October 3, 2018 • Dennis Ellingburg
In a sermon dated February 28th, 2016, mega-church pastor Andy Stanley said, “When I hear adults say, ‘Well I don’t like a big church, I like about 200, I want to be able to know everybody,’ I say, ‘You are so stinking selfish.'” As a pastor of a small church (we average about 105 on Sunday mornings) I was offended and broken by this statement. I was offended because this was a direct assault on the men and women that I lead each Sunday, some of whom have made this exact statement, and I was broken because of my own struggle with the desire in our “bigger is better” society to make it to a big church.
This mentality (of which Andy Stanley did apologize and say that it was an incredibly stupid statement) is rife in our culture. From the size of beverages, to the size of automobiles, to the size of cell phones (see iPhone’s new XS), we are inundated with the idea that bigger is better. The church is not immune to this phenomena. Whether it is Rick Warren, Andy Stanley, Matt Chandler, or Steve Furtick we tend to give an oversized amount of attention and influence to those whose churches are large. For some, that credit is deserved. For others not so much (I’ll let you decide which guys fall in which camp).
So where does that leave pastors of smaller churches? Often, pastors of smaller churches can feel depressed or angry because ministry doesn’t seem to be going as they planned. Small Church pastors can feel “stuck” in a small church while many of those who they know move on to “bigger and better things”. In his book of the same title, Karl Vaders calls this The Grasshopper Myth. Explaining this myth, Vaders says:
The book of Numbers talks about the Hebrews going into the land of Israel—they send in the 12 spies, and when the spies come back, 10 of the 12 say, “We saw the Nephilim there … we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (Num. 13:33). The grasshopper myth begins when I look at myself and say, “I’m not as big, therefore I’m not as good. I’m just a grasshopper.”
I’ve struggled with this myth. I know many of my friends have struggled with this myth. So what can we do to get over our non-biblical sense of failure? Here are some encouragements for pastors to overcome the grasshopper myth and see themselves in light of God’s grace and calling:
1. Embrace God’s Gifting…
God gifts us for different types of service, embrace that. One of the hardest things to realize is that God’s gifting has a lot to do with the type and size of church he calls us to serve. Some pastors are uniquely gifted to pastor bigger churches. Let’s call these guys ranchers. They’re good at staff meetings, organization, budgets, fundraising, etc. They are gifted at planning and organizing large groups of people, systems and organizations. You may be one of these people. But other pastors are shepherds. It’s not that they can’t organize, it’s just that they are more geared towards individual relationships and discipleship and the never ending administrative demands of pastoring a big church doesn’t interest them, and can ultimately burn them out.
If you are a shepherd and not a rancher, then embrace being a shepherd. Praise God for his unique calling and gifting that he has put on your life to lead his flock well.
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you… – 1 Peter 5:1-2
2. Understand God’s Purpose…
God’s purpose may be different than your own. Related to the last is the understanding that God’s purposes for you and your church are not your own. One of my favorite Old Testament characters is Jeremiah. Jeremiah was called by God to go to Israel at a time of great sin and moral corruption. Jeremiah was to preach God’s message to God’s people. We see God’s call to him in Jeremiah 29:11.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. – Jeremiah 29:11
But despite this fact, God’s purpose was not for Jeremiah to have a mega-church, or much of a congregation at all.
When you tell them all this, they will not listen to you; when you call to them, they will not answer. – Jeremiah 7:27
God’s purpose for Jeremiah was not necessarily Jeremiah’s. Not only did his message fall on deaf ears, they ended up throwing him in a well in an attempt to kill him (Jeremiah 38). The point is that God’s purpose for Jeremiah was to proclaim God’s Word to God’s People regardless of the response.
As shepherds to smaller, often rural, churches, we too often find ourselves in areas with small populations, or with those who “will not listen to you; when you call to them they will not answer.” Regardless we are called to preach the word and to equip our members for the work of the gospel (Ephesians 4:11-13), sometimes even in confrontational contexts like Jeremiah led in. This is our calling and God’s purpose for us.
3. Be Faithful…
Remember that faithfulness, not numbers, is God’s standard for success. In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus relates to his disciples the parable of the talents. In that parable three men were given money to manage for their master as he went away on a long journey. In the end, Jesus makes the application that the two who were faithful to manage well the talent that the master gave them were blessed while the unfaithful servant was punished.
As pastors, our calling is to be faithful to the ministry God has called us to do. John Piper agrees. He notes that “the decisive assessment of the success of our ministry is whether we have been faithful, not the number of our converts.”1
Shepherds are to feed, lead, and heed the flock (click here to see an article on the role of pastors). God judges us not on the number of people who attend our services, but on how faithful we are in accomplishing these purposes.
The Lord rewards every man for his righteousness and his faithfulness… – 1 Samuel 26:23
Small church shepherding is challenging. Often small church pastors are bi-vocational and have either small part-time staff or no staff at all. It’s easy to think that we aren’t successful, that we’re doing something wrong in ministry. But when I get discouraged, I remember that God has called me for the purpose of feeding, leading and heeding the body of Christ, and that his pleasure is based on my faithfulness, and not the numbers that arrive on Sunday morning.