In my years of pastoring a local church, two topics usually always came up every time we had a pastors’ gathering, they were: people and money. “How’s your attendance?” and “What’s the shape of your budget?” It seemed to me, that these were battle fronts for my fellow ministers. They were fighting the numbers game of people and dollars. And unfortunately, most were losing the battle on one or both fronts.
My experience with these two was mixed. I pastored for seventeen and one-half years. The first five years I pastored a rural church. It was a small congregation with a beautiful building in an idyllic setting. The next twelve years of my ministry, I also pastored a downtown church. The congregation was small, and the church building was very large … voluminous in fact. The country church Sunday service was at nine and the city church service began at ten- thirty.
The dynamics of the two churches were totally different. The city church with a very small aging congregation wanted to return to the glory days of the past complete with the balcony filled and chairs set up in the aisles for the Christmas and Easter services. The people were sweet and willing workers. They were caring and very gracious.
The country church wanted to grow while holding on to all their former traditions and practices. Everything in the church was determined by how it used to be. The congregation numbered about eighteen strong, but they had a significant endowment. So, they continued with their traditions, many of which were endearing and very meaningful to the members. But they did not attract new attendees. I strived not to offend anyone in anyway, as I felt God leading us to move in a somewhat different direction.
I unwaveringly believe that God said what He meant and meant what He said in His Holy Word. Christ is the head of the Church and she is His body. (I always took particular care to never refer to either church, as my church, but as the church I pastor.) He taught that His Word does not return void but accomplishes His intended purpose each and every time it is read, preached, and taught. Therefore, I emphasized the Word. The church still had their dinners and festive occasions, but they were always followed by the teaching of the Word. We had fun at these occasions, but the Word was always preached or taught. I also challenged the congregation to read through the Bible in a year, and many did.
At the city church, a different approach was taken to proclaim the Word. A noon Bible study was instituted every Thursday that was later changed to Tuesday. The format was simple. The ladies of the church, joined occasionally by a man or two, would prepare a delicious meal in the church kitchen. Then a little before noon people would start coming into the basement of the church for the complimentary lunch and Bible study. At twenty past twelve I started teaching … though sometimes I began to preach, so some of the attendees said with smiles on their faces … and thirty minutes later I closed with prayer.
I asked one of the Elders, if they would cover the cost of the meals and they instantly agreed with a generous check to cover the costs of meals for the first year. As one year led into another and another, the checks and meals continued coming. So did the people.
The attendees were an eclectic group. Over the years of the noon Bible study, there were homeless, attorneys, bankers, unchurched, college students, a judge, businessmen and women, retirees, people from other churches, etc. The studies were also diverse, but always out of God’s Word. A week was devoted to each of the twelve disciples, then on to the Gospel of John, Genesis, Acts, Revelation, etc.
I’d love to write: “The noon Bible study increased our morning worship service by over one hundred.” But that would be a blatant falsehood of the first order. We did gain about ten on Sunday morning.
There was another subtle thing happening during the Bible studies. Some of the members of the country church started attending the Bible study. They even started helping prepare the luncheon. So, I began inviting the city members to the dinners and festive occasions at the country church. During Lent I had a weekly Bible study at the country church proceeded by a delicious dinner comprised of comfort foods. The city members came, brought food, and even helped with the clean up afterwards. The two congregations were becoming one through no plan of mine. It was a God thing.
While the city church continued to decline, due to death and aging, the country church was seeing new signs of life. Young couples with children, neighbors, friends and relatives of the members were attending and regularly. More people were involved in the life of the church. The attenders were becoming workers and givers. The congregation of eighteen was steadily growing.
I was passed the normal retirement of ages of sixty-two and sixty-five. My wife and I thought I should step aside while the churches were humming along. I confidentially notified the leadership of both churches the same week that in one and one-half years I would be leaving. This was to give them plenty of time to adjust to my leaving and to prepare for the coming of another pastor.
When I announced this to the leadership of the city church, they immediately voted to close the church when I left. I pleaded with them to reconsider. They did reconsider it four times over the next several months and each time the vote was unanimous to close and unite with the country church.
In light of this, I thought I should step down from the city church after one year and have them unite with the country church six months before I left. Both churches agreed with the idea, so that’s what happened. That gave them the unifying factor of having the same pastor as they transitioned into one church body.
The combined church was healthy in people and money on my last Sunday at the end of my year and one-half. There were eighty people present. The congregation was vibrant and invigorated for the future.
