Doing Church

IMG20031Myopia is the medical condition of only being able to see things up close. It is the condition many churches fall into when they only look at themselves and their own needs for too long. A church can become myopic when it only focuses on the needs of a few, instead of the whole, or its members, instead of a community. For a church, this can be fatal. For example, if ministry is offered only to the offended, the blessed are ignored, and no one else notices when they leave, and vice versa.

We need to pull back and take a larger view of the controversies going on among our brethren so that we can biblically navigate through them ourselves. We are not the only church, and what goes on among them affects us as well. This month our churches celebrate together at the North American Christian Convention in Indianapolis. I won’t be attending very simply because I cannot justify the expense. I have been waiting for some kind of workshop schedule where I might find a seminar or two to brush up my skills for Chaplaincy. No such luck. The last schedule I saw was directed primary for those in churches doing church work, largely according to a large church model, or telling you how to get a large church. It seems like I’ve been hearing that rhetoric for the two decades of my pastoral ministry. It’s easy to see why.

The balance of influence in our brotherhood has shifted. It used to be that all the churches supported the Bible Colleges more or less equally, because the colleges’ needs were modest. But as they have grown, their needs have grown, as their need for church support. Churches who are larger contribute more, and as a result, have a greater stake in the graduates they produce. The colleges, now universities, have produced graduates more suited to the specialized ministries of the large church. Ministry graduates are now being trained in one or two things, not the many roles demanded by the small church, who can only pay part-time wages despite full-time expectations. Yet these ministry specialists bring hefty college debt and narrow training, like youth, counseling, or pulpit ministry. It is a recipe for frequent minister burnout, short pastorates, and vacant small-church pulpits.

And this is where we find ourselves today. We have hundred of small churches asking for a guy who can preach and change the light bulbs, while the graduates are continually frustrated by the small-minded of the small church. All they can think about (and I include myself in that bunch, once upon a time) is how to grow that church into a mega-church, just like Bob Russell did at Southeast Christian Church. Many of the men I trained with, and now myself included, have come out of the ministry with an overwhelming sense of frustration and guilt that we couldn’t do it. It is guilt and failure. It is also doubt. Has the Lord said? Did the Lord call me to ministry? Somewhere, somehow, there has been a disconnect between the average church and the average Christian University. And the smaller churches are turning to lay preachers, men who have little formal education in Bible, because they simply cannot afford the high-priced graduates (who have decades of college loans to pay off).

What can be done? It seems to me that two things needs to happen. First, the small church needs to wake up and and realize their ship is sinking and that all hands need to be on deck. There is no room for pew-sitters anymore. If a small church is going to survive, everyone, no matter the age, needs to be about the business of ministry, because they cannot afford someone to do it for them.

Second, The Colleges and universities need to wake up, and train more men for small church ministry. If colleges depend on donations, they need to realize their donation pool is drying up. The more often they have to compromise for funding, the more the small churches are going to bail on them. The Universities need to realize that its not all about the specialists. There needs to be a call for the generalists, those who can do a little of everything. This is a role that needs to be marketed and pushed, because that is the world their graduates are going back into. There needs to be a course on church politics, and how to do spine surgery on spineless elders. There needs to be a backbone clinic to speak truth to the powerful in the small churches and deliver the word of God without compromise, but with tact and respect.

Ok, soap box aside, I’ve been in enough small churches to see the same personalities with different faces. I love the small church, and I love the way small churches do things, how they impact their communities, and most of their people are honest, hard-working, down-to-earth folks. I miss it, just like I miss the quiet of Christmas Eve Communion and the strains of Silent Night, the Easter Choir and the Sunrise Service (followed by breakfast, of course). I miss the sense of belonging, of family in the small church. That’s why I think God made so many of them, because He loves them too.

Let’s stop playing church, and let’s be the church, and let’s do it together.

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I've been in ministry in the Christian Churches/ Churches of Christ for 20+ years. Finished my doctorate in Biblical Studies in 2015. Serve today as a Hospital Chaplain.

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