both the strengthening of existing churches and the establishing of new ones is needed. Each one has its own blessings and difficulties. Which one an individual should undertake depends a lot on giftedness and calling.


Presley said...


I am a young college graduate whose heart is being strongly pulled towards full-time ministry in the church. My father has been in church ministry his entire life, and I have seen my fair share of nasty notes left in his box that complain about everything from the temperature in the building to too much drums.

In my short time studying the word and being involved in church ministry, parachurch ministry, and missions the Lord has definitely shown me that the ONE thing he came to build, and give his life at that to build, was his church.

But there is still this overwhelming fear of mine in dealing with people in a church that are cold and uninterested in the real things of the Lord, and more interested in the things of the world and "playing" church. This truly scares me when it comes to pursuing full time ministry.

Grosey's Messages said...

just a thought you guys may not have noticed:
often its our best workerws in established churches who go out to help church planters sart new churches. the down side to this is that often this may restrict growth in the sending church for years to come.
This contributes to a "false negative" in the growth of the original church.

Anonymous said...

As one who has both planted a church and been called to pastor a dying church in need of revitalization, I can say that both situations present equally difficult challenges. Most who say that one ministry situation is easier than the other have never done both. At the end of the day, both situations call for a fallen, imperfect, sinful pastor (or pastors) to shepherd fallen, imperfect, sinful people and lead them to focus on Jesus Christ. This task is attempted while Satan works to undermine our every effort. Just look at the problems in the churches Paul planted (Corinth, etc.) to see what kind of ministerial challenges can arise in a new church.

By the way, even in a church plant every new member brings baggage (read traditions) with them - whether it is their religious background or lack of a religious background). Anyone who desires to plant a church to avoid traditions, stubbornness, grumbling, gossip, etc. is chasing a pipe dream. Those problems are universal. If they were in the churches Paul planted, they will be in the churches we plant on some level.

Last point, don't pick a ministry direction based upon perceived ease or lack of difficulty. Go where God leads, go where your gifts are needed, go where you will make the greatest kingdom impact, and STICK IT OUT BY LOVING YOUR PEOPLE THE WAY CHRIST DOES.


Bart Barber said...

Good comments, everyone.

Chris: "If they were in the churches Paul planted, they will be in the churches we plant on some level." That's great wisdom and impeccable logic!