This was entirely God at work. I take no credit whatsoever. I preached and taught His Word. I neither went to church growth conferences nor did I read articles and books on church growth and try to implement programs to enhance the numbers. God did it.
What I strived to do was follow His leading in everything I did. Sure, I made hundreds of house calls and drank lots of coffee with the parishioners. I traveled thousands of miles to make hospital calls both in town and in other cities. I prepared a new sermon and Bible study every week. (I did not preach or teach out of the barrel.) What God laid on my heart is what I did. Sometimes when I arose early on Sunday mornings, God led me to pitch the sermon I had written earlier in the week and write a new one. I never cheapened or watered down the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A phrase I said many times from the pulpit, “Life is short, eternity is forever and ever, please make sure you know Christ as your personal Savior so you’ll spend eternity in heaven.”
I worked hard and spent long hours in the ministry. I received calls in the wee hours of the morning to go to the hospital or counsel someone in need. But I think Saint Augustine had it right: Pray as though everything depended on God; work as though everything depended on you.
I don’t believe God has any easy jobs in the Kingdom. As I think back on the lives and ministries of Noah, Abraham, Joseph, John the Gospel writer, John the Baptist, and the Apostle Paul, I don’t think they had it easy. (I’m not comparing myself to them.) Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
A Christian brother, who served at the Free Methodist Foundation and has since gone on to be with the Lord, told me on many occasions, “God wants us to wear out and not rust out.” So, I try to obey his admonishment. I pastored a church on an interim basis for over two years in my seventy’s and I’m still preaching, performing marriages, and conducting funerals and memorial services.
Years ago, when my hair was brown and I could jog four miles three times a week every week, I took to heart the words of Jesus, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” I’ve tried to obey this caution and still am.
People need pastors, according to the adage, when someone is hatched, matched, and/or needs to be dispatched. While this is true, people need pastors to love them and show them God’s abundant grace. Pastors and congregations need to major in blessing people and not judging or condemning them. Bless means: may the Lord constantly bring good into your life! People need God’s love, acceptance, and encouragement.
Ruth Graham’s gravestone reads: “End of construction. Thank you for your patience.” But until they engrave my headstone, it’s GAME ON!!!
About the Author
George F. Ford is a fourth generation Free Methodist and retired elder.
The coronavirus slipped into our midst as an uninvited guest. She has been very disrupting to our normalcy (ruts). While she may have been unwelcome, she has proved to be a catalyst for change in the present. The change she has wrought upon us and our culture may not be limited to the now but may have long-ranging effects into the unforeseeable future.
To state the obvious, God was not surprised. Nothing catches God napping or unaware. I’m not implying that God sent the virus, but I’m not limiting His ability to do so if He so desired. Everything that happens in the world comes through the loving and permissive hands of God. Also, He could have stopped it dead in its tracks before any harm was done. But He didn’t. Why? Only He knows.
We mere mortals are creatures of habit. Oh sure, we see ourselves as creative, dynamic, and on the cutting-edge people. But are we? Not really. We like and are almost married to our routines. We always buy certain brands, take the same route to where we are going, shop specific stores, drive a particular make of automobile, and prefer the toilet paper to come off the roll from the front or the back of the roll. We may branch out and try something different, but before long we drift back to the old and familiar.
I think the same is true of the church. We’re aware of the different variations of the last seven words of the Church: We’ve never done it that way before. I’ve observed the essence of that phrase expressed in a variety of ways in church meetings and experienced it first-hand lived out in the life of the church. To some this is solemn tradition, but to others this is a familiar rut that leads to the same end.
Maybe, just maybe, God is using the virus to shake the foundation of the Church to get us out of our normalcy (ruts) and approach “church” in different ways. The Word states, “See, I’m doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (IS 43:19). Perhaps He wants His people to do some new things. When we are born again, we become a new creation in Christ and new creatures do new things and do old things in new ways. God is not a static God of the same-ol’-same-ol’. He is active, alive, and dynamic wanting His Church to reach the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Xennials, Millennials, Generation Z, Generation Alpha, and beyond. I believe that will require change. (I remember the meetings of the WCTU-Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Cradle Roll, WMS-Woman’s Mission Society, CYC-Christian Youth Crusaders, two-three week every night revival meetings, need I go on? I’ve been around the FMC.)
I titled this article “God at Work.” He has been, is now, and always will be. Praise His Holy Name! (Just remember: When Jesus entered our world, He turned the establishment on its ear. And our world has never been the same. Upheaval can be positive.)