Who Is the Church?

I was talking to a young man who was new to our gathering last night. He and his family had come from a church that recently closed its doors. The pastor had retired and the church died. I asked if there was no one else who could lead the church, or if they sought another pastor while this one was preparing for retirement and his answer was, “Well, the pastor pretty much did everything…”

This sheds a little light on a great tragedy that can plague a small church. When I was first called as pastor of our fellowship, I “pretty much did everything” from mowing lawns, to painting walls, to teaching classes, leading worship, and preaching. When you’re small, it’s almost a necessity, but it cannot stay that way. To be a leader means to bring others along with you. As they come along, they are also empowered and raised up. They must be, or we are failing in our calling to disciple others. If the pastor of this church “pretty much did everything” until he retired, then what were all the people who attended? Disciples? Not likely, not if they just closed up shop when the preacher left. They were spectators.

As our church began to grow, people would approach me and start sentences with “Hey Pastor, the church should…” When your people lead with “the church should” it is condemning evidence that they see themselves and the church as separate entities. When our members came to me like this, the conversation usually went something like this:

“Hey pastor, the church should start a program for the kids.”

“Absolutely! That’s a fantastic idea. What did you have in mind?”

“Well, like a children’s church or something.”

“Great! Why don’t you write something up and let me know what you need. I have some materials in the office and we can meet and put something together.”

“Me?!?”

“Well yes. This burden was given to you, and YOU are the church, aren’t you?”

The church is not an institution put here to provide assorted Christian amenities to the believers who transact there. The church is the people. What we want to hear, as pastors, is conversations begin more like, “Hey pastor, can we put together something for the kids?” And in order for that shift in thinking to occur, we need to teach and expect the people to be the church. And there are two sides to that coin.

The first side is getting the people to take ownership. They are the church and the institution (e.g. the leadership, the programs) are simply here to equip, encourage, and empower them. Life must happen beyond the institutional corporate church or that church isn’t truly alive. They need to know that they are encouraged, expected, and will be empowered to do meaningful ministry. That is their charge — to grow in their faith and follow Jesus into service, and we are here to serve them as they follow Jesus into their everyday lives. And this is where the coin flips.

I know it can be a challenge to let go of authority or influence, but we must. This is the other side of the coin. Making disciples is about training our replacements. Whether we are pouring into someone so they can take our place here, or go do likewise in a new place, like Elijah to Elisha we are passing the baton. We must be willing to empower the membership to serve regardless of whether they do it like we would or not, regardless of whether we think they’ll succeed or not. We want to give guidance and direction, we want to be involved to coach and encourage lest we set someone up to fail, but we cannot possess the church and its activities and expect it to honor God…or grow. If the people don’t grow, the church won’t grow because the church is the people. It’s not our church, we serve them, not the other way around. They serve God, not our ideas, dreams, desires or ambitions.

The church must be built on the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (Matthew 16:18), and it is built by Christ. Our charge is to feed Christ’s sheep. We cannot build a church for Jesus, on the foundation of our own hard work and vision and expect it to stand. When you fail — and you eventually will whether it’s morally through sin or compromise, physically through injury or illness, or positionally through retirement or moving to a different calling — the church will cease to be and lost sheep will be disillusioned, devoured, and displaced with no real foundation or strength of faith.

Pastor, build up your church. Feed and strengthen your sheep, God has entrusted them to you. Lead them into meaningful service and empower them. Let go of some things and expect them to take it up. Keep it simple and start small, for your sake and theirs. Turn over small tasks first and personally invite someone to take them. Let them know what a help it would be to you and the church if they could take “it” on. Ask their input and drive them to contribute. Disciple them. They are the church, and it’s why we are here.

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