By Daniel Birai
In his book Who Moved My Pulpit, Thom Rainer shares a story I can identify with. It is about a well-meaning pastor who is eager to reach the community. This pastor, although with years of experience under his belt, makes an unwise decision to switch pulpits without leading the congregation through the change, resulting in drama that halts their progress for two years. As a Christian, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and as a pastor, the challenges that I see are deeply concerning and are slowing down the spreading the message of Christ’s soon return.
As a Christian, reaching our community in the 21st century is a daunting task. More research is showing that our communities are becoming less and less inclined to be involved in organized religion, with the percentage of individuals who claim to be on religious rising quickly. Leonardo Blair, in an article in The Christian Post (October 13) reported “as younger Americans shift away from organized religion, the studies also suggest that Christians are declining not just in a share of the US adult population, but also in absolute numbers.”
As a pastor, the challenges of leading a congregation can be overwhelming. As the religious landscape changes, it requires leaders to change with it. I can recall growing up and attending Sabbath activities all day. These days, some churches are happy to be done church before noon and spend the rest of the day at home or among friends. This isn’t wrong, per se. It’s just different. From my perspective as a worker in the church, this statistic is felt on the front lines each day. Speaking at the 2019 Annual Council of the General Conference, David Trim, director of Office of Adventist Archives, Statistics, and Research (ASTR), shared some data based on the research done by his office. Trim said that worldwide, the number of Adventist pastors has increased 85 percent in the past 30 years but the number of administrators has increased 300 percent. Meanwhile, the number of yearly accessions (people who become members of the Adventist Church) seems to be plateauing at around 1.4 million a year.
“If the increase of member accessions would keep up with the increase in administrators, we wouldn’t have a problem,” Trim said. It is a question, Trim advised, that every region should do very well to reflect on and discuss. “Examining the balance between administrators and pastoral/evangelistic workers might help us to see greater growth in the number of accessions,” he said.
Another hat I wear is the pastor of a phenomenal private Christian school. We serve children from preschool to 8th grade. We provide excellent Christ-centered education. As I have the privilege to sit on the Rocky Mountain Executive Committee, I am proud that our conference is committed to Christian education.
However, recent trends in our country are showing that more and more schools, from grade schools to academies and universities, are struggling to keep their doors open. We simply aren’t reaching enough students to make the finances work. The same could be said for our publishing presses and Adventist Book Centers, as evidenced by the church’s local Adventist Book Center in Denver closing down at the end of 2019. As faithful as our team has been, these realities are here, and they need to be addressed.
The challenges we face are immense. Thankfully, we serve a God who is leading and guiding. The “impossible” is what He specializes in. That means that we ought not be discouraged in the face of these challenges.
That being said, we need to rethink methods of how to serve and reach our community. And with rethinking comes the necessity of change. And that is where, as humans, we tend to struggle. In my experience, churches traditionally change slowly, if at all.
Thom Rainer writes about five groups of people that make change difficult and sometimes impossible, unless God moves on their hearts, or simply moves them all together. Deniers refuse to admit that there are any problems. They might discredit research, refute statistics, and flat out refuse to acknowledge the previous stated issues exist. The Entitled view their financial offerings as dues to get perks and privileges. They figure as long as they are giving certain amounts of money, things need to go their way. The Blamers point to other people/reasons why problems occur. The Critics, like the Blamers, point to others, but additionally drain church leaders with their criticism. They are quick to come up to leaders and tell them “people are saying that. . .” There may or may not be “people” saying these things. The Confused are often well meaning members that give highest priority to things that are not highest priorities. They may bewail a change in the order of service or gripe about the lack of a certain “ministry” running or not running, focusing on how things “used to be”.
Rainer proposes an eight-step solution. I want to highlight three of these steps. The first step is to stop and pray. I have struggled over the course of serving in ministry to have consistent corporate prayer with the churches I have served. They all believe in prayer, and are all committed to praying, but struggle to carve out time consistently to pray together. I believe as long as we neglect to make prayer, especially corporate prayer a priority, we will continue to struggle.
Secondly, he shares, confront and communicate a sense of urgency. We have to be willing to admit that the way things have always worked isn’t going to work anymore. We have to admit that we either need to adapt, or our schools and churches will die.
Thirdly, we must move from an inward focus to an outward focus. I am disturbed at the amount of time and energy we are spending on us. Whether its school, church, members, etc., at the end of the day, the question remains: if our churches and schools were to close today, would anyone notice?
We serve a God who is able to do anything. However, I don’t believe that His kingdom will move forward as long as we are stuck on our own methods, preferences, and comfort. We all, starting with myself, need to take a long, hard look at what we face, spend time corporately in prayer, and start being honest about what needs to change. We will make mistakes, we will fail in some areas, but ultimately, as long as we move forward, with our eyes on Jesus, He will give us the victory, for the work is His work. He guarantees its success.
–Daniel Birai is lead pastor in Fort Collins. Email him at: [email protected]