The old Beach Boys’ hit, Be True To Your School, has a lesson for pastors of small-churches, too. While the Beach Boys were singing about loyalty to your school, I’m talking about being true to your church’s history, personality, and memory. I think one of the biggest mistakes pastors of small-churches make is leading against the grain of their church, trying to make it into something it’s not.
How do I know this is one of the biggest mistakes small-church pastors make? Because I’ve made it more times than I want to admit. In my first full-time pastorate, I served a little country church in rural south Georgia, called Zion Hope. This rural church was like a hundred other small country churches amid the pine forests of south Georgia –attendance was about 60, and there were more folks in the cemetery behind the church than inside it. They were more lively, too, I thought.
I was young, smart but not wise, and determined to bring “life” to that little church. One Sunday, I moved the pulpit out of the sanctuary because I liked preaching without a pulpit. The only problem was the members didn’t like it. So, I put the pulpit back and learned to live with it.
Undaunted from the pulpit disaster, I asked the church to buy a bus so we could pick up the kids in the trailer park down the road. Although the church finally vote to buy a bus, that project created no small amount of controversy. And guess who got stuck driving the bus each Sunday morning? That’s right — me.
I kept trying to make that little country church something it wasn’t over and over, again. I redesigned the Sunday bulletin, changing the Old English typeface into a trendy font. I reorganized the Sunday School, added new classes, got the church to write a new constitution, hired a part-time music director, and pushed the little church way beyond its capacity for change and ministry.
For a while it seemed to be working. Attendance doubled from 60 to 125. One Sunday we had 175 in worship. It was great! But, guess what happened? After I left Zion Hope to take a church in Atlanta, everything reverted to the way it was before. Attendance settled back into the 60s, the church sold the bus, and the music director left.
I only stayed 18-months at Zion Hope, restless because “they didn’t want to do anything,” I told myself. The truth was, everything I wanted them to do wasn’t true to who they were. My single focus on growth overlooked relationships, feelings, and their context. Years would pass before I realized that Zion Hope was far more patient with me than I was with them.
What would I do differently now? I would listen to their stories. I would hear them talk about how God was at work in their lives. I would value the experience and vision God had placed there long before I arrived. I would try to understand who they were as a community of faith, and let them shape me in their walk with God. I would be true to the church God had nurtured and preserved. Otherwise, it’s all wood, hay, and stubble.