One of the most important books in church literature to come out in a while is Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples. It’s a quick and easy read — and very powerful. It’s premise is, well, simple: that we waste a lot of time doing things that aren’t productive. Ask less of our members but ask what’s important.
Of course, much the same principle applies to ministers. We often have them doing unproductive things — and it’s really no surprise that the church isn’t growing given how poorly our ministerial time (and member time!) is allocated.
I’ve touched on this before, but I want to expand on the concept because, I’m persuaded, one cause of minister burn out is the feeling many ministers have that they aren’t doing much good with their time. It’s hard to be motivated when you don’t think you’re time is well spent. And the same is true of our members.
You see, not only do we have a minister burn out problem, we have a member burn out problem — because we waste gobs of their time in busywork that’s not productive for furthering the Kingdom.
Example 1: Sunday night
Most smaller Churches of Christ still have Sunday night worship — which is just like Sunday morning worship except we offer communion in a back room (or in the auditorium while everyone else watches very uncomfortably). The sermons are often targeted to the core members — maybe once more through the 5 steps of salvation, just to make sure they know we still believe in that. The crowds are always much smaller, except in the most legalistic churches.
What’s the solution? Well, let’s return to First Century practice. The early church didn’t have Sunday night service for those providentially hindered. Instead, they had a love feast. And they met in homes. They sat around a table with beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, shared a meal in the name of Jesus, and grew closer together in love. And maybe sometimes they came together with the entire congregation to do it all together. That model still works today, and it works very well.
I’d move these house groups from house to house — which is what the Bible says, isn’t it? I wouldn’t burden one woman with getting the house ready week after week. I’d insist that every member take a turn hosting, because no house is too humble for the body of Christ, and no one gets a free ride.
And I’d let the group decide when to meet. There’s no need for all groups to meet at the same time.
If a member couldn’t make church in the morning, they can take communion with their small group — and the group can all take communion together, with the meal. It might actually be a more powerful event celebrated in a house this way.
Some time, you might dedicate a night to the persecuted church around the world. You might draw the blinds, turn down the lights, and imagine what it was like in Rome right after Nero began persecuting Christians.
Example 2: Shut ins
Our shut in members are some of my favorite people. Many spent many years in dedicated service to Jesus before losing their health. We should visit them. But I don’t think the preacher should visit them — at least not on a regular basis. This is a service the church ought to provide through its members. I don’t even think this is necessarily the work of the elders. I think it should be the work of the friends and former Sunday class of the shut ins. Why on earth do we hire someone with a Masters of Divinity to visit our friends for us? It’s just wrong.
Example 3: Hospital visits
I’ve been in the hospital. I’ve never found it a very dignified setting. And I’m usually not feeling very well. I don’t mind the visitors, but often I can’t even remember them.
Now, it’s essential to have friends around before, during, and after a risky surgery or when bad news is a possibility. The church should be there, but it shouldn’t be necessary for the preacher himself to visit for every tonsilectomy. I understand that the prayer of a righteous man avails much, but I would hope the preacher’s not the only righteous person in the congregation.
I’m not so much against preacher visits as I am the notion that a member has been disrespected if the preacher doesn’t visit. Grow up. I’ve been there. I’m not the person the preacher should be most concerned with. The mere fact that you are sick doesn’t mean the preacher has to visit you. That’s why we have friends. And small groups. And fellow class members. The congregation’s love for you is not personified in the preacher. It’s found in the congregation — or not at all.
A small church of 60 has hired a preacher, and his salary and the building payments pretty much eat up the budget. The church has no elders, and not much teaching talent. The preacher preaches 2 sermons and teaches 2 classes a week. No one else is gifted to teach or preach.
The preacher spends hours each week making hospital visits, visiting shut ins, preparing 4 lessons, and handling the bills and paperwork at the building. That and counseling couples with troubled marriages is all that he does, and it more than fills his week.
Five years later, it’s all the same, and the church still have about 60 members, but they’re all older and there aren’t enough new members there to replace the older members when they die.
Think the preacher might burn out?
Rather than quitting, the minister persuades the church to drop Sunday nights. He gets the ladies class to handle visiting shut ins and those in the hospital together with the leadership of the sick member’s Sunday school class — and he quickly finds that they’re better at it than he is. He’s privileged to hear some of their prayers in the hospital, and he knows he made a good decision.
He replaces Sunday night church with small groups, and encourages the members to invite friends. He finds money in the budget for an excellent video series, and the members respond well to excellent teaching and deepening fellowship.
Even though he has no one gifted to teach, the videos are very well done and each group finds a discussion leader. The meals are a delight, and some groups begin to celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday night in a home. Yes, it’s a second celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and yes, that’s okay.
One of the groups begins to grow as the members invite friends to share in a delightful experience. The preacher sets up Bible studies. The church begins to grow.
The preacher no longers has to prepare a second sermon, and he doesn’t have to prepare small group Bible studies. He takes the time and looks for ways for the church to serve the community. At first, they just pass out hot cocoa and coffee to Christmas shoppers standing in line on Black Friday. Soon they’re giving out water to people protesting the Manorah scene on the city hall’s lawn. They learn to love the lost, and then they learn to love their enemies.
And the church continues to grow.
Soon the preacher is invited to meet with the mayor and discuss the mayor’s new initiative to improve life in the local housing project. The members visit the people in the project, offer to pray for them, and soon learn just how terrible things are in the “projects.” The church pours God’s love into the projects, the church becomes more and more like Jesus, and the church grows.
It could happen. And even if the church doesn’t grow at all, the minister and the members know they are living a rich, abundant life filled with peace, hope, and righteousness. No one burns out, even though everyone works harder than ever before — but they are working out of compassion and the Spirit, not guilt and tradition.
The church gets written up. The minister is marked. No one wants to go back to the old ways.