Church leaders who have just begun their ministries, whether planting a church or leading a small congregation, often feel frustrated by a lack of growth. No matter how much they may believe that the number of attendees isn’t the barometer of their success in ministry, there’s little that tangibly validates their tireless labor in the same way. Sometimes, they drift into a sense that their ministry has stalled, as if their job is to simply wait for a larger platform to arrive.
Tim Keller certainly knows something about large platforms. A best-selling author, pastor of a famous and thriving church in Manhattan, he knows exactly what the grass is like on that other side. The implications of his conversation with James K.A. Smith (author of the phenomenal You Are What You Love) are far-reaching, but one major point—and what we will consider here—is the transformative role that small church pastors have to play.
A Cultural Paradox
Keller notes a paradox in our prevailing culture: a desire for and commitment to tolerance, humility, and respect for those who are different and a total failure to enact those values in any impactful way. As he puts it: “There’s no place where anyone is systematically teaching humility, respect, tolerance…our culture teaches nothing but self-assertion.” In other words there is a cultural barrier between the virtue our world wishes to foster (humility) and the overriding values that drive its teaching and practice.
That’s where the church—just by being the church—has remarkable transformative power. In faithful churches, we see “formative countercultures where people hear every week about a man who died for his enemies.” This posture of self-renunciation and sacrifice, even when it is superficially desired, simply has no formative expression outside the church.
The Church Being the Church
So while it might be frustrating not to see rapid growth or new programs sprouting up, Keller exhorts pastors to consider the worship they invite people to as an essential act of forming the world. James K.A. Smith notes the power of the liturgy—say, confession and repentance—to build habits of humility. Keller takes it further, claiming that the service must be shaped away from the “consumer” experience of so many American evangelical churches and instead intentionally focus on the de-centering work of the liturgy, particularly the Eucharist. By entering into the Eucharist, congregants enter a school where they learn how to become forgiving, become reconciling.
This isn’t meant to demean large churches or to say the growth in numbers or ministries is a bad thing. But it probably means that growing churches will find it more difficult to focus fully on their most crucial mission of worshipping God faithfully and allowing all who come to be formed by that time and space.
Finally, Smith asks Keller to identify the single most important area for renewal in the church. Keller responds that in the midst of churches whose numbers and ministerial staffs have swollen, the need for the “ordinary kind of positive, proactive pastoral care and intervention” has never been greater. Compared to previous generations, churchgoers are transient. Here in the North Dallas suburbs, I’m well-acquainted with the casual migrations and sabbaticals of people who claim to be committed church members. Seeing this, pastors have to develop ties and help people grow roots.
Large churches drift toward institutionalization, with ministers there to dispense a consumable product. They are sometimes able to respond to crises—they can perform “triage.” But a small, local church community has the scale to engage with people in their most ordinary days, examining the lives of members to see needs as they arrive, not after.
This sort of relationship-forming, and the careful intentionality it requires, can be entrusted to a small group of elders or other lay leaders who will invest in this work. They become a critical network for the small church pastor to understand what is going on in the life of the church and to respond in love. The interview ends with a discussion of this approach could restore a positive view of church discipline—something that has been all but tossed out as overly judgmental or too sensitive for our time.
Consider how this might change your priorities in ministry. As you do your work, keep in touch with us to let us know how we can help.
The full interview will be available in the Fall 2017 issue of Comment, titled A Church for the World.