Fill Believers, Not Buildings: Why Success in Ministry Isn’t a Numbers Game
Pastoring an existing church is stepping into a family. As you dig into the archives and sift through old photographs and letters, you take in the highs and lows through the years and are presented with the opportunity to reflect on the life and character of those who pastored before you. All this feels a bit like becoming acquainted with distant relatives.
In the church I pastor, Tremont Temple in Boston, Massachusetts, there’s a long list of pastors spanning back to 1839, and it wasn’t long after I swung open the massive, iron, bank-style vault door, that I took a special interest in Frank Ellis. He was the pastor of our church way back when it was called Union Temple Baptist Church, from 1880–1884.
Guy Mitchell, Tremont’s very own historian, produced an impressive unpublished manuscript in the mid-20th century titled History of Tremont Temple. In it he reflects on Ellis’s short tenure as pastor:
Although most of the clouds which arise during Dr. Ellis’s pastorate had a bright and silvery lining, there was one which shed a depressing shadow over this pastor’s spirit. It was the shadow of the upper gallery, unillumined by the faces of attendants at divine worship. He greatly desired to see that gallery filled and fully realized this his ministry would not be considered as up to the standard required, if he preached to a but partly-filled house. No one felt his failure in this respect more than he did, and after a valiant attempt for four years he decided to give up the effort. He resigned his pastorate and finished his labors on November 4th, 1884, and immediately went to Baltimore to preach in a church where there was no upper gallery.
If Mitchell is right, Ellis was driven from his post, defeated. The “standard required” hadn’t been met. The upper gallery hadn’t been filled. He hadn’t filled it. And so after four and a half years, it was time to pack up the horse-and-buggy, and hit the road to plant the gospel in softer soil, in a church more sized and suited to his gifts.
As we consider this man and his ministry, the dusty vault offers up some clues that might help us understand his plight. In a separate document authored by Mitchell called Historical Sketchbook, he wrote that Ellis was “an extremely sensitive man with very high aims and ambitions and was easily disturbed by even a slightly apparent failure in their accomplishment.” It seems that Ellis may have had the dangerous combination of towering ambition and thin skin—like a fireman running into the blaze without his gear.
Here’s one more clue for understanding Ellis: his predecessor was a pastoral pillar. George C. Lorimer was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and came to the States as an aspiring actor. He was charismatic, striking in appearance, and beloved by the congregation. His reputation as a preacher and author was celebrated both in the States and abroad.
So Ellis followed directly after this heavy-hitter whose 21-year pulpit ministry regularly packed out Tremont Temple’s main hall. It’s also clear from two large volumes of meticulous minutes from the member’s meetings that membership dipped in the days of Ellis—something that never happened in the days of Lorimer. It’s hard to follow a beloved pastor, especially one who had such a dominant presence in the pulpit.
But maybe the greatest strike against Ellis, according to Mitchell’s account, is the way he perceived his own success. For Ellis, success was a numbers game.
But it’s exactly this view of fruitfulness in ministry that needlessly weighs down and even shipwrecks gifted pastors. Far worse, it leaves churches led by pastors who are like husbands with a roving eye—never satisfied, always looking beyond the bride because she isn’t enough.
Pastors, here are five encouragements that will serve to keep us from “pulling an Ellis.”
1. Fill believers, not buildings.
The measure of a pulpit ministry isn’t its width, but its depth. Blinded by pride and the idolatry of success, we too often equate God’s blessing with a large congregation and failure with empty seats. But our greatest desire as pastors should be that our hearers hearts are formed to the image of Christ.
In Ephesians 4, we find that God has gifted the church with preachers “for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” For Paul, the growth that comes from God’s Word is most essentially concerned with depth, not width. The burden of the apostles was to see God’s people grow in maturity. If our metric for success in the ministry is how many seats we fill on a Sunday, our goals are different than Jesus’—and that’s never a safe place to be.
2. Fill your own shoes, not the last guy’s.
For Ellis, and for every new pastor called to an existing church, there are expectations for what your ministry should look like. There will be those who say, “That’s not how Pastor (insert predecessor here) used to do it!” But one of the gravest mistakes we can make right through the gate is to compare ourselves to the last guy. If he was beloved, we’ll feel crushed when our people don’t respond to us quite in the same way. On the other hand, if he was despised, our hearts will fill with pride when we sense that the people love us more. Neither is healthy. Look forward and upward.
3. Plead for thicker skin.
If we’re defensive because we always feel that people are disappointed with the lack of fruit from our ministry, then they’ll wither along with us. Nobody wants to follow a timid pastor. We must instead receive from God the ministry he desires for us and for his people. Isn’t he wiser than us? There are congregations of all sizes, and God loves them all.
Receive the ministry God has intended for you—and stand tall.
4. Praise God for fruit, and not just the visible kind.
How can we celebrate the fruitful ministries of Jeremiah and Judson and then lament when we see little fruit in our own churches? Both of these men of old were faithful in the orchard, even when just a few crabapples seemed to hang from the tree.
Similarly, much of the fruit within our own orchards is hidden. Jesus spoke of the kingdom as a growing seed. Even while we sleep, it grows. We don’t see it, and we certainly don’t cause it. But there’s one thing we do know: godly growth is often hidden from our sight. For most of us who tend to swell with pride at the sight of any semblance of fruit in our churches, hidden fruit is part of God’s wise plan to keep us humble. Praise God for what you can see. But don’t forget to regularly praise him for everything you can’t see.
5. Find your identity in Christ.
Pastors, your identity isn’t as a pastor. It’s as a beloved child of God. God has saved us from our sins by sending Jesus to bear the wrath that we deserved for our sins against him. Nobody in an identity crisis can be an effective pastor. If our hope is in anything but Jesus, we’ll be an empty suit—or flannel, if you’re hipper than me.
After Jesus sent out seventy-two of his disciples, they reported back to him about some pretty remarkable work they’d done, including casting out demons. But do you remember what Jesus said to them? Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.
Some preachers fill stadiums with an open Bible. And for some of these “preachers,” opening the Bible is all they do with it. So why is it that we who should know better have bought in to the idea that bigger is better? May we repent of our pride, our idolatry of ministry, and our discontentment with the flock God has given to our care.
For many of us, the lack of visible fruit tempts us to pull an Ellis. But rather than judging our churches by what we can see, let’s trust God. There’s so much more to a church than her numbers.