Monday morning found Pastor Shipley doodling on his desk pad as he replayed events from Sunday’s worship gathering. In general it was “business as usual.” Almost everyone had sat in their “assigned” pew. The obvious vacancies between worshippers were more pronounced with the barrage of funerals the last few years. People just hadn’t gotten used to shifting to sit closer together. Maybe it was out of respect for beloved members who had “gone on before.” The ushers had been on cue for the offering. Communion had gone smoothly. Music had been offered with a fair measure of excellence. People had lingered briefly after worship to chat and catch up on the latest family news.
There had been no surprises … except one. He had gotten affirming comments on his sermon from the usual sources; but he especially reflected on George’s comment, “Too bad more people didn’t hear that sermon, Pastor. It really addressed an important issue in my life; and I think it would have helped a lot of people ” George wasn’t one to make a comment at all, much less a comment that transcended his own slice of life. That was odd, and had Shipley thinking.
“Why weren’t there more people hearing his sermons? I’m confident that God’s Word is powerful to transform lives; but if no one is listening …,” the pastor pondered.
“Why were there only pew vacancies caused by death and work transfers with no new faces to fill them through births, baptisms, and transfers in from other communities? In addition, the offerings had predictively followed the trend of worship attendance. Fewer people were in Bible class also,” Pastor Shipley thought as his pen drilled an inky hole through the first and second sheet of the pad. Things were still stable, but the trajectory was not encouraging.
Last summer, Pastor Shipley had observed the difficulty the Nominations Committee experienced when trying to fill the ballot for leadership elections. Also, last fall there had been a real scramble to find Sunday school teachers, altar servants, and people to fill other volunteer positions vacated by infirmity, transfers, and fatigue of past participants. Some programs of the congregation were suffering because of lack of involvement.
Now it was the first quarter of a new year. What might he expect a year from now if nothing changed the direction of this congregation? More of the same … faithfully doing his job, week to week, sermon after sermon to fewer and fewer listeners … visiting the sick and home bound … caring for his flock? His was a high calling to serve the flock of God, administering the Word of God and the Sacraments which are His Means of Grace. Pastor Shipley did not take his responsibility lightly. But there was something missing.
The pastor’s pen had now drilled through to the cardboard backing of the pad.
What had his sermon yesterday been about that provoked old George to comment the way he had? “Epiphany: Jesus is God’s Light for a Dark World” had been the title and really captured the emphasis of his message on John, chapter one. He had focused on the truth that we have been given the privilege through Spirit-worked faith to walk in God’s light; and yet many still walk in darkness and in the guilt of their sin without faith in Jesus. We are called to be “sons and daughters of the Light, or Light bearers” in our community, families, and world. We are not the Light, even as John the Baptizer was not the Light; but we bear witness to the Light, who is Jesus the Christ, the world only Savior.
“That’s it!” Pastor Shipley shouted under his breath, not wanting to startle Mrs. Burger, his faithful secretary, on the other side of the closed office door. “I’ve been asking the wrong questions!”
The pastor spun his office chair to face the blank WORD document that was intended to be filled with next week’s sermon notes and began to click feverously on the keys. Words began to fill the electronic page before him.
I used to ask: I need to ask:
- Who is in worship? Who isn’t in worship … and why?
- How much was the offering? How are we spending our money?
- How many volunteers do we have? What are our volunteers doing?
- Are our members faithful in worship? Do we have a flow of worship visitors?
- Do I know my people well? Do I know any non-Christians?
- Have I taught my people God’s Word? Have I equipped my people for witness?
- How is the congregation doing? What is the congregation doing?
- Are my people growing in Faith? Is God’s Kingdom advanced through us?
- What do my people expect? What does my community need?
- Who is in my congregation? Who lives in my community?
- What did we do last year? What do we need to do this year?
- Have I invested in my leaders? Do I know my community leaders?
- Do we have a caring fellowship? Does the community know we care?
- How many servants in the congregation? How many servants outside the church?
- What can we safely plan? Are we open to Holy Spirit serendipity?
- What programs do we have? What programs have lost their value?
- Is this all about the congregation? Is this all about the Kingdom?
- How many are coming in to hear? How are we going out to tell?
Pastor Shipley looked up and remembered to breathe. Scratching his chin, he read over the random and quick list. It was amazing how one comment from George had erupted into such a paradigm-altering examination of his ministry. As he mused, some of the cross-referenced passages of Scripture he’d used in his sermon swirled in his mind: “You are the light of the world, a city set on a hill” (Matthew 5) … “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 21) … ”Do the work of an evangelist” (1 Timothy 4:5) As pastor, he had said the words in the sermon, but he had not communicated an expectation for his people. He had been faithfully doing his job, caring for the flock under his care, but as an under shepherd of the Great Shepherd, he had missed part of his Call to “find the lost sheep” (Luke 15) and follow the lead of his Lord who said that he had other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. “I must bring them also” (John 10).
He needed to ask different, or at least additional, questions in order to fully follow the call of the Great shepherd. He realized that he would need to have the help of his congregation leaders. He would need to help them ask these tough questions, too; and together they would seek answers.
Yes, God’s Spirit works through His Word to transform lives. That is true. The question is: “How do we get people to hear it?”
Without any real intention, pastors and lay leaders can get caught up in the week to week grind of ministry. Good ministry may be happening, but little or no time is taken to step back and reflect with objective eyes … and ask different questions. I offer four suggestions:
- Put a “Day of Reflection, Prayer, and Planning” into your work schedule every 6-8 weeks.
- Interview visitors to discover their impressions and prayerfully make adjustments if needed.
- Read some good books on practical/missional theology.
- Invite a trusted church leader into your life and ministry.
- Contact your CMMF, who is well-equipped and eager to assist you and your congregations. org/congregations/cmmf/who-we-are.
Photo (c) Pearl/Lightstock