This blog was written by Mick Boersma's wife Rolane, who has served with him in pastoral ministry throughout their 46 years of marriage. She holds a BA from Biola University and teaching credential from California State University of Fullerton. Rolane has experience as a senior pastor’s wife, seminary teacher and colleague in ministry with her husband to hundreds of Talbot students and graduates.
The church is bigger than a local fellowship. Sometimes it’s important to remind ourselves of this truth. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of thinking that causes us to become discouraged and disheartened when we fail to acknowledge that God’s perspective isn’t our own. God's kingdom and plan are much larger than any local church fellowship.
When we were pastoring a church, we found it helpful to leave town on our day off. If we stayed home it was often overwhelming to be surrounded by the many needs, challenges and frustrations of life in our community. As we drove out of town we felt “lighter” and refreshed in perspective. Part of the reason that happened was because we realized (yet again) that our church and community were only one very small part of what God was doing around the world. We were part of something bigger.
The effectiveness of a local church family can’t be measured simply by the number of people who attend. People come and go for a wide variety of reasons, and they aren’t always spiritually motivated. They might choose a church because of its building, programs, friends, location, size, doctrine, pastoral staff or reputation. They might leave a church for any of the same reasons. There’s a danger in focusing on numbers. When a large church experiences an exodus (for whatever reason), smaller churches in the area can expect immediate growth. And when smaller churches experience an exodus of people to the larger churches it isn’t always because they’ve done something wrong. The work of God in the lives of people doesn’t depend on numbers, or on whichever local church fellowship they choose to attend.
Some of our Talbot alumni have been pastoring churches for many years without experiencing huge numerical growth. And, in fact, some have seen numbers decline. The temptation is to evaluate effectiveness by this unreliable standard, and more than one pastor has been discouraged by the seeming lack of responsiveness to long periods of sustained and faithful ministry. It may be true that you need to evaluate and make needed changes. However, remember that there are factors beyond attendance that ought to be taken into consideration:
- It’s possible that the Lord has a local body of believers under His hand of discipline. Such a group won’t experience the blessings that might otherwise be expected. Moses led a group like this for 40 years. They require leadership that consistently guides them and cares for their needs as they process the consequence of decisions they've made in life.
- There are seasons in life. Churches experience times of growth, harvest, and winter. God is the one in control, and the Holy Spirit is the one who brings fruit – in His time. Leaders must remain sensitive to God’s leading and timing. It’s important to recognize that it’s not always harvest. Leaders need look no further than the Bible to realize there are rhythms and seasons in life when God moved and when He seemed to be silent.
- No church is static. People come and go. Some move on and others join in. Over the course of a church’s history the attendance might remain the same, but hundreds of people may have been part of it. Leaders ought to remember that they’ve touched the lives of many who are at home with the Lord or living out their faith in other places around the world.
- Relationships with people transcend local church membership. Though someone might move to a different church fellowship or community, friendships can last a lifetime. And being part of the body of Christ is eternal. A pastor never knows when he may be called upon to minister to someone who is no longer in his fellowship.
- Sometimes a pastor’s influence in the community can be as great or greater than it is in the church. Those who have taken the time to comfort, encourage, befriend and assist people who aren't believers are living examples of Christ to a needy world. The longer a pastor remains in a community, the more powerful his presence becomes, and the more opportunities he has to share the good news of the gospel and serve those who will never attend church. He's "pastor" to many more than attend on Sunday morning.
- Even small groups of people require pastoral care. God cares for each person, and those who serve others in His name are blessed, regardless of whether they are many or few.
- Participation with other churches and Christians can be energizing and inspiring. Pooling resources, organizing community programs/projects, praying and worshiping together, supporting and communicating with missionaries, and other efforts that promote unity with the greater body of Christ are worth pursuing. Leaders ought to find ways to link their own local fellowships to the movement of God around the world.
We’ve been in conversation lately with some of our alumni who have been through challenging times in ministry. One faithful pastor has been at his church for 25 years. He was youth pastor for half that time, and has been senior pastor the rest of the time. He loves his church family, but can sometimes get discouraged and feel ineffective. Kids who went through his youth group and have grown up under his mentoring ministry are now married with children of their own. In the last few years the community has grown in population, and with that growth have come new churches that are quite attractive to the young families. A number of those families are now attending another, much larger, church. Our alum wishes that they would remain in their “home” church, building ministries for the next generation and remaining part of the church family, but has seen his church decline in attendance. Recently one young woman – a former member – had a critical health situation and was hospitalized for an extended period of time as she was being treated. No one from her new church made a hospital visit, but our alum visited daily and found ways to support and encourage. His concern for her allowed him to sacrificially give of his time and energy in meaningful ministry, even if she wasn’t currently in his church. He remembered that the church is bigger than his local fellowship, and relationships extend beyond Sunday attendance.
Another alumnus resigned from a difficult church position before Christmas. He had served the church for many years in the role of associate pastor, and was the last one left on the pastoral staff. Recently a tragic event involving two church families and others in the community occurred. This pastor knew the people well, and though he was no longer their pastor, he stepped forward to help. He participated in the church and community services and provided care for the families, even though he was not officially “on staff” and had no responsibility to do so. He remembered that the church is bigger than his position in a local fellowship.
In a culture focused on numbers and growth, it's easy to become discouraged when your own church experience doesn't seem to follow that pattern. We would remind you to take heart and be encouraged as you value each precious soul God has entrusted to your care. Stay faithful and run with endurance.
One of the biggest blessings of our work at Talbot and with Talbot Support Ministries has been the connection that we have with you, our alumni. No matter where we attend church locally, we’re part of something much bigger. Talbot alumni are serving in communities and countries around the world, and the Christian network of believers is larger still. These days we don’t have to leave town to get a different perspective. It’s always right in front of us. Each person we serve (whether student, alum, neighbor, or friend) and each act of ministry we do in the name of Christ is important in the kingdom. Whether you serve 10, 100 or 1000, who you are and what you do is interdependent within the church of Jesus Christ to an extent that you can’t begin to comprehend this side of heaven. Regardless of what you’re facing today, you will be encouraged by taking a different perspective – the church is bigger than any of us can possibly imagine. And you’re part of it!