bits from bob....
Early in 2009, I decided to lay aside the role and responsibilities of local church ministry. By summer 2010, the new minister was in place and my full-time role as a local minister ended. My reinvented ministry life still includes preaching, but now my opportunities to preach occur in many different churches and settings--as guest speaker, interim minister, and consultant. My work in missions has increased significantly. I have had time to reflect on the nature of ministry. What is ministry about? Recognizing that ministry is plastic and pliable, that various ministers do the work of ministry differently based on personal factors such as personality, skills, and aptitudes, can we identify the essence, the core, of ministry? What are the most important aspects of ministry?
The potential difficulty of answering the question is suggested in our inability to settle upon a description of those we hire in local churches. Are we preachers? That's what I was when I began my ministry. Churches hired preachers. I knew my job--preaching. Are we evangelists? Somewhere along the way we distinguished local preaching and revival preaching. The visiting preachers were evangelists--the local preachers often were not. Are we ministers? As we hired ministry specialists--in education, youth, administration, outreach, involvement, and a host of other areas, minister became the most common designation. Often, my hybrid description of myself was that I was the "pulpit minister."
Regardless of the word we use--preacher, evangelist, minister--effective ministers will help the church catch a renewed vision of the importance and the power of evangelism in the local church. Several years ago John Ellas published a study showing that the difference between a declining church and a growing church was three conversion baptisms annually per 100 members. (The difference in total baptisms--including both biological and conversion baptisms--was 3.4 baptisms annually per 100 members.) In the majority of our churches (85% are smaller than 200), one minister serious about evangelism can generate enough conversion baptisms per year to be the difference between a growing church and a declining church. We who are called to preach must ask ourselves if we are serious about sharing the whole gospel with the whole world. If we answer yes, and our ministry reflects the truthfulness of our answer, it is almost certain we are ministering in a growing church. If we answer yes, the church is growing because we are teaching numerous outreach Bible studies each week.
I like John Stott's summary of Paul's ministry in Ephesus: "He shared all possible truth with all possible people in all possible ways. He taught the whole gospel to the whole city with his whole strength. His pastoral example must have been an unfailing inspiration to the Ephesian elders." (The Spirit, The Church & The World, p. 328) What a challenging description of local ministry. What a worthy goal. Every minister might well ask himself, "Is this a description of what I am doing in my ministry?"
I would like to think that Stott's description depicts the way Jan and I did ministry for most of three decades. I began my ministry in a small, Arkansas community. Frankly, I had little idea of what to do or how to do it. We did what seemed best and seized the opportunities God provided. One of our members was the postmaster, another operated the local café. If I did not know someone, I only had to ask the postmaster for details. I knew when people moved to town. I visited the café almost daily and met a lot of people. I officiated at 27 funerals in 27 months. I arranged to publish a weekly article in the local newspaper (the editor was a member of the church). My wife and I served as substitute teachers in the school system. We attended high school ballgames. We got to know the members; we became acquainted with many of the townspeople. We did our best to be visible, active, and involved in the community. We taught Bible studies, we tried to talk to everyone who would listen. We contacted the family members of church members. We talked to their neighbors and ours. The church building was on the main street in town and we maintained a marquis with interesting, eye-catching sayings. We issued invitations to worship services and to special events. Our target was the whole town and we worked with all our strength. We witnessed numerous baptisms in two years. The church grew; as a young couple committed to ministry we grew even more.
Our next ministry was with a medium-sized church in Tulsa. We rethought the dynamics of ministry to reach out to a different kind of community. We did not succeed as we would have liked, but we knew that our task was to share the gospel with everyone who would listen using every method we could. We wrote and published a small magazine which we mailed to every home within a certain radius of the church building. We surfaced prospects by conducting a religious survey in the same approximate area--about 2000 homes. We reached out to the needy; we began a campus ministry. The mission activity of the church involved fully supporting three foreign missionaries. We sought to be possibility people--reaching as many as possible in as many ways as possible.
When we accepted a preaching job in the "mission field" of Michigan, we moved north to the Detroit suburbs. Perhaps Michigan was not exactly a mission field in those days, but the churches of Christ were not nearly as strong or numerous as in the South. The church we worked with had an active bus program and we rapidly became a part of that outreach program. We visited (canvassed) every Saturday, contacting current riders, setting up Bible studies with parents, contacting new riders, and meeting new families. We taught Bible studies. We reached out with the gospel wherever we could. We were involved in Michigan church planting and also in Canadian mission efforts. Two years flew by quickly.
As we look back, we realize that in those initial ministry experiences God was getting us ready for what was to come. When we moved to Michigan's state capital, Lansing, we found a city waiting to hear the gospel. We joined hands with a church of about 175 that already had a bus ministry. I taught a college age Bible class; we hosted special events on the Michigan State University campus. We trained a group of members who were willing to teach home Bible studies. Members started inviting their friends and family members to church and when we made contact, we set up Bible studies. I learned the value of having an active prospect list. We reached out to the community in every way we could-we ministered cross-culturally, we reached out especially to the Hispanic community. Primarily as a result of the personal Bible studies, about 250 people were baptized in a decade. I learned that people are attracted to activity and commitment. I performed weddings; we provided counseling, we taught family parenting classes. We loved people and they loved us back. We were committed to sharing the entire counsel of God's word with the entire city, using all our strength. We found people who had fallen through the cracks of society. We seldom said "no" and the needs of humanity virtually overwhelmed us. When we left, we counted almost 3000 people who counted us as "their minister". Most of them did not attend the church where we worked, but we were their spiritual connection. Intense evangelistic efforts helped the church to double in attendance. In fact it grew to nearly 400 during a time of intense outreach before leveling off at 350. In addition to the local outreach and evangelism efforts, the church became very involved in mission work, especially in Central America. We had a Personal Evangelism Program that involved almost half of the congregation. We loved the Lord and loved working for the Lord. We were wholly his, wholly involved, and wholly committed to spreading the good news to every person who would hear. The church set a goal of teaching the Bible in a personal study every day and succeeded over several years. One year, we set a goal of bringing at least one person to Christ each week and we met that goal because of daily teaching and preaching.
