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Twenty Five Years & Three Lessons Later - The Role of the Pastor

By Murray Robertson.

There is much debate today about the role of the pastor. What are we primarily called to do? At one level it is not a difficult question to answer. Our calling is to provide leadership to a congregation of the people of God. We are prepared for this to some extent through theological training. Once we are in a pastorate a great deal of our energy goes into the teaching and leadership that is required to run a congregation.

My wife Marj and I came into the ministry twenty-five years ago. There's nothing unusual about that. The unusual thing, is that twenty five years later we are still in the place where we started! Having undertaken theological training in Scotland, we came back to New Zealand, and I accepted a call to be the pastor of a Baptist church in a working class suburb in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Over the early years my energies went into trying to give leadership to the congregation. I am very committed to expository preaching, seeking to relate the Scriptures to the issues of the day. I learned this from British evangelicals. I am also very committed to evangelism in the local community. As a result of these and other emphases, by the mid 70's our small church had grown to a total worshipping attendance of about 300 people. Around that point it stopped growing -largely, I suspect, because I ran out of steam. After a year or so of reflection, reading and interaction I stumbled across the first lesson.

The cell, not the congregation, is the basic unit of the church.

Reading the Gospels I got the impression that Jesus called something into existence that looked far more like a cell than a congregation. He and the twelve took to the road for three years. From Jesus they learned how to share the good news, heal the sick and care for the poor. By the day of Pentecost, 120 of Jesus' followers were gathered. Whatever kind of movement Jesus established, it was able to handle the exponential growth that followed the events of the day of Pentecost.

I read Rolland Allen 's 'The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes which Hinder It'. Writing in 1925, he said it would be fifty years before people would grasp what he was advocating. He argued that the reason the Apostle Paul's churches grew was that he trusted the Holy Spirit in the life of his converts; we do not. I read also about the burgeoning development of cell churches, which were starting to grow significantly at that time, in the third world.

So we took a deep breath, and closed down most of the organisations that had accumulated during the 100 years of our church 's existence. We re-formed the church around six groups, initially called 'house churches'. We called the leaders of these groups 'pastors', and laid hands on them, setting them aside for ministry. We encouraged them to baptise their converts, take communion, welcome new members, and so on. The groups we established in those days grew quite large. We had not at that point read any 'Cell Group manuals' which told us we had to divide at fifteen attenders! So we let the groups grow as large as the leaders' houses would allow, and subdivided them within the house into cells.

Over the next decade we went through a remarkable period of growth. By the mid 80's we had grown into a community of around 1200 worshippers, and had started another congregation of about two hundred. If you are an American these figures are not terribly impressive. But I've come to believe one of the great mission challenges of the world is in Western countries outside the United States, where a quite different religious culture exists. There were of course qualifiers to the growth we experienced. Before we started these cells there was already an evangelistic growth momentum occurring in the church. We had moved significantly into the charismatic renewal in the years leading up to it. Also Marj and I stayed throughout the period.

A decade later, by the mid 80's, the movement was running out of steam. By now we were ready to learn the second lesson.

We can trust the Holy Spirit to inspire visions for mission

In the mid 80's New Zealand was about to undergo a profound transformation. Decades earlier the country had pioneered the development of the Welfare State, and was committed to being an egalitarian society. But for many years the money to sustain this had come from overseas borrowing. In the mid 80's economic realities hit home. Government subsidies for unprofitable industries were eliminated. Welfare payments were slashed. The economy was deregulated. New Zealand has now become a shining light for free market economists. But in human terms there has been a downside. A society that had grown up expecting the Government to care for every aspect of life, discovered a Government hopelessly in debt. A whole new climate for Christian ministry was coming into existence.

In the mid 80's we were as yet unaware of what lay ahead, but we did know our cell movement was starting to lose momentum. The evangelistic cutting edge that had been present in the early days of the cells was growing blunt. Around that time we had a number of prophetic words, asking whether, although we had learned to love each other, we had not perceived that the Lord loved the world. A word came challenging us to let go of the structures we had created, and trust God for something new to emerge. By this stage what we had was a typical hierarchically structured cell model, with small cells, then leaders over clusters of cells, and so on. So we let go of what we had put in place, and moved in a new direction, seeing a new kind of mission group emerge alongside the more relational cells.

I had not realised the extent to which the Holy Spirit stirs kingdom visions within the hearts of ordinary Christian people. While we were herding people into hierarchically controlled cells, the people Into hierarchically Holy Spirit was birthing a vision for ministry amongst the needy and poor. We asked people to articulate what their kingdom dream was. Resulting from this, in the last decade we have seen the development of many mission groups, out of which various ministries have grown.

* A Community Help Centre was established for ministry amongst the poor and disadvantaged -teaching work skills, running community activities, and operating a shop, as well as offering spiritual encouragement. Out of this a mid week congregation of some 150 people, who worship on a Tuesday night, has grown.

