I Got it Wrong – Reflections on 50 Years of Ministry part 3

I Got it Wrong – Reflections on 50 years in Ministry Part 3

Jerry Nelson

In parts 1 and 2 of this series I wrote of other ways I got it “right” or “wrong.” See www.soundliving.org

“Bigger is Better?”

I was reared in post-WWII middle-America when everything was booming. Everything was bigger and better. In the church, as nearly everywhere else in society, numbers told the story of success or mediocrity. By the time I was first serving in a church, I intuitively understood that more kids in my youth group and larger crowds at events were the measures of success. At a Youth for Christ Rally we packed more kids into a Volkswagen “bug” than did any other church youth group. It was the growth of that youth group that impressed the pastor of a much larger church to ask me to join his staff. In that new church I was immediately given the task of winning a Sunday School attendance contest with a still larger church in our denomination.

Within a decade I was invited to become the pastor of a growing suburban church with the initial goal of relocating the church to accommodate still more growth. And grow we did. Enough that it caught the attention of Leadership Network, by which I was invited to attend special sessions of pastors of larger churches. We were “wined and dined” at almost luxurious retreat facilities and told how special we were for being gifted leaders who could lead such large organizations. At the same time, it seemed the Christian organizations and media (publications and television) wittingly or unwittingly trumpeted the message that bigger was better. You only got invited to speak at seminaries or conferences if your church was one of the larger ones. Conferences were held on how to grow your church from 300 to 500 or from 500 to 1000, etc. Such conferences were held that emphasized the pastor as Chief Executive Officer much more than as a shepherd of the people. The measure of your ability was size. There were internet organizations that wished to publish your name and church among the “fastest growing churches in America,” (for a fee of course).

And it wasn’t just communicated from outside the church but by parishioners as well. Lay men and women live in the same “bigger is better” culture as their pastor. The church attender not so subtly questioned why our church wasn’t as big as the one down the street. People poked fun at ”Bodies, Buildings, and “Bucks” but in truth they were the measures even parishioners seemed to use.  I was aware of what happened to pastors whose churches didn’t grow. What was a young pastor to think?

Over those first years, while I could articulate a biblical mission of the church, I was not compelled by it as much as by the norm of the culture, even the church culture, which was numerical growth!

It didn’t take too many years before I began to realize I could easily become the “emperor who wore no clothes.” Our church was growing and we had enough evidence of spiritual change in the lives of people that I could assume all was well BUT God began a work in me to realize the right things were being done but for the wrong reasons. The real “bottom line” for measuring success in our church was numbers more than spiritual growth. The viability of the organization was more significant “driver” than the spiritual vitality of the people.

About that time, I again read Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor. It is a good reflection of the biblical role of a pastor. There I read of a true shepherd of the flock – a man for whom the true “bottom line” was seeing Christ formed in his parishioners. For Baxter, people were seen not as means to an end but as the end. I knew all those things before but realized they were not what most drove me. Changes needed to be made. The staff still needed to be led, sermons still needed to be prepared and the “chores” of running an organization had to be done but I needed to carve out time again to be in people’s lives. I could not do all the pastoral care (the elders and other leaders were essential) but I could no longer assume I didn’t have time for people. I needed to see whether what I and the other leaders were doing was not just reaching more people but whether we were seeing evidence of spiritual formation. I realize true spiritual growth is difficult to measure but I knew it wasn’t measured best in attendance and budgets or even by surveys, it was measured best anecdotally – hearing and observing people up close. I couldn’t know everyone but with a change of priorities, I could know more people and I could be asking better questions of the leaders of the church who collectively knew more of the people. 

I wanted to again be a “shepherd/pastor” not just a C.E.O.