I’ve learned a number of lessons in my time serving as a local church pastor.
Here are five of them:
1. Slow and steady wins the race.
Our work as Christians is best described as a “long obedience in the same direction,” to quote Eugene Peterson.
Our life’s work is just one link in a much larger chain. We pick up where others have left off, and others will come along to advance the work when we’re no longer here to do it.
The work of the church is not a sprint. It won’t be accomplished in a few months, a few years or even a few generations. Our job is to push the ball forward just a few feet.
It’s not flashy. It won’t usually make the news. But over time it will lead to great progress.
As easy as it sounds to just do our small part, there are a thousand ways to stay where you are, and only one way to move forward: Develop a plan and see it through with discipline, focus and patience.
The reward of discipline, focus and patience is progress. It’s easy to wander from one idea or one program or one vision to the next.
The only way to stay the course is to firmly believe that God is leading in the process and to trust that God will be present in the results, too.
2. People matter.
Programs, plans, buildings, worship styles, strategies – Jesus didn’t come to save any of them. In fact, God hasn’t brought eternal salvation to a church building yet. As far as I know, no electric guitars or pipe organs have professed their faith in Jesus Christ yet, either.
Our biggest assets as churches are the people who serve in them. So, our greatest investments should be in our people.
Our time, energy and resources ought to be invested in building up, encouraging and equipping people for ministry.
We think of buildings and programs and worship traditions as legacies that we can leave as enduring monuments to our faithfulness. But here’s the truth: In Jesus Christ, we’ll outlive them all.
What we do to bring people into the presence of God and to turn them into fully functioning followers of Christ is the only thing that matters.
3. The circle of who is included in God’s kingdom is expanding – it always has been and still is.
There was a time when we were excluded from the faith, when people like us – Gentiles – were universally considered to be beyond the scope of God’s love and salvation.
But our understanding of God’s love and God’s kingdom has expanded over time so that we now understand that God had intended to include us all along.
One of the best ways to understand Scripture is as a record of our expanding understanding of who God is and as a record of our growing awareness of the scope of God’s love.
One of the best ways to understand the incarnation is as God’s ultimate effort to explode every boundary we had put up to contain and limit God’s love, and Christ still works among us to do the same.
We don’t have to wonder where Christ is at work in the world. Just like on nearly every page of Scripture, God is at work among the people we’ve overlooked or excluded.
I become more convinced of that truth – and it gains more power in my life – every day.
4. What local churches choose to do in the next few years will be extremely important.
The future of the church in the United States – its effectiveness, its impact, its size and what it looks like to future generations – depends entirely on the independent, individual decisions of thousands of churches.
If most of us choose faithful, God-inspired paths forward in the next few years, the sky’s the limit.
But, if we choose to carry on with business as usual, doing the same things we’ve always done, the church in America is undeniably in real trouble.
The statistics about the decline of the church in America are staggering. If we don’t do something new, then we’re facing a spiritual dark age in the near future in the U.S.
The choice is real. The stakes are high. But here’s what’s so exciting: What we choose to do really matters!
We have a real chance to make a real kingdom difference from right where we are. We can be among the churches that tip the balance and turn the tide. We could be on the leading edge of America’s next great spiritual revival.
5. We serve a remarkable God.
God is guiding the church. I honestly believe that. In the fleeting moments when I fully grasp that truth, it is genuinely awe-inspiring.
I’ll be honest: It can be disheartening at times to serve what is a shrinking – some say dying – institution.
But in my best moments, I see a future for the church that is better and more completely God-revealing and God-inspired than anything we’ve experienced yet.
I believe God is moving among the people of the congregation I pastor, preparing us to do something amazing.
But it is not only our church. God is at work among little pockets of people like us all over the nation and all over the world. I’m not sure we even glimpse the possibilities yet.
Our tendency is always toward a smaller vision of what is possible. But God’s vision tends toward resurrection, toward new life where once there was only death.
So whenever you’re gripped by a small vision or find yourself with a deficit of courage, remember that you serve a remarkable God whose vision for you and for the kingdom is grander than anything we’ve yet imagined.
Matt Sapp is pastor of Central Baptist Church in Newnan, Georgia.