* A 'Kingdom Bank' loans money at no interest to the poor. This ministry has a team of people who work as budget advisors building relationships with people, and undertakes the restructuring of loan finances.

* A Christian counselling and medical centre was opened seeking to minister healing to the emotional, physical and spiritual needs of people.

* 'Manaaki Tanga' is a Maori expression meaning 'to love and to care'. Several Manaaki Tanga clubs have started for children, young people and pregnant teenagers. These are largely for those from dysfunctional families, who are at risk with the law.

* A series of homes have been established to care for people who are being rehabilitated in the community following psychiatric and other illnesses.

* A student ministry has led to the forming of a Sunday morning congregation attracting a couple of hundred people.

* A Daycare was opened as a ministry to both the children who attend, and their parents.

All these ministries employ full time staff-

* In addition, other ministries have grown: teaching crafts, teaching English to speakers of other languages, an employment scheme, a farm ministry giving work to the unemployed, a prison ministry, a ministry to disadvantaged women and their families, and others.

When we embarked on this journey I must confess I had no idea that the Holy Spirit would stir such diverse visions within people. It has been a humbling experience to see what has emerged over this last decade.

While all this was happening at home, our commitment to world mission was continuing to develop. This had also begun in very small ways in the mid 70's. The changing mission focus at home was paralleled by very rapid developments in our commitment overseas from the mid 80's onwards. We had increasing numbers moving into mission frontier situations, especially in some of the large cities in Asia. This was to have a major influence on what we were doing at home. It is very difficult to have people in frontier mission situations overseas, and carry on business as usual at home.

Theologically the church was changing shape also. We had started off as an evangelical church, become charismatic as well, and now we were embracing the justice dimensions of the gospel. I can see now that often we have put asunder what God has joined together.

I believe that following the example of Jesus, our experiencing the anointing of the Spirit should also lead to bringing good news to the poor. Interestingly, the development of ministries among the poor has given the church a great deal of credibility with some sections of the secular community.

While we were seeing the development of this mission emphasis, we embarked on what we hoped would be another great leap forward, but this turned into a more salutory experience. It became lesson number three.

Multiplying congregations can divide resources.

In a step towards facilitating the development of the cells, we had gathered clusters of them into Sunday morning' area congregations'. Most of these had fewer than a hundred people attending. Most of them also proved to be unsustainable.

Why was that? I must confess it took us several years to get our heads around what was going on. Our conclusions looked like this:

* The cells, which we had seen as the basic unit of the church, tended to die in the smaller congregations. The cell leaders became over stretched, as they helped to run a congregation, as well as leading a cell. And the need for a cell is not so obvious in a smaller congregation.

* The strength of the small congregations was seen in the fellowship area, where 'everyone knew each other'. But this level of relating can be sustained only among a limited number, beyond which there is a major disincentive to growth.

* With the focus on the smaller congregations it became increasingly difficult to sustain a coherent, unified vision for the whole church.

* The resources of the church were being pulled in two directions. On the one hand we were seeing the growth of ministries that needed resources to keep growing. On the other, many of our pastoral resources were going into the duplication of effort on Sunday mornings. Instead of the multiple staff of specialists we needed, all our staff were beginning to look like pastoral generalists.

* While the small congregation gives the appearance of close fellowship, it is really to large for genuine intimacy. It is also too small for anonymity. If they do make it to church, many secular people are looking for a place they will not be noticed.

* In our experience, the two congregations which thrived were both focused -one on ministry to students, and the other on ministry to the disadvantaged. Sociologists tell us that people's relationship networks today are based on affinity, rather than geography. So any future congregations we start will also have a clear focus.

Essentially there seem to be two forces at work in the church. One is the 'centrifugal ' power of the Holy Spirit pushing us outward in mission and evangelism, but the other is the 'centripetal ' force of the needs of the people within the church, continually pulling the agenda inwards. The challenge is to build relationally supporting structures which can be facilitators of mission. We have now re-emphasised the importance of the cell and pulled the area congregations back into the mother church.

We have also erected a new church building. We built one in the late 70's with a relationally friendly seating arrangement; this time we are doing something different. We are building what is essentially a gymnasium. It will be used for community ministries every night and most days of the week, and on Sunday we will pullout the seats for church.

This building now provides a gathering place for large Sunday celebrations. The whole facility enables us to develop further alternate congregations during the week. The highly multiple-use nature of the building is a reflection of a theological conviction that the church is for the world.

Armed with these three lessons we set off to face the next decade, which will undoubtedly produce more lessons of its own.

Ministry Today

You are reading Twenty Five Years and Three Lessons Later - The Role of the Pastor by Murray Robertson, part of Issue 3 of Ministry Today, published in February 1995.

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