I pastor a small church in Atlanta. A big Sunday for us is about 150 people, 200 and we’re blowing the roof off the place. I love pastoring a small church. The main reason why – I know our people and our people know me. I get to see their lives up close and personal. I know their names and stories, and our lives are intertwined together. Essentially, it comes down to access. It’s my joy and delight to share my life with our congregation and in return have them share their life with me.
However, over the last few years of pastoring a small church, I’ve observed something rather peculiar about my ministry.
Just this past week I received an email from someone who attends a local megachurch and is a friend of a member of our church. They asked if I would dedicate their new baby. In the email they said, “The church my wife and I attend just discontinued their baby dedication program.”
A few weeks prior I met a neighborhood friend for coffee. She asked if I’d meet to talk through a “pastoral favor” as she called it. She works in a hospital and said one of her patient’s really needed a call from a pastor. Through the conversation she told me, “I’d ask a pastor from my church, but I can barely get one to talk with me. How am I gonna get one to speak with my patient?” She also attends a different megachurch in our city.
Lastly, for a about a year I’ve been discipling a young guy who I met through a mutual friend. A few weeks after we initially met, he called asking if I would disciple him. Now, when he introduces me to his friends, he introduces me as his pastor even though he doesn’t attend our church. When we first started meeting, I asked him if he was meeting with any of the pastors at his church. He said it was hard to get access. He, too, attends a megachurch.
I have experienced the same thing when it comes to weddings, funerals, marital counseling, baptisms and pastoral recommendations for colleges, scholarships, etc… There are tons of people out there attending large churches who want/need a pastor but can’t get access to theirs, so they come to me.
After experiencing this same thing over and over, I don’t know if I am supposed to be grateful or disturbed. On the one hand, I’m delighted to give these folks the access to a pastor they are looking for. But, on the other hand, something about it doesn’t seem quite right.
In 1 Thessalonians, the apostle Paul writes, “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well (1 Thess. 2:8).” Paul gave people access to his life.
Jesus did so as well. Often during his ministry Jesus offered the simple invitation, “Come” (Matt. 11:28, Jn 1:39). He repeatedly opened his life to others.
The situations above have caused me to question whether or not we’ve lost sight that at the heart of the gospel is a story about shared life and access. The God of the universe doesn’t stay at a distance and remain inaccessible. He comes to us in the person of Jesus in order to share his life with us so that we might have immediate and consistent access to him (Matt. 28:20, Eph. 2:18, Heb. 4:16). If access was important to Jesus and also important to Paul, shouldn’t it also be important to us?
I do realize it’s impossible to give equal access to everyone, especially in a large church. Even in our little church of 150, I don’t have the capacity to give everyone equal access, neither did Jesus. He spent concentrated time with only a few.
And while I don’t have a conclusive point to my observation and interactions mentioned above, it makes me wonder if there are a few things shifting in the larger landscape of the American church?
1. The American church is becoming disillusioned by its celebrity culture. Just like in secular celebrity world, when we view people from a distance we are only getting a partial view of their lives. And in turn, we can easily be fooled into thinking their flaws are few and far between. Therefore, when we are exposed to their short comings, with in person or in the media, it can leave us disappointed and disillusioned.
2. People want something small. In a day and age when we can easily be just another face in the crowd. In a context where we’re surrounded by people all the time but are utterly alone, I think people are craving something personal? A place where they’re not just a face in the crowd, but a place where they can know and be known.
3. Churches everywhere need to take the work of equipping seriously. Perhaps the church needs to take a hard look at what Paul says in Eph. 4 about equipping God’s people for ministry. Especially in a large church, where not everyone can have equal access to staff pastors. The work of the church was never intended to be in the hands of the professionals.
What if a church could train, equip and ordain members of the church to perform baby dedications rather than having to cancel the”baby dedication program?”
What if church members were equipped with basic pastoral-counseling skills to care for the hurting souls of the folks they run into every day?
What if people were trained to disciple others rather than depend on a professional clergy?
Please don’t read this as a slam on megachurches. I have many friends who pastor large churches and even I have benefitted from the large churches mentioned in my observations above.
But at the end of the day, it comes down to shared life and giving other people access. It doesn’t necessarily need to come from the folks at “the top.” But there are people in our congregations longing to be pastored and as church leaders it’s our responsibility and calling to shepherd those in our care.
What are your thoughts? Where have you seen this done well?
Where do you think I off? Where have you seen/experienced something different?