by Lynn Nikkel

The following is mostly someone else’s writing, and don’t remember who or when.  I have made only minor personal edits and additions from my own heart and experience.  I found it years ago, but just believe this is an important word to the brave, courageous and diligent men who serve their church, even though it may be a smaller attendance or membership church.  They are my heroes, and I hope they are yours.

In some arenas of discussion today, it seems unpopular, even paradoxical and inconsistent to use “successful” and “pastoring a smaller in attendance church” in the same breath.  It seems that for many, when thinking about churches and pastors, success has to do with big numbers, or at least exponentially increasing numbers.  For a church to not be growing by substantially and ever larger numbers is to some – failure.  Some think for a pastor to remain in a church and the numbers of baptisms and the number of attendees not increase in a substantive way is failure.

But, while it may seem that a slow growing church is failing, and a pastor that is not baptizing hundreds of people every year is a failure – we need to reconsider that ideal.

There are many valid reasons why a church might not show significant growth over even a number of years time.  Small town populations limit the degree to which most churches will grow.  Changing economies will effect a church’s ability to grow – plants or mines close, industry bases change, families come and go with some kinds of work, there are seasonal and many other factors to figure in to the formula.  We live in an ever-increasing itinerant society.  For some, smaller and rural areas and communities are places to “get away”, even to hide from others, maybe even thinking they can hide from God.

Baptisms are not always the best standard by which to gauge a pastor’s, or church’s success.  Many churches are reaching out to difficult cultures, where public professions and “joining” are just not easily accepted.  Some churches are reaching people for salvation, but for various reasons are not seeing those people follow through with baptism and church membership.  Again, there are itinerant and seasonal situations that affect this; sometimes parents prevent children from being baptized, as can some spouses.  And, while baptism seems to have been more immediate in the churches of the New Testament times, today baptism comes within the context of the discipleship journey – sometimes months, or even years after the initial decision.

Maybe the best example to follow in determining our success in ministry is not the easy road of counting noses and baptisms, but rather in comparing ourselves as ministers to the Lord Jesus Christ.  If He indeed is the Shepherd, and we his under-shepherds, we ought to look at his model and pattern of ministry.

Some of us in pioneer areas, and in smaller and/or depressed areas, might draw comfort from the reminder that Jesus did not baptize any converts in his three years of ministry.  It might be comforting to remember that in his three years of ministry, he only garnered a close following of eleven men, and on a good meeting day only had about one hundred and twenty show up.  Sure, on special occasions he spoke to thousands of people, but it was not the norm. The truth is, many days he had more detractors than followers, and had more people trying to kill him than make him King.

So, what was the mark of success in Jesus life and ministry?  In his own words, it was simply this, “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:38-39 NIV)

Hey pastor, struggling away in a small town and in a church that is doing the best you can against unbelievable cultural and situational odds – do not forget your calling to that place of service.  In addition, do not forget that God called you there to simply do his will – for you, and in that place.  We serve a God who brings people together into a local body.  His will is that you faithfully hold forth the Good News of Jesus Christ, to lead the people of your church to minister effectively with what you have, where you are.  He does not measure your success by the numbers of people you attract to a meeting, or even the number people you are able to pass through the waters of baptism. Remember too, what we are told in 1 Corinthians 12:18 (HCSB), “But now God has placed each one of the parts in one body just as He wanted.”

Do not let other people in other places put you down because of your lack of numerical output.  Do not dream of moving up the ladder of so-called success to bigger churches.  Plant your life where God has placed you.  Discover what his will looks like for you, and in your setting and situation.  Be the best you can be for Christ.  Do the best you can for his Kingdom.  Love the people God allows you to reach and gather.  Be a mentor and friend to them, and help them grow into all they can be by God’s grace.  Do not let them fall away without doing your best to bring them back home.  Reach, win and baptize as many as you can, and never use your situation as an excuse to not do your best.  Then, slip under the covers of your bed each night and sleep well, knowing that you have served God’s purpose as best you could.

And those who live and minister in Bible-belt locations, where populations are large and there is a cultural openness to the church should be careful before smugly pronouncing general judgment on churches and pastors that have only a few baptisms to show for their hard labor for the Lord.  Some of these pastors may not have the education others have, but many have masters and doctoral level degrees, they just feel called to where they are.  These men and their families are uniquely gifted to serve the Lord.  They sure do not have the salary and benefits many have.  Some of these churches are living miracles that they even continue to exist.  And, these are some of the most dedicated and committed servants of Christ you will find anywhere.  It might be interesting to see what kind of “success” many critics would have in some of these out-the-way places in which God’s faithful servants toil.

Lord Jesus, give us love for one another that encourages and does not put down.  Help us to consider the weaker among us, in difficult circumstances, and reach out to build them up instead of tearing them down.  And Lord, bless in a special and abundant way those who serve you where others won’t even consider going, and where the going is especially hard.  Reach out your hand to lift their spirits and to sustain their lives.  Help them to rest in the knowledge of your will, and in their fulfilling your will where you have placed them.  Amen.

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