With over 2,000 years having passed since its founding, why hasn’t the church taken the whole world for Christ by now? And, in spite of a virtual plethora of books and articles on church growth and how to make it happen, why haven’t churches at large grown substantially, instead of there simply being a few mega-churches?
Instead, to say the least, in general, pastors and churches in America are struggling. One online report reveals: ”1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout or contention in their churches, 4,000 new churches start each year, but over 7,000 churches close, and 50% of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way to make a living.”1
Another account astoundingly reports, “Every year, 2.7 million church members fall into inactivity.” It adds, “At the turn of the last century (1900), there was a ratio of 27 churches per 10,000 people, as compared to the close of this century (2000) where we have 11 churches per 10,000 people in America!”2
A Charisma Magazine article2 entitled, “Why Are So Many Pastors Committing Suicide?” reveals: “There is no lack of statistics about pastors and depression, burnout, health, low pay, spirituality, relationships and longevity—and none of them are good. According to the Schaeffer Institute, 70 percent of pastors constantly fight depression, and 71 percent are burned out. Meanwhile, 72 percent of pastors say they only study the Bible when they are preparing for sermons; 80 percent believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families; and 70 percent say they don’t have a close friend.”
The article continues, “The Schaeffer Institute also reports that 80 percent of seminary and Bible school graduates will leave the ministry within five years.”
Why? Among many possible reasons, one overriding cause may contribute significantly and perhaps even be basic to this bleak condition. Let’s take a look at it.
Probably every pastor senses—persistently and probably strongly—that he is to build his church. That sense is likely justified by the largely unspoken expectation of religious schools and colleges, church members and adherents, by almost everything written and taught on the subject, as well as even by society at large. Successful pastors build their churches! That’s what defines a successful pastor! That’s simply what they do!
But do they? Should they? Should they even try? Should that even be a consideration in their overall focus and day-to-day work?
Surprisingly, the Bible answers with a resounding, “No!” That is not their Scriptural assignment. Subtly but successfully, the enemy has caused us to miss it, and for generations the Scriptures succinctly stating who actually bears the responsibility for building the church and also defining the pastor’s responsibility have gone almost completely unrecognized although they have been read countless times.
While a desire to build the church is laudable, it is simply misplaced. Pastors are not only not mandated to build the church, they are unable to do so. Imagine how freeing it would be to pastors to realize they don’t have to do what they can’t do anyway!
So, whose job is to build the church? It is Jesus’ job, and He said He would do it (Matthew 16:18)! Psalm 127:1a reveals the utter futility of pastors trying to do it: “Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it…” And, as revealed in Acts 2:47 as happening to the early church, it is the Lord Who adds to the church “those who were being saved.”
With a shepherd’s heart, the pastor’s job is, in short, to “equip the saints” (Ephesians 4:11-13) so Jesus can use them to build His church. “Equipping the saints” is what pastors can and are to do, while relying completely on Scripture and the Holy Spirit.
Contrary to what has been historically and commonly believed and taught, churches are not “hospitals for sinners,” nor are they “soul saving stations” nor even places for “broken people” (although sinners and the broken must always be lovingly welcome there); they are equipping or discipleship centers!
Of course, sinners should and will come to Christ in churches, when equipped saints have brought them as part of Christ’s outreach to “all the world” and when pastors preach the gospel.
What most pastors do who either misunderstand their role and/or lack the ministry of the Spirit in their churches but feel the pressure to do something to cause their church to succeed is to search for what they can do on their own to make it happen. That usually starts with “workin’ on the buildings”…sprucing up (paint, etc.), remodeling, or an addition, and etc.
If for one reason or other that isn’t successful (it very rarely is), then they resort to something else they can do on their own, such as various “new and innovative programs”. Usually such programs are in reality not spiritual ministry at all but “social gospel” activities, all but completely void of the Spirit, Who alone produces spiritual and eternal life and fruit (Zechariah 4:6).
Such “social gospel” activities may be good fellowship opportunities, but they never ultimately satisfy because they fail to meet the deep need of the human heart: the need for God Himself.
And if those activities are pursued, the church is subtly but quite quickly and fundamentally changed from a spiritual ministry center to a social club or social services center.
Furthermore, because spiritual people give to the Lord and His church but those receiving social services most often do not, church finances begin to dry up and eventually die.
Church history confirms that the age of a denomination or church is marked by the extent to which they are involved in “social gospel” activities. They begin “in the fire” of the Holy Spirit, but, if the fire of spirituality is not faithfully—even doggedly—guarded and nurtured, it eventually wanes and is replaced by “social gospel” activities.
Pastors as described above do something else in their quest for success. First, they understandably become excited about what they are doing on their own. After all, it is their program and they are convinced it is right. Their excitement is contagious, and the people of the church unfortunately fail to verify it from Scripture and mistake it for the leading of the Spirit (after all, he is their pastor/leader who should be Spirit-led and empowered) and they get onboard, which such pastors pragmatically but erroneously view as validation of their “vision”.
Second, instead of remaining teachable, these pastors begin to label anyone who even remotely questions what is happening as negative, a gossip, and/or divisive, seemingly forgetting what Jesus said as recorded in Matthew 10:34, ”Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Whether or not pastors realize it, such labelling is basically a control tactic similar to that used by cults to rein in and police its members to maintain unquestioning allegiance, as well as providing “grounds” to “justifiably” expel any who are recalcitrant.
It probably need not be pointed out that people can’t spiritually be used by the Lord—with any significant degree of confidence and with a realistic expectation of success—unless and until they are equipped! Then and only then can Jesus through the Holy Spirit use them to build His church.
How should saints be equipped? Here are some examples:
- How to understand and personally apply the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16, 17).
- How to die to self and live in victory over the flesh (Romans 6).
- How to control our thoughts and set our minds on things above (2 Corinthians 10:5; Romans 8:5-8; Colossians 3:2).
- How to resist the devil and live in victory over him (James 4:7).
- How to successfully engage in spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:10-20).
- How to know God’s voice (John 10:27).
- How to know the will of God and do it (Ephesians 5:17).
- How to pray and fast (1 Thessalonians 5:17; Matthew 6:9-13; Isaiah 58).
- How to witness (Acts 1:8).
- How to win souls (Proverbs 11:30; John 15:1-8).
- Basic sin and salvation (Genesis 3:1-5; Romans 6:1-7).
- Basic faith (Hebrews 11:1, Romans 10:17).
- True love (Luke 10:25-37; 1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
- True humility (1 Peter 5:5; James 4:6).
- How to get along with others, including one’s spouse and children, with opportunities for and encouragement of personal and group interaction and fellowship (Romans 12:16-21).
Equipping may also include health and nutrition instruction and physical training and exercise. You will probably agree that grossly obese and sickly Christians are a poor testimony and create a credibility gap between the unhealed many in our churches and our belief that God heals.
Also, Spirit-baptized pastors should equip their saints in the areas of being baptized in the Spirit, the Gifts of the Spirit, and the Fruit of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:1-11).
So, pastors, set yourselves free from the pressure of “building your church” by focusing on “equipping… the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith [currently sadly lacking], and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12b, 13).
- Grace International Churches and Ministries, Inc., Spring, Texas; https://grace-international.tv/content/files/docs/video_course_syllabi/Marriage%20Seminar.pdf