Back to the story

So now I am back to the story.  After I had taken the ten weeks to assess the church, I met with the Elders and the other leaders of the church.  I told them some of my thoughts but I did not show all my cards right away.  I decided to hold back a little until I had a better working knowledge of them.  I also wanted the whole church to hear my expectations and know what my vision of this church is at the same time.  I didn’t want to give anyone a sneak preview of my sermon series.  I told them that I would like all of my sermons recorded on a cd so we can make them available for anyone who may want them.  One thing I was sure of, I had to change the culture of the church, and it was going to be a harsh reality to some.

I expected to lose some people, possibly even some of the leadership.  I expected resistance and I expected people to go elsewhere to attend church.  I was calling out the church and asking them to break away from their complacency.  What I saw was not a good foundation for building a church because too many people were Sunday morning space-eaters.  I suspected that most were content to sit in church and hope they had limited contact with anyone.  Unfortunately, a cold church can be renamed a dead church.  I refused to preside over the funeral rites of any church.

Why do I believe that this church has been stagnant for too long?  All you have to do is listen and observe.  Even over a ten week period it is possible to assess and reach a conclusion about the state of the church.  The people in the church lacked fire, lacked a passion for the gospel.  They would all show up on Sunday, mime their way through the service, and disperse once the last note rang into the sanctuary, some didn’t even wait that long.  There were a handful of people who did what they could to sustain the health of the church but five people trying to effect change is difficult without some of type of support from the pulpit.

Someone had to poke the hornet’s nest.  Someone had to make everyone uncomfortable.  Someone had to cause people to squirm in their seats as they listened to the sermon.  Someone needed to push the buttons that caused a reaction.  People in general don’t want to get involved.  They like being able to be shadows, they are there but are not really consisting of any kind of substance.  Church was not meant to be a building, it was meant to be a community.  A church is not made of brick, mortar, plaster and wood, it is made of flesh and blood and bone.  A church is meant to be alive with the life-giving power of the gospel.  I was going to disturb the hornet’s nest and I was prepared to be stung a few times.

Further digression

I ask that you indulge me just a little bit longer.  At this point, you are wondering how I knew what type of culture this particular church had?  How did I know about how cold they were and about the gossiping and the lack of genuine concern for anyone outside of their little cliques?  And how did I know how most just vanished out the door before the echo of the song of benediction stopped ringing in the corners of the sanctuary?  I guess I will have to explain that.

I wasn’t hired in the usual way.  What happens is the church assembles a pulpit committee or a search committee in order to fill the senior pastor’s vacancy.  They gather a group of names, interview them and decide who they want to present before the congregation via a sermon.  Kind of like a working interview at that point.  He would preach, the congregation would ask him questions about what he believes and decide via a vote.  I was hired in a less conventional way.

You see, I was spending the summer in the town where my family vacationed in the summer.  It was up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a beautiful part of the state.  Well, I was a year removed from Gordon Conwell seminary.  I had interviewed at some small churches but always seemed to fall flat in my sermons.  I was spending time at the summer place of my parents when the nearby church had an emergency of sorts.  The pastor had taken ill.  He had let a cough progress into mono.

The people in the church were familiar with me because this was the church that was our home away from our home church, so to speak.  Well, now they were in a bind so they asked me to fill in while the regular pastor recovered.  I said not a problem.  And I did pretty well and I suppose it was because there was no pressure on me.  I knew I was not interviewing for the position so I felt free to speak and to preach, and essentially practice for a later position in the ministry.  So I gave everything into each sermon.  Because of that time I grew quickly and became more proficient in my preparation and presentation.

Now it during this time that an elder of my church happened to hear me preach while on vacation.  He didn’t speak to me other than when he was leaving when I greeted everyone as they left.  It wasn’t much, just a hello and he commented that it was nice sermon from a young preacher.  I said thank you and he left.  It was about a month later I saw him again and he had about a dozen other people with him.  I didn’t think anything of it.  My sermon that day was taken from the third chapter of Romans.  I had started my summer in the first chapter of Romans.

