On the exterior, everything looked great.
The church Jesus called me to shepherd under Him was growing in width and in depth, in witness and in work. We were making deliberate inroads to greater Gospel-centeredness in our worship and greater community impact in our mission. Our church attendance had grown from an average of 35 people to 250 people in five years and we had baptized over 75 new believers!
This is no small task in the secular bastion that is my northeastern home state. Many of my colleagues in pastoral circles would look at our growth, our momentum, and confess to feelings of envy. Yet when they asked me what was the secret to our church revitalization? I would tell them two things: #1. Proclaim Christ, #2. Wear a helmet!
Church revitalization comes with a cost. It will make you question your calling, your identity, and even your worth as a minister of the Gospel.
During the height of the difficult culture change at our church, there was a disagreement among the established leadership. The marriage of one of our leaders was falling apart. This person repeatedly showed up to public functions drunk, yelled at my wife on a Sunday morning (leading her to cry during most of the church service), and was often heard gossiping and cursing. It was painfully obvious this person needed to take a step back from leading seven different areas in the church.
Well, as you can imagine, this did not go over well with the established leadership. Sides were taken. Facts were twisted. Tensions were heightened. Blame was placed.
In the months that followed, I was accused by the chairman of the deacons of being a liar in front of the other deacons. He had said privately to me, “His purpose was to make my life miserable.” Another deacon threatened to have me fired. He warned me he would interrupt Sunday worship, with the church by-laws in hand, and accuse me of impropriety. Another deacon called me a hypocrite publicly on Facebook. Another deacon asked the newly elected treasurer to commandeer the church’s banking checks so we could not pay our bills. All the while, the Lord was protecting, providing and reminding me of my calling… “The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still" (Exodus 14:14). This sweet Scriptural truth became my lifeline.
It became evident to me that the exodus of God’s people from the bondage of Pharaoh to the bounty of the Promised Land was a tremendous guide in church revitalization. Here are eight truths that sustained me during our difficult culture change:
1. Break the pattern of fight and flight. Moses had the best education and the best platform to effect change for God’s people, but his undisciplined frustration led him to take matters into his own hands. His God-denying self-sufficiency led to destructive violence. His fight with Pharaoh led to flight to Midian. Many pastors bounce from church to church because they are too weary to engage and endure (See Exodus 2:11-15).
2. God’s mercy for both the mission and the missionary. After Moses’ humiliating defeat in Egypt, he spent his “best years” away from his people and away from his calling. Many would have thought Moses’ usefulness, now that he was over 80 years old, has long since past. I am sure Moses thought this of himself! In Exodus we learn of God’s unending faithfulness and mercy for both the sheep AND the shepherd. In the end, the years Moses spent as a shepherd of a small flock of sheep in Midian would prepare him to shepherd two million Israelites out of bondage in Egypt (See Exodus 2:16-4:12).
3. Who is your Aaron? Despite the burning bush, despite the staff, despite the NAME, Moses doubted his ability as a leader and as a communicator. It was not until God rose up Aaron (Moses’ brother) to stand by his side, that Moses had the necessary courage to confront Pharaoh. If you are in a church that needs revitalization, pray that God would reveal an Aaron in your midst to walk that lonely path with you. If I did not have a couple of faithful brothers in our church supporting me, I would have quit long ago (See Exodus 4:14-17, 27-31).
4. Called first to your wife and children. After Moses begins his journey from Midian to Egypt, he encounters the Lord. Unlike the burning bush this is almost a deadly encounter. The Holy, Holy, Holy Lord of all creation threatened to terminate Moses just moments after Moses agreed to return to Egypt. Why? Moses had not circumcised his son Gershom. More than that, his wife Zipporah was forced to fill this fatherly vacuum. Moses neglected the most fundamental sign of Yahweh’s covenantal love for Israel – circumcision. Pastors often forget to fight for the heart of their family when they are fighting for the heart of their church. Moses, a shepherd, had not been faithfully shepherding his own family and his wife resented him for it (Exodus 4:21-26).
5. We don’t need more programs, but POWER. Much of what contemporary pastors believe will save them from small attendance, small giving, small staff, small momentum, is in the end, small thinking. Programs and personnel have their necessary place in the life of the church, yet God did not use the programs, parking or PowerPoint to liberate His people. He used frogs, flies and gnats! Israel’s only hope is precisely America’s only hope: the liberating, supernatural power of GOD (See Exodus 7-14).
6. There are still problems in the Promised Land. After the Lord miraculously delivered his people from bondage, that same generation spent forty years in the wilderness. There is not a week that goes by that I don’t thank God for protecting our church during its culture change. God miraculously moved a couple of the men from the established leadership to other states and others to different churches. Ever since, we have had true health and unity in our church. True health and unity, as much as is possible for a gathering of sinners (“Of which I am the worst,” 1 Tim 1:15). There will always be challenges in pastoral ministry this side of our eternal Promised Land. Israel had them. The early church had them. Jesus had them. So will we.
7. Slavery to idols continued long after slavery to Pharaoh had ended. Every plague inflicted upon Egypt was an attack inflicted upon Egypt’s pagan gods. Our God is a jealous God and will not share His glory with another (Isaiah 42:8). The signs and wonders given in Egypt were demonstrations of God’s passion for the first two commandments given at Sinai: 1. Worship God alone 2. Do not worship any false idols (Exodus 20:1-6). Tragically, long after Pharaoh’s political chains were broken, the spiritual chains of Egyptian idolatry remained. As a pastor, our duty is to preach the Word in such a way that idols are broken for the unbeliever and the believer (See Exodus 32).
8. God’s people don’t belong to Pharaoh… or to Moses. While in Midian, Moses did not want to shepherd God’s flock out of Egypt. Then after forty years in the wilderness, God did not want Moses to shepherd His flock to the Promised Land. Moses is an amazing example of humility (Numbers 12:3) and faith (Hebrews 11:24-29). Yet in God’s sovereign will, and because of Moses’ unbelieving sin, Moses was denied seeing that which he worked so hard to achieve. Many of us pastors have had and will have the same experience. We were reluctant in the beginning and we might not get to see the Promised Land of church revitalization in the end. We might protect the church from wolves, serve amongst wheat and the tares, we might even outlast some pharaoh-personalities in the church, but that does not mean it is our church. We experience peace and reclaim our identity when we remember the church does not belong to us, but to Jesus. This truth clears our head and frees our soul from any feeble attempts at misdirected glory. It is possible the culture God is trying to change first is not the unhealthy culture of our church, but the vane culture of our hearts. Whether we see the Promised Land of church revitalization or not, is secondary. What is primary is, always, God’s glory.