I'm a baptist, not by heritage but by conviction (of course the two need not be mutually exclusive). I planted and serve at a baptist church that is a part of the Southern Baptist Convention. We affirm historic baptist confessions. Some of us really affirm them. We plant baptist churches. Kiffin, Keach, Bunyan, Carey, and Spurgeon are some of the baptist men, now long gone, whom I look up to.
Sometimes, I get the question: "If you're baptist, then why isn't baptist part of your church name?"
(Only baptists ask this question, by the way.)
It's not a bad question. In fact, it's a good question that opens up a good conversation. And now that our little baptist church has planted two other baptist churches, and is currently starting another, all without "baptist" in their names, I thought it would be good to give a public answer.
Because we are church plants we have to come up names for our churches. While we embrace the baptist label we were moved away from using baptist in our name because of what we wanted to communicate about ourselves that is most important. In choosing our name there were two principles that guided us toward the name Redeemer Fellowship.
One piece of advice I received early on in the process of planting was from the pastor of a large church in our area.
He said, "You should name the church after a tree and a body of water."
"You mean, like 'Willow Creek?'" I asked.
"Exactly! Even our Chicago neighborhoods and cities have similar names."
I appreciate the idea of finding ways to connect with the culture around us, but we wanted to go with a name that was theological. We wanted our name to carry significance. Oak Creek, Willow Spring, Maple River, and Redwood Lake didn't say anything to us. So we began considering names that would speak to what we are about, or Who we are about.
There are many labels that can be rightly applied to Redeemer Fellowship. We are orthodox, evangelical, reformed, and baptist. I like labels. When they are accurate and rightly understood they can be very helpful. "Baptist" is an accurate label for us, but it is not often rightly understood in our context. I've had several of our members tell me that they would never have visited had "baptist" been on the sign. However, they are thrilled to be members of a baptist church today.
More importantly, we wanted our name to address the deepest part of our identity, not just one aspect of it. We wanted to point to Jesus. We chose "Redeemer Fellowship" because it highlights the Savior and his work as well as the nature of the church.
We are not closet baptists. We speak of our baptist roots, practice, and partnership from the pulpit, and in depth during our membership class. It's not hidden in the fine print, but it's not on the sign out front either. We are about Jesus Christ and his gospel above everything else, so he get's top billing.
I have a lot of experience in and with small churches through my own pastoral ministry as well as denominational cooperation. I have seen small churches that are healthy and some that are toxic. I have seen some die, and some grow dramatically in number. There are all kinds, and I would never assume all churches considered "small" by their own leadership or by outsiders are the same. But I do want to encourage some of Christ's smaller churches who are struggling.
Before I begin with the first post in this series, allow me to clarify what I mean by "small."
I understand that the largest percentage of churches in America are under 100 in attendance. While a church of 100 is "normative" in comparison to other congregations, it should be noted that most Christians are found in larger churches. This means that churches of 100 or so people are not "normative" when compared to the majority of other Christians' experience. I share this only to explain what I mean by "small" churches. A church of 120 feels small to most Christians, and in my assessment is still relatively small by virtue of the number of attenders, members, and leaders it has. Therefore "small" here is not meant to be a derogatory term, but a descriptor. Small churches can be dynamic and healthy. I am comfortable putting my church in the category of Christ's "smaller churches." So for now, lets forget about the actual number. What I am writing this week is for the smaller churches that are in trouble. I write this as an insider, and as a lover of smaller congregations.
Three Dangerous Mentalities
As I have seen several churches in my area continue to dwindle in size I have watched the leadership of many of these churches settle into into one of three dangerous mentalities:elitism, defeatism, and survivalism. These are mentalities I know well as they have characterized my ministry at one time or another.
Just because you're small doesn't mean you aren't loud and proud. I would know as I have always been the shortest kid on the playground, as well as having led in "smaller" churches. In fact a sense of ecclesial pride often comes to characterize a smaller church in order to justify its smallness. One book all pastors should read is C. John Miller's Outgrowing the Ingrown Church. In it he explains how this elitism works. "What they do is build an attitude of superiority over others by elevating a positive feature in the church life or tradition and then comparing this feature with groups which lack this quality." (pg 30)
I have seen this among some smaller Reformed churches. It is easy to accuse the larger churches of having sold out, of not taking theology seriously, or not having real community, or good pastoral care. It's easy and unfair, but it protects the ego and allows us to feel good about our smallness for the wrong reasons.
