Virtually every month and week of the year is now recognized as a pseudo-holiday and awareness call for some sort of group or another to recognize in the United States.
Having just perused this year’s calendar, I noticed that I have already missed observing the following 10 through the first three quarters of this year:
- National Pharmacist Day (may need a pill for that one)
- Rare Disease Day in February (I’m not making these up)
- Teen Dating Awareness Month (that one should be every month)
- Fat Tuesday in March (not touching that one)
- Adopt a Ferret Month (why?)
- Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month (this one doesn’t add up to me)
- Cell Phone Courtesy Month (how about this one being 24/7, 365?)
- Honey Month (how sweet!)
- Pirate Month (“shiver me timbers!”)
- Shameless Promotion Month (for all of the above- in September)!
Conspicuously absent though from the national calendar is one of my favorites, Pastor Appreciation Month, sometimes called ‘Clergy Appreciation Day’, celebrating in October the contributions of pastors, reverends and ministers in the U.S.
Being a pastor myself, I might think the origin of the holiday might have begun when the apostle Paul – the church’s first missionary and church planter, stated that the elders (or pastors- leaders) of the church are worthy of a double honor (1 Tim. 5:17). He reiterated that idea in 1 Thess. 5:12-13, when he stated that that those who work hard as shepherds among the flock should be held in the highest regard for their work.
Sounds good, but lest I am thought to be ‘shamelessly promoting’ my work, I, like many of fellow under-shepherds of Jesus Christ, are not looking for gifts (as appreciated as those may be) as much as for the fruit of our faithfulness and labor unto Christ from the sheep.
Many of us yearning to please our king and advance his cause and kingdom are looking for affirmation that they are making a difference. As for myself, I am looking for growth, but not the kind you may be thinking of in raw numbers such as church buildings, budgets and bodies per se.
Having studied and been somewhat exposed to the mega-church growth movement for nearly two decades, I frankly weary of that pastoral prospect and burden, knowing the temptations inherent in reaching that status, to compromise the gospel, to fall in sin and being pre-occupied with sheer attendance and giving stats.
As an average church-size pastor (reportedly more than two-thirds of the 300,000 plus churches in America are 100 and under in Sunday attendance) who believes in the sovereignty of God and his providence in working his will out in the world through circumstances, I’ve come to understand that it is Jesus alone who builds his church (Matt. 16:15-19).
In fact, my church’s leadership team is in the good company of the cornerstone itself of the church, Jesus Christ. If you were to lay aside the unprecedented and exceptional open air crowds our Lord preached to in his ministry, including his Sermon On the Mount messages and among the feeding of the thousands, you find a preacher and ‘Good Shepherd’ who had his most pastoral relationships defined by a smaller and specific group of disciples that, by virtually any definition, we would call today a small or average size church.
In fact, though he preached to some massive groups of people, he never pastored them and would speak in a way so as to even whittle down the masses in order to separate true followers from fair-weather fans (Jo. 6). He called such assemblies “sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36), which is like calling a mega-crowd, “a church without a pastor.”
That said, all of us who serve in the ministry should pray for and labor towards more worshippers to come to our Lord Jesus in ‘spirit and truth.’ As the universal and invisible church legitimately grows in number, the kingdom of God advances as does the praise and glory he is worthy to receive.
However, there’s no denying the numerical decline of the American church, including the nation’s largest Protestant denomination of which our church is affiliated with, the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC lost almost 78,000 members in the past year, according to reports and have now lost a million members since their peak of 16.3 million in 2003.
The denomination is down to its “lowest baptisms since 1946; lowest membership since 1990; lowest worship attendance since 1996,” according to a historical analysis from one of its seminaries. The only measure where Southern Baptists are growing fortunately in terms of the long run, are in their number of churches being planted, adding 479 last year for a total of more than 47,000.
On the one hand, church planting has long served as a fertilizing seed for the kingdom, as it creates energies, initiatives and movements grounded upon evangelistic community outreach and discipleship. But on the other hand, “It’s clear that evangelism and discipleship are waning,” Thom Rainer, President and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, an SBC affiliate told a media outlet in speaking of the church’s current state. “I don’t believe it is due to the lack of opportunities, though. Instead, there is a lack of engagement.”
