By Dale Tinsley
I am quietly staring at a computer screen at 3 in the morning. Almost five years have passed since my first encounter with the church I am writing about. These past few years have deeply matured my understanding of God, ministry, and life, and reflecting on this time has led me to new convictions.
As I open my heart and tell this story, my hope and prayer is that you hear a calling to live and act according to Christ, and that you might gain insight into how the church should look.
VITAL, BUT OVERLOOKED
I never had visions of preaching at a megachurch, although I believed I was skilled enough! My only desire was to find a group of fellow believers and do ministry with them. Naturally, I have a positive approach to ministry. I see all the possibilities of what God can do in a church when people come together and follow him.
But when we arrived at our new church there was one important detail I naively overlooked—the people did not like each other. Since they did not like each other, they certainly did not want to grow in the faith together. Can you imagine a church without love? The church was suffering from a lack of love and trust.
I felt that distrustful attitude too. Three different people told me, “I don’t want to be your friend.” Nobody cared enough to try. How could they trust someone they did not know? And how could I lead if they did not trust me?
Their animosity was not simply directed at me. The bitterness filtered through every relationship within the church. The last minister left a sour taste in their mouths, and the church was not willing to embrace me. One particular fellow took me into a church closet and told me he would never vote “yes” for me because he totally disagreed with the rest of the leadership with regard to the previous minister’s termination. Talk about having to start at square one!
Every Sunday I poured my heart and soul into a message that went unheard. After a while my spirit was low. My only desire was to love these people and help them achieve greatness for Christ, but the wall of resistance seemed too strong. Even my associate minister told the leadership he did not want me to be here and he resigned.
Within the first month of my ministry our attendance dropped in half! You read that right. I am not proud of the fact so many left, and I still reflect on “what could have been” if everyone chose to stick it out. Talk about shattered dreams.
Most, if not all, of the issues hindering that body of believers had very little to do with me, but stemmed from past issues. During the first couple months of my ministry, a rather famous preacher came to my office to share some wisdom; he told me this church “has a reputation for trouble.”
I had little response to that statement. My heart was at its breaking point. It wasn’t one person giving me trouble, but a total lack of support from the whole church. Individually, there were some precious and wonderful people, but together they could only form mobs of trouble.
A NEW VIEW
It’s interesting how God works. As my vision for the church crumbled, I noticed a verse I spent the whole next year quoting to myself. Paul wrote a letter to young Timothy and commanded him: “Set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).
I began to view my role in the church differently. I started to consciously strive to set the tone and be the example in all areas of life.
I remember one woman yelling at me after I asked her, “Why are you stepping down from your ministry team?”
I knew she had a troubled past and I was simply trying to lovingly challenge her to continue the faith. As she yelled and stormed out of my office, I was momentarily stunned. Who acts like that? Who would yell at a minister?
I quickly jumped to my feet and caught the woman before she left. I apologized, not for asking a question she could not face, but for offending her. I asked her if I could wash her feet. With a bowl of water and my dress shirt as a towel, I washed and dried her feet. It was a reminder for me to set the example. While I was washing this lady’s feet, there were people in the background watching my example.
With the end of the second year of ministry coming to a close, I noticed a very subtle change in people. The first two years were full of distance. By the end of year two a small shift began to take place. People started to come together. I did not see it at the time, but God was removing obstacles that were hindering the church.
With our attendance as low as it could go, the body of Christ was forced to make a choice: Either come together immediately or close our doors for good. God began to breathe life back into our church.
Someone suggested an outreach event. It was fully endorsed by the whole church, and hundreds of people came to it! Our folks began to notice some blessings from God, and it motivated them to continue loving each other.
Within six months we had doubled in size. Every Sunday for about a year we averaged more guests than members. God kept bringing people. We went from having no kids in our elementary Sunday school classes to an abundance of children. New families. New faces. New attitudes. Within a year, we went from frowns and glares of disdain to smiles and genuine love for people. Every handshake was authentically met with genuine affection.
The funny thing about this experience was how people started to praise me for everything. I turned into a super-preacher! “Super-Preacher to the Rescue!” The truth is I had very little to do with the growth. In the first two years of my ministry, every single decision I made failed. But now, just like King Midas, everything I touched was blessed.
My sermons did not change during this time. I did not introduce any new programs or create newer and better avenues for ministry. I did not use the most popular models for church growth. Nor did I learn how to hone my skills as a minister. Still, I received all the credit.
I was a villain when things were bad and I became a superhero when things became great. But the truth is simple. The reason we had such a sharp turnaround was because the body of Christ actually came together and one person invited a friend. One of our members invited a family to our church. This family was so excited about God that they invited four more families. And we took off!
As a minister, I have found it difficult to play the roles of outsider and villain. It is not my nature to confront people. My desire is to love and encourage while pointing to Jesus. And I have a hunch this is every minister’s heart.
As I reflect on my first five years of ministry, I remember how alone I felt. I needed just one friend to encourage me. I learned something throughout this harsh journey. Unity is foundational for growth. The outcome and the overflow of unity is genuine authentic love.
Authentic love is felt and it is seen. People notice when this type of unity is present. I am convinced unity is vitally important to church life and health.
Dale Tinsley is the pen name of a Christian minister who wishes to remain anonymous.