Defeatism on the other hand is a giving-up of the leadership. It is the "can't-do" spirit that has come to believe the lie of the devil, "You are too small and too poor to have any real impact." Defeatism focuses on everything the small church can't do and looses sight of what it can do. This pessimism only happens when we take our eyes off of Jesus, the head of the church, and the mission he has given us.
Survivalism is a shift in ministry emphasis from seeking to be a living, thriving, progressing ministry to one of mere maintence. Survivalism works at keeping the church floating--bailing water, patching holes, but not sailing. The survivalist mentality is a fearful one that refuses to take risks and tends toward an "ingrown" emphasis.
Of course the truth is much better than all of this. The small church is not limited in its fruitfulness by its size. It is only limited by the will of head of the church, Jesus Christ. A small church may be relatively small in number, but it wields the power of God through the ministry of the word which the Lord has been pleased to use to accomplish the impossible since the beginning. The Lord will use you to accomplish his work not because you are right, but because you are his. You will trample the devil under foot not because of your size, but because of your Savior. Many small churches can do far more than they believe, and part of the key is to stop focusing on its size.
In the upcoming posts I want to give specific words of encouragement to other small churches reminding us of all we can do, and may even do better as a consequence of being smaller than some larger congregations. Stay tuned.
To say that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is the essence of the gospel. Our fundamental hope in life and death is that we are saved by God's grace and not by our efforts. And one of the wonders of God's grace is that it abounds to us through means. From our conversion to Christ to our ongoing transformation into his image God uses divinely appointed means to sanctify us.
My favorite confession of faith says it this way,
Our confidence in God's grace to save and sanctify us should never encourage the "let go and let God" mentality, as if the only thing left to do to grow in faith and godliness is to stop seeking it. We must seek it. Yes, we must seek it in Christ, but we seek him through the means he has given us. So we should rightly point to such means, promote them, and rejoice in them as God's gifts to us.
Sure, there is the danger of practicing spiritual disciplines as an end in themselves. But there is also a danger of neglecting the means of grace (foregoing spiritual growth and health as a result) for fear of misusing them.
Lean into the means of grace that you may lean on Jesus himself. You know the promise stands that if we seek we will find. But where will you look for Christ? How will you lay hold of him by faith if you neglect these gifts? Open that Bible, hit your knees, gather with the saints, not to check duties off a list, but to cling to Jesus himself.
Joe Thorn is Lead Pastor of Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, IL and blogs at joethorn.net. His book, Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself, was released through Crossway/ReLit. You can follow him on Twitter @joethorn.
Evangelism is not only winning someone to Jesus by the grace of God in the preaching of the gospel. It is also winning them to the church by that same grace and gospel. The local church is increasingly being thought of as optional by professing believers. In fact when I say something like, "You can't do all that Christ calls you to do apart from the local church" I often get pushback online.
But read the words of the Apostles John.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
(1 John 1:1-4, ESV)
Do you see it? John says we preach the gospel so others would have fellowship with us, and our fellowship is with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. The Apostles preached the gospel not only to bring people individually to Jesus, but also collectively into his family gathered into local churches. I wonder how many of us would be comfortable saying what John says here. "I'm telling you about Jesus because I want you to be with us, and we are with Jesus." It sort of sounds like we believe our church is important. That to have know Jesus means you need to know his people. It sounds that way because it's true.
Of course it's possible to be converted and not be a part of the local church. Possible. And dangerous. You see, the goal--the mission of the church--is not to see converts, but to make disciples. Conversion is but a part of that process. The making of spiritually mature disciples who obey Jesus Christ can only fully happen inside the church. It is in the church where we discover and exercise our spiritual gifts; where we bear one another's burdens, exhort, encourage, and rebuke one another; where we share in one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one Father.
Preach the gospel. Preach the hope of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection for sinners. Preach it with the aim of reconciling people to God and receiving them into the fellowship. The local church (in all it's ministries and meetings) is "where it's at," not because it's cool, entertaining, or perfect, but because that it is where Christ stands with his people, fellowshipping with them, and leading them through this life into the life to come.