Few weeks go by without someone reminding pastors that 85 percent to 90 percent of churches are plateaued or declining. This means at least four out of five pastors lead churches in need of revitalization. The work is difficult. For every story of a declining church that turned around and began to reach its community, there are hundreds of stories of pastors working hard but seeing few visible results.
It is hard to overstate the difficulty of working in a church where revitalization is not happening. There are years with more funerals than baptisms. Teenagers graduate, move on to college, and don’t come back. Families with young children leave and go to the church with “better” children’s ministry, music, and preaching. The church’s leaders stare at you and wonder what you are doing wrong to keep the church from growing. The pastor hears countless stories about church’s glory days and how great was the pastor who led them in those years. When those stories are told, the pastor hears, “We wish we were in those days again, and we wish he was still our pastor instead of you.”
If this is your situation, consider these encouragements to continue laboring in a situation where the fruit is not visible.
Find your identity in Christ
Many men try to find their identity in their work. They either revel in their successes or bemoan their failures. The pastor struggles with this temptation more than most because his work and his spiritual life are so closely connected. If the church is growing and things seem to be going well it is easy to assume you are more spiritually mature than you really are. On the other hand it is easy to assume that the church’s decline or lack of progress reflects deficiencies in your walk with the Lord.
You are defined by Jesus and not by the number of people sitting in the pews each Sunday.
Be faithful to the ministry
Pastors can be tempted to shift into neutral when the church doesn’t appear to be doing well. There are many ways a pastor can look like he is busy while accomplishing absolutely nothing. The fire is gone, and he just clocks time to get a paycheck. Pastor, fight this temptation with every fiber of your being by focusing on the work that really matters in your church. Focus on the things you know the Lord has called you to do and do them regularly. This plodding ministry work does not make for an interesting reality show, but by God’s grace it is the means he uses to build a faithful church that brings glory to Jesus.
Faithfully look for opportunities to share the gospel with people in your community. Do you know your neighbors? A recent article estimated that half of Americans do not know the names of their neighbors. Think of the rich opportunities that await you in your own neighborhood. Get out in the front yard and play with your kids or walk the dog. Stop and introduce yourself to neighbors you have not met. Prepare a meal and invite your neighbors over. The possibilities for gospel ministry where you live are endless. Also, think about the places in your town where people gather regularly. Go there and start conversations. Pray that God will put new people in your path. Talk with them about things other than sports and weather. Look for ways to turn the conversation towards the gospel, open your mouth, and share it.
Be faithful to disciple men in your church. You don’t have to have a formal curriculum and a three-year growth track. Start meeting with guys to read through the Bible or a good book together. Pray for each other and talk about life. Bring them along with you as you go on hospital visits. If they live close to you, invite them over and model hospitality. Live life alongside each other, teaching them as you go.
We get discouraged when we believe our preaching isn’t making a difference and begin to buy the lie that our sermons don’t matter. God’s Word does not return void, so we would do well to reaffirm our commitment to the ministry of the Word. Plan what you will be preaching several months out and begin to read ahead on issues related to what you will be preaching. Spend plenty of time in your text, thinking through the issues it raises and how the Lord intends for the message to change the lives of your people.
Finally, be faithful in your prayer life. If we are being truthful, this is the easiest aspect of your ministry to neglect. Sometimes we simply don’t pray at all, and sometimes we pray without actually praying. Pray the Lord will continually make you into is image. Pray that he will keep you from discouragement, bitterness, and frustration. Pray for your family to grow in godliness. Pray for your leaders and the people in your church faithfully. Do you want to see conversions and revival? Pray. Pray that people in your neighborhood will come to know Jesus.
Above all, whether you labor in a church of thousands or a church of twenty where everyone has the same last name, pray that king Jesus would be glorified by your life and your ministry.
Scott Slayton, a 2002 graduate of SBTS, serves as Lead Pastor at Chelsea Village Baptist Church in Chelsea, AL and writes regularly at his site One Degree to Another. He has been married to Beth since 2003 and they have four children. You can follow him on Twitter. This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.