Monday, December 31, 2007

Homecoming--Sort Of. . . .

I had an unusual experience last Sunday, and here's the background: As I said before, my family has left the church we'd attended for lo, these many years, and where I was a deacon, elder, teacher and associate pastor. Friends had asked us to start a house church. That's been a bit of a fizzle, so we decided to visit some churches in our town.

Last Sunday, we went to my boyhood church. I was a bit anxious; I'm not looking for a "church home." Though it had been over 20 years since I was last a member there, I have great respect for the pastor (who has served there about 25 or 30 years). And showing up for a hit-and-run visit--well, that can hurt a pastor. I know; I've been on the other side of that one.

What I saw was a church of mostly elderly people--a congregation of 24, not including their five visitors that morning. They were sweet, kind people who were clearly glad to see us; but I thought of the days when an attendance of fifty or less meant it was the evening service. The pews had been re-arranged; about a third of them had been removed. I saw a few people I recognized and more whom I did not. I wondered where the folks I'd known had gone.

This church had never been packed; at its best it had run just under 80, but the members I'd known had been faithful. They'd come to this church for years and over half were 3-time-a-weekers, meaning that they came Sunday a.m., p.m., and midweek. But those folks are mostly gone; and their kids aren't here either, except for one whom I saw, one of four sisters. None of her sisters are out of the area; and none of them were there. Nor were her parents, who still live in this town.

After church, this woman talked with me--just chit-chat--while my wife talked with the pastor's wife. I really wanted to ask: "What's happened to this church? Where did all the people go?" I missed the way the place had been when I was a boy. I missed the faces. I missed the fire.

As I said, I have great respect for the pastor. His wife is also a thoughtful, caring woman. The people who are there now seem to be sincere, caring. . . but their church is declining. I felt a pang of regret over a body that gave me a foundation and my first training in Christ.

When I talked of this to my wife, she reminded me of something I'd read this last year, that a pastor's most influential and effective years in a church were usually between his fifth and tenth years; ministry effectiveness wanes noticeably after fifteen years. The average pastor, at that point, has become stale not so much in his relationship with God as in his style of ministry. And pastors become concerned more with maintaining than with leading.

How many churches in the nation are in decline because their leaders can't, or won't, see the need for a fresh approach to ministry--for fresh goals, fresh stories and fresh ways of talking? This isn't a question I can ask without turning it on myself. I hope to be one of those leaders some day. Will I recognize a stale style in myself?

Pastors are taught that a fresh relationship with God will solve all the problems; a pastor with a fresh walk with God will be refreshed and refined in vision by the Spirit. But is there a role for the local assembly to play in this? Does a pastor have an obligation to let himself be evaluated by the body he serves, or at least by trustworthy and known leaders in the body? If a pastor relies on the Spirit of God, but not on the body God provides, for refinement and refreshing, is he really leaning on the Spirit of God? If we close ourselves off from God's people, how open are we really to God?

We tell the folks in the pews that they need each other. Jesus left a community of faith. Yet many pastors ignore the same need in themselves. Is this right? Does the command to "submit to one another" extend in some way to leaders, or only to the led?

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