A Necessary Fear

Last Thursday, Pastor Jim Cymbala and I had the joy of ministering to hundreds of leaders in the Tampa Bay area.  It was a day of wonderful worship, practical teaching, and encouraging fellowship.  In the midst of a powerful message about preaching the truth of God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jim made a statement that captured my attention.  He proclaimed, “Our fear as pastors should not be that people might leave our church but rather that they stay in our church and remain unchanged.”

To clarify, Jim was not referring to struggling souls who fall between the cracks of our church activities.  Rather, he was referring to those who are intolerant of strong, needful, and often convicting preaching. They leave in search of an easier, more comfortable, and entertaining message.

While it is never easy to see people leave our church, Jim’s wisdom is contrary to much of today’s church growth theories.  Yet, it is so biblical and needful.  It cuts to the core of our motives and methods in ministry.

Quantity vs. Quality

It is important to affirm that our great concern is the quality of the lives of those under our care, not just the number of people filling the seats.  Cymbala reminds pastors, “The proof of our ministry will be in the condition of the people we pastor.”  The real test of credible ministry comes from walking among the people of a church, observing the spiritual fruit evident in their lives.  Superficial measurements related to the size of the building, the entertainment value of the gatherings, or the list of available programs ring hollow.  While we should have a great burden that as many as possible hear the Gospel and are enfolded in the church, we must affirm that our aim is not statistics but authentic disciples.

It is important to remember that our ultimate accountability will not be related to the size of our ministry but the substance of our ministry.  First Corinthians 3:11-15 affirms that all Christian ministry will someday be tested by fire based on the quality of the work, not the quantity.  Of course, in most cases quality will produce quantity, but it seldom works the other way around.

Superficial vs. Supernatural

We all know how easy it is to settle for the superficial results of simply going through the motions of weekly Christian activity, without experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit.  Our ambition must go beyond the abundance of programs we generate or the statistics we report.  Like Paul, every servant of Christ wants to be able to say to those under their care, “You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God” (2 Corinthians 3:2 & 3).  For this to occur, we need that conscious and concentrated reliance on the Holy Spirit that only comes through a focus on prayer and a trust in the sufficiency of the Word of God to produce transformation.  

Immediate vs. Ultimate

In our culture of “immediate gratification” it is easy to become intoxicated with the instant excitement of attractive services, appealing programs, and artistic communication to hold the attention and entice the participation of more people.  Even Jesus saw crowds gather often to receive the blessings of His miraculous power.  Yet, very regularly He boldly defined the essence of a true follower.  Many stopped following in response to His hard message (John 6:66-67; Luke 14:15-35).  This did not trouble Christ.  He knew that His Gospel would not be advanced by the fickle affections of the crowds but by the extraordinary and enduring sacrifice of a band of transformed disciples who could not help but “speak of what they had seen and heard.” This focus produced the ultimate advancement of the Gospel in the world.

Our Accountability and Prayer

Hebrews 13:17 reminds us of the accountability of all spiritual leaders.  It does not say that we are to superintend ecclesiastical programming in order to someday give a report of the attendance and activity figures.  Rather, it says that we are to constantly keep a watch over the souls and spiritual welfare of the flock.  Ultimately, it says we will give an account of this serious spiritual trust.

So, we must pray for discernment and wisdom in these urgent times.  We must “hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches” and obey His good plan for spiritual fruit as we are filled with His endless power for spiritual transformation.  We must aim for the fruit that remains, even if all the casual Sunday attendees don’t stick around.

Copyright © 2011 Daniel Henderson. All rights reserved.