I’ve sat across the table and listened to the stories of discouraged pastors describe in great detail where the ministry took a wrong turn. Often it wasn’t from an evil decision or a judgment from God. People stopped coming. The recession happened and people stopped giving. The church plant didn’t work out like they thought. In all of these cases, the result was the same: We’re shutting the church down.
My heart breaks every time this happens. Sometimes there are good, godly men and women doing their best in whatever capacity the Lord has called them to serve the church and circumstances cause there not to be enough money. Sometimes other resources are the issue, like a lack of volunteers. Regardless, the point is that churches with true believers and well meaning hearts close down all the time. Current statistics estimate roughly 3,700 churches close their doors every year.
But there is good news! First, because of the Gospel of Jesus, no matter what capacity you served your church in the past, you are not a failure. God loved you regardless of the outcome of your work for Him. His death and resurrection means that the work that you carried on for Him was not in vain. Paul, after spending an entire chapter in 1 Corinthians on the subject of the resurrection says this: “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless,” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
But there’s even more good news: Just because the money and the volunteers and the resources dried up, doesn’t mean your church needs to close. It might mean the church needs to change. The fact of the matter is the Kingdom of God doesn’t run on money, so even though resources are tight, the ministry can continue. Just because the resources have disappeared doesn’t mean the relationships and family of an existing church need to end.
How does this happen? For a church that wants to continue on but doesn’t have enough money to pay for a building or staff or the have the resources to support such things, house churches are a viable option. The existing church would transition to a church or a network of related churches that meet in the homes of its members and continue the work of sharing the gospel, building up the church, and making disciples.
This would mean a lot of changes for a church that was used to meeting as a traditional church on Sunday morning. It will most likely mean the pastor would forsake a salary (if he or she hadn’t already), it will mean that the format of the meetings you’ve become accustomed will change, and the ministry of the church will have be taken up by whatever members of the church remain, not just the pastor. Also, not everyone will want to make this jump, so be prepared for some who would be okay in any other traditional context to not make this jump with you. For those who feel God isn’t done with the church yet, but don’t see a way forward, it’s a viable alternative.
If you’re facing this moment in the life of your church, feel free to contact me at PursuingGlory at gmail dot com or check out my resource page featuring the best books on house churches.
More than that, don’t give up hope in God, the gospel, or the family of God. God loves you. You and your church haven’t failed. He has a plan that continues regardless of the cash flow. God, who raises the dead, can take what seems like has died and transform it into something new.
Yesterday I wrote about the reasons we didn’t (and still don’t) have a titled pastor in our house church network. But our attitude toward the pastoral ministry was also hurting our ability to help people who needed pastoral care. So what did we do?
We Appreciated Our Differences
Several years into our time as a house church network, we began to understand that God had made us different to help us, not to frustrate us. We had been reading different parts of Scripture, including Ephesians 4 and it became increasingly clear that while one or two of the gifts listed there were our personal favorites, we needed all of them to produce the kind of mature church Paul describes there. This meant we’d need to embrace pastoral giftings in order to get there.
We Became More Serious About Church Multiplication
This may sound a little counter-intuitive here, but stick with me. We had hit a point as a church where a number of us who had been part of what we were doing from the beginning were wanting to focus more on evangelism and finding “houses of peace.*” The only problem? We were spending most of our time taking care of the needs within our own fellowships. The needs were real. But many of us more gifted towards church planting and evangelism were spending disproportionate amounts of time caring for these needs. Something needed to change.
So We Identified People With Pastoral Giftings…
As we began to look around our network, we noticed there were already people who cared for others and were trying to be examples to the rest of our network. Some of them had skills in inner healing and deliverance. They also happened to be the sort of people who rushed with compassion towards needs like the ones that were popping up. God had given us people who were gifted in the areas where we had need.
…and We Gathered Them…
Once we knew who these folks were, it was time to get them together. I think a lot of them were unsure of themselves. They had an idea of what a pastor was from some previous experiences, so it was a little bit intimidating to be asked to shepherd people. But one thing that helped was to bring them together from our different churches into one room. Because of our previous attitude toward the word “pastor” we didn’t have a ton of these type of people in our midst. So to hear others sharing about a similar gifting was incredibly helpful.
Instead of presuming to know what we needed and how they could meet it, we asked them: Where does our network needing pastoral care? And how can you guys help us with those needs that you see? Pretty quickly these guys were meeting together on their own, talking about how they could encourage each other in their calling and meet needs where they saw them. Two things were important in this: We trusted Christ in them and we didn’t try to impress an agenda.
…and We Asked Them to Count the Cost…
So this is my thing. I ask people to count the cost a lot. But serving the body can be a costly thing. For us it means being a volunteer and working a job in addition to your role in caring for the flock. It means being part of a discipleship group and pouring your life into others. And it means sometimes there’s not a lot to do, but you have to keep your schedule open. Because stuff comes up. Like the inner city mother who suddenly needs new beds for her and her kids or the marriage issue that needs counseling or the demon that needs to be cast out. No one can time these things. Each of shepherds had to ask, in their own way, was the cost worth it?
…and We Changed The Narrative.
As I said earlier, everyone had an idea in their head of what a pastor was: The Authority Figure. A Position. Theological Training. The Guy Who Knows What to Do. The Paid Guy. The Preacher. All of these things freaked people out. We had guys with legitimate shepherding gifts but were afraid to use them because the bar had been set really high by our culture.
So, we changed the name. We call them shepherds. We told them not to walk around calling themselves a pastor so-and-so**. Just love people like the Lord has gifted you to do. Don’t try and dominate a house church meeting that you’re in. Participate. Show the body what it looks like to participate. But don’t become the center of the ministry. Oh, and nobody’s getting paid. So there’s that.