After almost a dozen delightful years, Jan and I left Lansing and moved to the center of the country, landing in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, a little less than an hour from Tulsa. We were nearer family and our children were blessed to get to know their grandparents much better. The Fort Gibson church had a heart for its community. Shortly after we arrived, the elders undertook a project to contact every person in the community who had ever been connected with the church. Jan and I became involved in the school system, taught adult education classes, attended events and ballgames, visited every business in town, and visited in the home of every member in the first year. As we had in the past, we focused our evangelistic efforts first on the spouses and family members of church members. We found people in the community willing to study the Bible so we set up Bible studies. We sent information regularly to every mailing address in the community. Everyone knew us; we knew almost everyone. We and the church did all of this with a focus on one goal-the entire city was our target and our goal was to take the entire gospel to the entire city, or at least to all who would listen. We used all our being, and the church hosted almost daily activities. People in the community commented on the fact that there was always someone at the church building and something was always happening. In this case, it took about two years for these efforts to begin to bear fruit, and during the last six years we ministered in Fort Gibson, over 100 persons came to the Lord and were baptized. Church attendance grew from 185 to almost 300. During our last year at Fort Gibson, we helped arrange an evangelistic campaign which occurred the year after we left. During that campaign, 45 more persons came to the Lord, so that church had almost doubled in nine years--the eight we were there and the one after.
My ministry experience was forever changed with the invitation to work in Christian higher education. We spent the next seven years in Christian higher education. We had the opportunity to speak in hundreds of churches and were involved with several interim ministries. Along the way, we got a little older and lost some of our energy. A move to be nearer aging parents led us back into a brief local ministry. (This ministry was unique in that it morphed into an extended interim ministry, and I observed that even interim ministry can be evangelistic, as there were 34 baptisms in 21 months.) This brief time in ministry bridged into another four years in Christian higher education--again coupled with interim ministries and also the opportunity to participate in various ministries focused on the growing Hispanic population.
My retirement from Christian higher education found me back in local ministry--this time in a different ministry role, striving to heal a broken and bruised congregation. Almost all of our energies were consumed in healing and evangelistic efforts were limited. As I explained above, last year I passed the reins to a younger minister who now has the responsibility to help the congregation continue to move forward. I have enjoyed all my various ministry opportunities--teaching, higher education administration, mission work, and interim ministry. But I must confess that for me there is nothing in the world like a local ministry that grows the church by touching a community with the gospel of Jesus. Shortly after we completed our local ministry assignment, we worked for a time in an interim ministry situation. At the conclusion of that interim ministry, we spent two weeks with the church just before the new minister arrived. We had five baptisms in those two weeks--personal Bible studies, outreach efforts, visitors.... The power of the gospel--we felt the pull of local ministry!
Sometimes I am asked why I am not still preaching and serving as a local minister. The answer is not hard: I believe the work of ministry deserves more than I can give. The energy has waned; the spark is not as strong. I cannot maintain day after day the toil of daily outreach and teaching, almost daily Bible studies, counseling, pastoral visits, funerals, sermon and class preparations, study, and reading. I cannot do all that needs to be done--the version of ministry I know and love is beyond my reach. I believe that with an evangelistic ministry presence in the pulpit, every church can grow! Studies have shown that one committed minister can be the difference. I believe that the church deserves ministers who are serious about taking the whole gospel to the whole world with all their might, energy, time and ability. I refuse to be a half-hearted minister because the church will also become half-hearted.
I have always prayed that I would be wise enough to know when it was time to serve the Lord in a different way. We have redirected our ministry. I am thrilled to be involved in seminars, consulting, interim ministry and mission work. Over the last year, I have preached somewhere many more weeks than I have not. I will continue to do all that I can. Hopefully, I have gained some experiences and insights that will be helpful to others. I will share what I have learned. I will continue to write. I am involved in several mission works and hope to increase that activity. I will minister through workshops and seminars when invited.
On the other hand, I am sad to be removed from the excitement and intensity of daily evangelism. I beam when someone says, "I remember when you studied with and baptized my husband," or "You baptized me." I pray that the church will not lose sight of its purpose to bring souls to Jesus. We who minister are a key factor. When the local minister is personally teaching and baptizing souls regularly, the local church will follow suit. I know that from a quarter century of ministry where that was our almost daily goal and prayer. I pray that our ministers and our churches will not lose their passion for reaching souls, and that in those places where the passion has waned, that it will be renewed, so that the church will again get busy with the task of seeking and saving the lost, reaching out to every person at every opportunity with every means possible.