By Jerran Jackson
Down through the ages, Jesus has used crises and challenges to renew his church.
When Christians by the thousands were leaving their churches to pray alone in the desert, Basil of Caesarea redefined devotion to God by gathering Christians in cities and organizing them both for prayer and for service to their neighbors. When the church became corrupt and Christianity became a superstition, Martin Luther reemphasized the guidance of God’s Word. When dry formalism replaced living faith, Philipp Jakob Spener introduced home Bible studies.
Jesus can renew the American church today in similar ways.
Before there were Bible colleges, the church effectively raised up pastors and teachers. Paul wrote, “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). First Peter 5 illustrates that elders passed on to other men their understanding of Scripture and of how to shepherd their congregation. The letter known as First Clement, written around AD 96, shows elders in one congregation providing guidance for young men in another congregation.
Leadership problems have existed in the church from the beginning. (Consider Acts 20:29, 30 and 3 John 9.) And because problems existed, leaders like Timothy, Titus, and the men and women Paul mentioned in Romans 16 helped the early church move forward.
How can a small 21st-century American church benefit from all this? Here are some leadership choices that might work for the challenges facing your congregation:
• Bi-vocational Ministry: A congregation that cannot support a full-time minister is not doomed to die. Church leaders down through history and to the present day have worked part-time or full-time at another profession.
• Team Ministry: Acts 13 and 20 describe a team of church leaders working side-by-side to lead a congregation. Leadership by one full-time person is not the only model. Your church could pay a team of three or four part-time servants with what it would take to pay a full-time minister.
• A New Way of Doing Ministry: Spener’s home Bible studies sparked a revival in the 17th century. Robert Raikes’s 18th-century Sunday school movement transformed how we reach children with the gospel. Short-term mission trips have changed thousands of adults’ lives; these were unknown until our time. Your unique ministry idea may be just what your small church needs.
• Distance Training: Your small church can benefit from Bible studies, theology classes, church leadership mentors, or ministry support groups over the Internet, by mail, or over the phone. Now more than ever, small church leaders and members can enhance their ministry even if they live far from training centers.
• Revitalizing Your Church: Martin Luther revitalized the church in his day. Alexander Campbell did the same. If your congregation is dying, a drastic change is necessary. A restart with new ideas may revitalize your church. This requires great humility, courage, and perseverance, but if you are willing to rethink Christian community from the ground up, you can breathe new life into your body.
• Ministry to Your Community: Basil of Caesarea pulled individual servants of Christ together to help each other and to help their community. These servant groups provided much needed help to poor and hurting people. This ministry increased respect for the church in these communities and drew more people into service for Christ. It can do the same for you.
History shows there is hope for your small, rural congregation. This hope requires changes in how your church thinks and serves. Christ is always in the process of refining his church. What do you and your congregation need to do differently?
Jerran Jackson has served Clarksburg (Indiana) Christian Church, a small, rural congregation, for 40 years.