Now, for some of you reading this, you may be wondering why the heck someone would sign up for a position with high responsibility and little physical reward like this. Peter gives us the answer:
Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor.
1 Peter 5:2-5
We encouraged our unpaid, non-titled, non-hierarchal shepherds to use their gifting to build up the body because Jesus will reward them for doing so when He returns. And this has helped us to still be a body, still have multiple, equally valuable gifts functioning and yet benefit from the shepherding gift working in our midst.
That’s our story so far. I’m excited for where the Lord is leading us. I think in the end we’ll see a church that is focused on Christ’s mission and growing the disciples that result from that mission. And through all of it, we will grow up into the image of Christ. Jesus promises it’s what will happen when embrace all of the gifts.
**Just like we discourage people from walking around calling themselves “Apostle so-and-so” or “Prophet so-and-so.”
It happened so many times in the early days of our first house church that it got old. People would call me Pastor Travis. And I would say, “It’s just Travis.”
“But you’re the pastor, right?” was the next question I would get asked. Usually, for those who weren’t part of my house church my response would be something like “Long story, but let’s just keep it at Travis.”
Why was that so awkward for me? Lot’s of reasons. Admittedly, being called a pastor at 26 was a strange thing, especially since I didn’t go the traditional route of pastoring “underneath” an older pastor. But in reality, my unease came from a much deeper place.
What The New Testament Says
My studies of the New Testament had already challenged much of what I saw being done in church culture. Church had gone from being a formal religious ceremony in a holy building to a spiritual family who met wherever and whenever the opportunity presented itself. As I studied the New Testament, my understanding of the pastoral role had begun to change as well.
As I studied the New Testament, a shocking pattern began to emerge. First, the word pastor was only used once in the English New Testament (Ephesians 4:11). In fact, in some translations it’s not used at all (ESV for example does not use the word pastor). The reason why is the word used in Ephesians 4:11 that is often translated as “pastor” literally means “shepherd.” It’s used 17 times throughout the entire New Testament. Eleven of those times, it’s used to describe Jesus’ relationship with the church. The other times (minus the Ephesians 4 reference) are used to describe actual shepherds who cared for and guarded sheep.
What I also found when I dug deeper into the New Testament was that this role was related very, very closely with the role of elder. In fact, when Paul and his apostolic team started churches, instead of appointing a single pastor to watch over the church, he appointed a group of elders. They were a team of people. Their job was to shepherd (note the use of a similar Greek word) the flock of God through their example, not lording over them (in other words not telling them what to do), but they were to be an example of a mature follower of Christ. They also were supposed do it willingly, not for what they could get out of it.
What Christian Culture Does With Pastors
The problem for me wasn’t what I saw in the New Testament. Obviously the role of pastor existed in there somewhere. The problem for me (especially early on) was Christianity’s outright obsession with the role. Everyone I knew in ministry was called a pastor. Every spiritual leader in a church that was paid was called a pastor. This may be true in your context right now.
I had a dear friend, hired by the church for the sole purpose of reaching lost people. He was called a pastor. He was a good man, called by God to equip the body and reach lost people, but he was not a pastor, he was an evangelist that was given the title pastor. Other people I knew in different churches I was part of were given the title of pastor, but they couldn’t live close enough to everyone in their congregation in order to know them. There was no way they could, their congregations were way too large for them to know half of them. And when you talked to them, they were sincere, godly, good men. But their primary role wasn’t the care of the body. It was leadership, strategy, preaching or something else.
And for the body, this can be problematic. I regularly saw people from church backgrounds come to men who were called pastor expecting to get spiritual care and council from them. And I watched as these “pastors” passed the pastoral tasks on to others in their body. I don’t use “pastors” to indicate any kind of animosity towards these men. They were good guys. They just weren’t pastors. In all likelihood the people the “pastors” referred them to were the real pastors.
I’ve also watched the over-emphasis of this role hinder the multi-membered ministry the church is supposed to demonstrate. Churches seem to focus so much time and attention and energy on a pastor. It’s a natural, human thing. The pastor gives the sermon, he leads the service, he does much of the ministry, especially in smaller congregations. But often this focus causes everyone else to not step forward and serve. In the most dramatic ways, people feel they shouldn’t have to do something “they pay someone else to do.” In lesser ways, people feel less qualified than the person who is the pastor.
Lastly, lets not forget that shepherds are only one of the roles that mature Christians are called in the New Testament. Apostles are frequently mentioned in the New Testament (there are as many as 25 people identified as apostles in the New Testament). But modern Christianity is largely silent about this role. Prophets and Evangelists face a similar situation. But people with these gifts can and often are unintentionally not given space to minister because they aren’t pastors.
Our House Church Network
So as we planted our first and subsequent house churches, there were no titled pastors. We all met as equals, trying to walk out the priesthood of all believers that we believed the New Testament described. We almost developed an allergic reaction to the mention of the word pastor, mostly because of the bad example I set by how quickly I downplayed my name being used next to it. We talked a lot about how Jesus was our pastor. That was (and still is) true.
But our aversion to the pastoral gifting ended up hurting us. We ended up throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There is a real pastoral gift that we were minimizing because of our attitude toward the misuse of the word. And so there were times when we didn’t get people the pastoral help that they needed from people uniquely gifted to help and care for others.
Eventually we needed to change. But we wanted to change in a way that reflected the New Testament and the multi-faceted, multi-membered ministry of the first century church.
We’ll talk about how that played out tomorrow.