After the service the group hung around for the after church dinner.  The elder who had come before had asked if I could spend some time with him and the other people with him.  So I said sure, just let me mingle with the members of the church first and then we could have the whole rest of the afternoon.  So I did, spent time talking to the people and they waited.  Some talked with the members of the church and some of the church came over to talk to them.

Anyway, it finally came time to sit down with them.  As it turns out, I sort of interviewed with them that day.  The elder had brought the other elders and the search committee to hear me preach.  It was backwards, sermon first and interview second, but it worked best that way.  I am terrible at interviews.  And they were interested in taking me on as their new senior pastor.  They wanted a younger person who bring a little bit of passion and fire to his sermons.

I asked for a day or two to think it over and seek some advice.  I went over to the pastor’s house, the sick one, the next day.  He was almost fully recovered and ready to return to the pulpit.  He missed it but he needed the time off.  Anyway, I talked to him about it and he made a suggestion.  He suggested that I take the position on the condition that I be able to attend the church for ten weeks as a parishioner to observe the culture of the congregation.  They agreed.

So, that’s how I knew about the church and how I knew about the culture I was walking into.

I must digress

I apologize if what I am relating to you about my story seems to be all over the place.  My thoughts have been scattered a little.  I have had time to think as I sit in this room and I tend to write my thoughts down as I write them.  From this point I will make an effort to try to keep the events in chronological order and elaborate where I feel it is needed.  My story is an interesting one and I really think people need to hear it.  But I want people to hear it not because it is my story but because it is something the Lord did through me.  It was a lesson I learned and everyone needs to read.

Now what I have written up to this point is in relative order.  I did see that the church began to grow as members began to reach out to people they didn’t really know.  This wasn’t limited to new people who came to a service.  This also meant people who they have seen at church many times before but just never talked to them.  It was amazing to me that so many of the original hundred or so members were still essentially strangers.  They exchanged greetings and such but they didn’t know much beyond their names and what type of car they drove (funny, people always seem to notice and remember what type of car others drive as if it really was a matter of importance).  They had never been to each other’s houses or anything.

What I originally found disturbing was the amount of gossiping that went on in the church.  There were groups of couples and families, cliques if you will, and they would gossip about people they barely knew in passing, and speak as if they were an authority on the topic.  Most of what they talked about was hearsay and rumors, and only half true.  Nobody went to the target of the gossip to get the real story.  Why?  I presume it was more fun to talk about it amongst their friends and speculate on the circumstances, and then add their own commentary.  It was sad and pathetic, and completely wrong in light of what I knew about what the bible said about gossip and the community of believers.

I know we are supposed to be a family, and families gossip.  But a church family should learn to rise above the gossip and bring to those who are the target of the gossip a sense of support, love and acceptance.  I believe that when we gossip about someone we are actually rejecting that person as a valuable person.  I suppose one could argue that Jesus sounded like He was gossiping when He warned His disciples about the Pharisees and scribes, but what He said in private was tame compared to what He said to the Pharisees in public.

Needless to say, atmosphere in the church was one that was considered somewhat cold and standoffish.  It was a culture that had to be changed, and in order to change it when I first got there I had to essentially shock them and get them to question, and squirm, their attitudes.  We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and we are to be as one body and one family.  Not as a blood related family that remembers all offenses, slight and immense, and brings them up or allows them to taint relationships.

How do I know that this was the culture in the church?  In order to tell you that I must digress a little bit further.

The Excitement

My preaching did not immediately take off.  It took several months of study and prayer.  The Elders and other leaders would come by once a week, on a Thursday night, to pray for the direction of the church and for the effectiveness of my sermons.  During these meetings we would also discuss future topics that I would propose and we would discuss and pray over.  It felt like the Spirit was moving.  Some of the Elders commented that there seemed to be a vibrant buzz, for lack of a better term, moving within the church, something they have not felt in some time.

