by Jeremy Farley
Over the past couple of years, my family and I have been privileged to serve in a ministry dedicated exclusively to helping struggling churches.
Our work includes filling the pulpit, serving as an interim pastor, singing, teaching and simply offering Godly counsel and encouragement to the leadership of hurting churches.
During this time, our travels have allowed us the opportunity to minister in seven states and we have been exposed to a dizzying array of independent Baptist circles – ranging from churches with Hyles- Anderson and Bob Jones backgrounds to ministries that would be doing all of us a favor by simply dropping “Baptist” from their name (Arriving at a new church is a bit like playing Russian roulette – you simply never know what you’re going to be walking into until you arrive!).
I have, however, noticed a series of similarities shared by nearly all of these struggling ministries – and by struggling, I mean, “unable to pay a visiting preacher, hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, a pastor that hightailed out of town in the middle of night with his secretary, kind of struggling!”
Below are just a handful of trademarks my wife and I have observed in nearly all of these besieged ministries and should aid pastors and church leaders in placing safeguards to protect their ministries from reaching this dismal condition:
Once Upon a Time, They Were Thriving
“We used to run between 150 and 250 on Sunday evenings, preacher,” is something I have heard several Godly grey-headed women utter as their frail hand shakes mine inside an empty and gloomy auditorium.
More often than not, the places we minister at have an auditorium capable of seating 300, fellowship buildings and Facebook pages that all bear testimony of better days – better days just a handful of years earlier.
The realization that every church in America, regardless of its present-day size, is capable of folding up in a matter of months is something that should cause every pastor or church leader to tremble.
“Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” – I Corinthians 10.12
Emergency officials serving in government are taught that society is three meals away from anarchy and the same is true for our churches.
The Holy Spirit is a sensitive person and one wrong action in the heat of the moment can have devastating effects upon a ministry for generations to come – think about how Moses was forbidden from entering the Promised Land because of one simple act of disobedience.
Disengaged Church Members
Without fail, when a church begins to slump and finds itself grappling just to keep the lights on, it always seems like one person, and only one person, is tasked with making it all happen.
Generally speaking, this person is usually a Godly deacon who loves his church very much but is admittedly outside of his calling trying to fill the pulpit, pay the bills, visit the sick, encourage the saints, seek out the sinners and search for a pastor all by himself.
Even though there may be 20 or 30 regular attenders to the church, often, only one person has made the decision to step up to the challenge when their church needs them most — from my observations, this is not because no one else is allowed to serve in this role, but rather because no one else is willing to serve in this role.
To me, this is a revelation of two things:
#1 – A Lack of Concerned Church Members
The sad truth is that few are willing to serve their church when their church needs them most – they have far too many things of more importance taking place in their lives to worry about something as trivial as keeping their church afloat: junior’s baseball league, getting that promotion at work, family’s finances and a laundry list of other items that all take precedence over God’s assembly.
God hates complacency in the church:
“I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” – Revelation 3.15-16
#2 – A Lack of Qualified Church Members
“(For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)” – I Timothy 3.5
Once we’re in a church for a few services, it soon becomes apparent that one of the main reasons no one is stepping up to the plate and serving is because no one knows how to serve, or even that they should be serving – their previous pastor simply did not train the congregation, especially the leadership of the church, on how to Biblically keep the place going in his absence.
May the pastor who is so obsessed with being found faithful to carrying out the Great Commission of Christ never lose sight of the fact that teaching the saints is just as much a part of this commission as winning the lost:
“Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” – Matthew 28.20
“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge:” – Hosea 4.6a
A Failed Pastor
Any person who has been a fundamental Baptist for any length of time at all has probably heard Dr. Lee Roberson’s famous quote, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” This is an often repeated line because it bears truth.
Granted, there are two sides to every story and we have purposed ourselves to avoid speaking a single word against God’s anointed, however, the inescapable reality is this: over the past quarter-century, the pulpits of America have failed the churches of America.
This nation’s pastors, as a whole, have become far too interested in being found faithful to their “circle” of preacher buddies than to the Book they preach from each Sunday.
Just about every church we are privileged to minister within has the same story. I ask, “How did this church get to this point?” and someone responds, “Our last pastor took us from 250 to 25 in two years.” “How did he do this,” I question.
The details of their answers vary greatly, but generally fall within one of the following three categories:
#1—He didn’t preach the whole Word of God
“For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.” – Acts 20.27
Preach against sin, preach about grace, preach about forgiveness, preach about judgment, but be sure you preach it all, preacher!
It’s easy for a pastor to get caught up on a specific issue or subject and neglect to feed all the saints. When you do this, your people are not provided a well-balanced meal and ultimately, the church is made weaker.
#2 – He lost his testimony
We always want to argue about how I Timothy 3.2 says that a pastor is to be “the husband of one wife,” which is true, but we seldom ever place any thought on the fact that the line above it declares, “A bishop then must be blameless…”
As a pastor, it is your job to live the Gospel you preach and nothing will kill a church more than having a minister who preaches about love and forgiveness, but does not radiate this same love and forgiveness in his daily walk. Never lose sight of the fact that you are not the Holy Spirit, you are merely a man, a man who has been commanded to be BLAMELESS!
#3 – He stayed too long
This is a hard one for me, as I love old men of God. The work they have invested into the ministry and the wisdom they provide to the saints cannot be measured.
With this said, I have spoken with several +80-year-old men of God who planted a church in their community, reached their city for Christ during the 1980s and over the past decade have watched as their congregation dwindled to just a handful of grey-heads. Why? Because the pastor lost energy to keep it going and refused to hand off the baton until it was too late.
As we age, we should always be mindful of the relationship Paul and Timothy shared, observing that Paul recognized when it was time to pass his ministry off to someone else:
“Preach the word… For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith…” – II Timothy 4
May we never forget that we do not have a ministry, God has allowed us to serve in a ministry.
by Jeremy Farley