So, as I think about my own church within the context of God’s kingdom priorities, I offer the following ‘Pastor Appreciation Month’ wish list to my people on behalf of my fellow elders and other local churches that may read this post all following under the umbrella of “engagement”…
- Go to Church Regularly
Heb. 10:25 says, we should not neglect ‘to meet together, as is the habit of some’. The reason is because our meeting together is one of the primary ways we fulfil our obligations as universal church members. It is very hard to encourage, build up, challenge, edify or do any of the ‘one another’ commands when we don’t meet with the other believers to whom we have committed. We expect regular attendance when the church gathers together.
This is an even greater need to build up the encouragement of smaller, average-size churches.
- Prioritize the Lord’s Supper
In Acts 2:42-47 we see the things the early church prioritized in its fellowship. We find they devoted themselves to teaching, worship, breaking bread, the Lord’s table and prayer. These are the activities that make a church, a church. In Lu. 22:19, Jesus commands his disciples to remember and proclaim his death in communion. The Lord’s Supper renews our commitment to Christ and his people, marking them off as a church that distinguishes them from the world around them.
By drawing a line between the church and the world, baptism and the Lord’s Supper make it possible to point to something and say, ‘there is a church’ rather than ‘there are some Christians just getting together over coffee’.
- Tell People About your Church Regularly
The best form of advertising – whether it be the church or several other institutions or forms of consumerism if you will, is by word of mouth. No church billboard, TV, internet or radio ad campaign can match the words of a Christ-exalting and Spirit-filled member of a local church telling an unchurched and/or unsaved person about the evidences of the Lord’s grace and excitement experienced in their congregation.
Tell them what the Lord has been teaching you through the word ministry of your church. When asked how many people attend your church on a Sunday, respond by telling them about you and a few others that you have seen become transformed and are growing due to your church’s ministry.
- Pray Regularly
The Bible tells us to pray ‘without ceasing’ (1Thess. 5:17), to pray for each other (Eph 6:18; Ja. 5:16) and for our leaders (Col 4:3; 1 Thess. 3:1; Heb 13:18). If the church is the sum of its members, this means we are called to pray for the church- including for its Biblically grounded growth. That is, each individual member as well as for its wider work and mission.
A great place to do this is in the church’s regular prayer meetings such as we have, every Sunday morning before the rest of our worship service continues.
- Give Consistently and Serve joyfully
The Bible is full of instructions about giving. In the New Testament, its only injunctions are that disciples are to give (Lu. 6:38) generously and cheerfully from the heart, “not reluctantly or under compulsion (2 Cor. 9:6-7)” regardless of our resources.
Our church’s Commitment to Fellowship makes clear that those who wish to become members are to give of their time and talents, as well as of their treasure. The pastors or elders are “equipping the saints for the work of the ministry” (Eph.4) so that may do their part to build each other up and the kingdom, as well as doing their part to be disciples who make, mature and multiply more disciples of Jesus Christ, fulfilling our Lord’s Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20).
We, therefore, desire and expect every member at Christ Community Church to serve joyfully in the work of ministry, as every other local church should. Where there is service to build up the body and where there are opportunities to reach out with the gospel, we expect each member to be involved.
Finally, I might add a more personal, pastoral addendum to the ‘Appreciation’ wish list to include this reminder of a gift from church members to their pastors: remember your pastor(s) are an example to the flock, but are also fallible men with fallible family members that need as much love, grace, mercy and affection as you the church member need and expect from them. In other words, your pastoral families are church members as worthy of the ‘one anothers’ ministry as you are.
Again, for those pastors struggling to remain faithful to their calling which is the greatest fruit a church elder can bring to his Lord and people, consider if you ever feel underappreciated as you may, your Pastor at the right hand of the Father appreciates you.
As one writer put it; Jesus shepherded a small group of imperfect, but committed people. He discipled them through relationship and instruction. He knew what it was like to have the crowds leave as quickly as they came. He developed a leadership team. He got frustrated when his leadership team seemed like they’d never get it. He was let down by the people he loved when he needed them the most.
He helped them assess their progress, using correction and encouragement. He prepared them to keep the ministry going after he was no longer with them.
If you are an ‘average’ church pastor, know all of the above and this: whatever you’re going through, whatever frustrations you feel and whatever joys you experience, Jesus felt them too. You’re not alone. Jesus understands and Jesus appreciates you as I appreciate the fellow pastors of my church, both bi-vocational ministers, this month and every other day whether it’s on the calendar or not.