In addition to Sunday mornings I led a Wednesday night study and prayer time.  This was a more informal setting.  People were able to interact as we discussed the scripture we were studying.  People were excited and during the prayer time we could feel the presence of the Spirit filling the room.  I would prepare a separate study for Wednesdays but the research was not as time consuming as it was preparing for a sermon, but at times it did infringe into time.  But it was exciting and fresh and authentic.

By the eighth month of my tenure in the church I started to see a change.  I usually sat in the front row next to my wife during the worship time.  We had a small group leading the worship, an acoustic guitar player, a person on the piano, the bass and a small drum kit (at the beginning we didn’t always have a drummer though) to start.  The team did an excellent job leading us in worship.  Their worship usually gave me that extra gusto I used to preach my sermon.  I got a little more fired up and excited to preach.  During this time we started to get more consistency in members of the worship team, and always had a full team leading the worship.

After the offering and announcements it was time for me to preach.  As I said, it was during the eighth month that I noticed a change.  I began to notice that the sanctuary was beginning to seem fuller.  We usually had empty seats nearer the front.  When I took a moment to survey the room as I prepared to begin, I noticed some of the seats usually empty were filled with the “regulars” and I saw the newer faces in the back.  This excited me.  My sermons were starting to gain momentum and word of the preaching spread.

My first series I preached was on the community of believers.  I stressed that, as a new pastor, I believed that I needed those who were regular attendees to become more involved.  If they wanted to see growth within their church they were going to need to step out from their comfort zones.  They were going to be more open and friendly to visitors and others.  The church would not grow if most of the congregants simply strolled in at 9:55am and left within two minutes of the last note of the last song.   They must interact and get to know one another.

It worked.  This was how the growth started.  It was sporadic at first, a trickle.New people came to hear the new preacher.  They stayed because of the people in the congregation.  It was not an immediate success.  Only a few of the regular people bought into what I was preaching.  Some moved on to other churches because they wanted to be anonymous non-participants, but most stayed.  I made an effort at the end of the service to greet anyone I didn’t know, setting an example for the leaders of the church to do the same.  Those who stayed saw the new people but did not engage with them in conversation.  When some noticed they didn’t return, they changed and began to talk to the new people.

So this is now the eighth month and I began to see results.  People were coming to hear my sermons and the people in the seats began to welcome them, and the Spirit moved.  It was an exciting time of watching the Spirit generate genuine fellowship in my flock.  And it did not stop for some time.


How It Came About

It wasn’t a gradual change.  It wasn’t a sudden change.  It just was time to change.  I had been a pastor for about five years to a small  suburban church.  Well, it was small when I began as a pastor.  The church had about 200 people on the member roll but really only 125 people, give or take, came on a regular basis.  It was small but it was friendly and intimate in a way.  It had a core of people who planned some activities to do outside of church to create and nourish a bond within the community of members.

Stuff like this cannot be faked.  It was certainly genuine and I felt fortunate that they had selected me to lead the church in its scripture teaching and learning.  So I started.  I didn’t know where or how to start.  I had interned and did some guest preaching in some churches but this was my first time being responsible for a flock.  I was nervous and went before the Lord quite often for direction.

In the beginning I developed my own sermons.  I did the research, added anecdotes (as best I could since I was without much life experience), broke down the words in the original language and used all the expositional tools I had learned in seminary.  I had experienced some success with the effectiveness of my sermons within the first year.  The congregation nearly doubled in attendance.  It was nice to see the pews filled with people who had come hear me preach.

But my sermon preparation became time consuming.  Concerns of people in the congregation started to crowd into the time I needed to prep for the Sunday message.  I started to pressed for time and it started to crown out my personal life and relationships as well.  I had to do something different that would best utilize my time between the day to day obligations as a pastor and prepping for my sermon.  Then I read a book.  I like the topic of the book and the message was pretty simple to express.  I preached a series of sermons based on the chapters of that book.

That was how it started seven years ago and now I am at the point of no return.  But I must fill you in what happened in the meantime, between the then and now.