I was wondering today what is it that accounts for the fact that almost without exception every pastor wrestles with the size of his/her church. I don’t know a single one (including myself) who doesn’t go home feeling elated on days when a lot of people are there, and depressed if attendance is low. I also don’t know a single one who doesn’t hate that fact about him/herself.
Today I realized why this is an issue. We can say whatever we want about how “our culture says this and that” about success and popularity, but the problem is not the culture. Pastors, do you hear me? The problem is not the culture. The problem is the extent to which we pastors have swallowed it. That’s our responsibility. Could you drink a glass of water, swish it around in your mouth, and hope to keep one particular tooth from getting wet? Of course not. When we pastors sit and talk about how much pull the culture has on us regarding our attendance, what we must realize is that that is only one small area where the culture holds sway over us. If it didn’t largely hold sway everywhere, it would not hold sway in this one area. This particular tooth is getting wet because we’re swishing the culture around and of course it’s going to affect absolutely everything.
And of course our “solution” is the same for this as it typically is for everything else. Try harder. Acknowledge the pull of the culture. Pray about it. Try to somehow talk yourself out of being at the end of this ridiculous chain that bounces up and down every week (if my church is full, I feel great about myself — if it is empty, I feel lousy about myself). But pastors, you know exactly what I know in this regard — that does not work. It simply does not work. (Neither does any of the rest of the “just try harder to deal with such and such” advice we give to our parishioners.) Just like we pastors are at the mercy of the culture when it comes to our feelings of self-worth in our church, so our people are at the mercy of the culture when it comes to many things in their lives.
Therefore, pastors, there is really only one thing we can do. That is, if we’d actually like to do something that works. I mean, of course we can redouble our efforts, right? That’s what we’ve been doing the last ten or twenty years, and we’re still as depressed by low numbers (whether in attendance or offerings) now as we were ten or twenty years ago, aren’t we? Be honest! So barring more repetition of what doesn’t work, there’s only one thing to do, and that is engage in practices that will begin to give the entire culture the old heave-ho in our lives that it deserves. Jesus specifically said we are not to seek out positions of power or prominence, and we know this, but it conflicts drastically with the Western male drive to climb the ladder and be successful. (Since most pastors are still men, this is a big problem.) We cannot live according to the dictates of our culture in nearly all ways, and then expect to be able to reject the dictates that apply to our jobs and congregations.
The Apostle James declared that the person who is able to control the tongue is a nearly perfect person — able to keep his whole body in check. His point, of course, was that that is how hard it is to control the tongue. It’s the last thing to be tamed and when you’ve tamed it, you’ve probably arrived. Likewise with our acquiescence to the culture around us. When we get to where we are no longer significantly troubled by fluctuating numbers in our churches, that will be a sign that we have rejected the culture almost completely and are listening exclusively to the voice of Jesus, getting our feelings of adequacy and acceptance from him only.
Is it possible, pastors, that this is one of the main gifts we have to give to our congregations? After all, they — like us — are each called to a cross; to the narrow way of suffering and letting go of ego (“flesh,” “self,” etc.) So are you tapping into another value system? Are you learning to live in the present moment with God, where you are fully accepted and loved at every instant? Are you coming more and more to identify with the suffering and powerlessness of God? Or are you continuing to hope against hope that you can simply “not let the numbers bother” you? Time for us to get honest, my brothers — and sisters. It does bother us, and very deeply at that. Let this be a sign to us that what we have been doing isn’t working, and that more of what doesn’t work is not what we need.
Let us stop fighting and striving and let us — perhaps some for the first time — embrace our powerlessness. For God is in our lack of power, not simply in order to turn around and make us strong again, but to be present to us and assure us that — like we say all the time but don’t usually believe — he truly is enough for us, and his grace is made perfect not in strength, but in weakness.
QUESTIONS FOR PASTORS: Are you sick of being “on the chain?” What can be done about it other than more of what doesn’t work? How do we embrace powerlessness?
QUESTIONS FOR NON-PASTORS: What has control over your emotions? What keeps you from finding your worth and confidence in God? How do you embrace powerlessness in that area of your life?