06 March 2008

Long-Term Market Viability

by Frank Turk

In 1987, Tyndale house published a little book by Kent & Barbara Hughes called Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome. I point that out because that book subsequently went out of print. About 8 years later, Rick Warren published Purpose-Driven Church, and of course that book is in all sorts of editions and supplements and so on. I think it's somewhat beyond question that PDC as a franchise is one major factor in the modern megachurch movement (your opinion may differ), but there's a real problem sort of glossed over there which we should take a minute to examine.

It seems that most churches are not megachurches, and therefore most pastors are not megachurch pastors – that is, most churches are small and, apparently, are content to be that way. If you follow that link and do some simple math, you'll find that about 6.5% of all churches in the U.S. – and we can imagine, then, that about 6.5% of all pastors – have 500 or more on the rolls. The numbers get somewhat disheartening when we start talking about actual attendance, so we won't go there.

But I say that to say this: the ideal of the megachurch places by-far most pastors in the unenviable position of being rat-raced. Either by outsiders (meaning those not in the ministry of that local church, which can include members and volunteer leaders) or by insiders (other pastors from other churches, including denominational administrators and leaders, or the pastor himself) a pastor is pressured to measure success using secular, business criteria. You know: growth. Charts with lines that look like purple mountains majesty. Tithing up. More things going on. More baptisms.

And don't get me wrong: those can be good things. The question is really if that is the purpose of ministry – to produce results which drive shareholder equity and create an institution with long-term market viability.

Some people would say "yes": upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. The only good church is a church which grows and gets bigger, and all others are frankly suspect.

Other people would not be so quick to draw that conclusion, including, apparently, my heroes at Crossway books who have salvaged the Hughes' book and put it back into print. Kent is an editor at Crossway now, contributing to the Preaching the Word commentary, and has been a pastor for forty-one years, including twenty-seven years as the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL. His wife Barbara is a teacher and speaker, and has co-authored other books with Kent, including Disciplines of a Godly Family.

This is frankly a fantastic book – written personably, compassionately, and with a keen eye on the brother in Christ who is under the false pressure to produce Pentecost-like revival. And, as is my habit, I'm not going to spill a bunch of summaries of the book in this space for you to sort of parse and then pass over the book.

This book is sort of birthed on the back of Kent's experience as a pastor who, early in his calling and mission, suffered from a very serious crisis of faith because his church wasn't exploding with people. He himself calls this period "a gray, horizonless sea" in which he struggled with the thought, "God has called me to do something he hasn’t given me the gifts to accomplish. Therefore, God is not good."

But with his wife, and by reflecting on Scripture, Kent navigated the course from this deep dejection back to fruitful ministry – and he lays out the buoys for others to follow.

His reflections on what the Bible defines as success for the man of God – through faithfulness, service, love, belief, prayer, holiness and attitude – are told in a very compassionate and engaging style. This isn’t a book of preaching but a book of encouragement and of exhorting those who say they are called to God's work to do what God has called them to, and not other things.

In addition, Barbara's insights as the faithful wife of a life-long pastor round out the picture for the reader. Which brings me to a critical point to make about this book: it is not only for pastors, or for the wives of pastors: anyone who has a pastor, or wants to have a pastor, should read this book before attempting to think about how we should test or prove or otherwise scrutinize those who are in the service of the Gospel.

This book serves to humanize the pastoral ministry – which is not to say that it seeks to find the lowest common denominator to establish the standards for pastoral ministry. Indeed, I would say this books sets an extremely high standard for the minister of God's word – but it puts that standard in terms an actual human being can grasp and therefore live up to.

Read this book. You and your church need this book. I endorse it whole-heartedly, and God willing, I'll have more to say about it over the next couple of weeks.


DJP said...

Thanks for this, Frank. Good, as always. I read that book and found it encouraging as I pastored a very small church. Still, it's very, very hard to recover from The Seminary Lie ("Be faithful and God will bless you" — where "bless you" is understood to mean "give you a large, happy, growing church").

If I read your stats right, then, 94% of churches have attendance of 500 or under.

James Scott Bell said...

Thanks much for this recommendation, Frank. I will definitely get this book. I remember once going to a seminar run by a mega church pastor. One thing he said grated me, and continues to grate me: "It's not a sin to be a small church," he said. "But it's a sin to stay a small church."

I've never been able to justify that. Maybe I'm missing something. But it seems to me bigness or smallness is entirely beside the point. It's faithfulness that matters. God will decide the rest.

VcdeChagn said...

I'll definitely have to pick up the book, and get a copy for my Pastor as well. He's a big fan of Hughes commentaries (as am I) and I'm sure he would enjoy it. Thanks for the review.

"It's not a sin to be a small church," he said. "But it's a sin to stay a small church."

I'd be interested in knowing where in the Word he got that from (pun intended).

David A. Carlson said...

Crossways publishes a lot of books that are worth reading (so it seems to me)

Books of the type that just don't get published by the "successful, i.e. big" houses

S.J. Walker said...

"It's faithfulness that matters. God will decide the rest."

Amen Johnny.

A Lion Has Roared!

DJP said...

That is true; but I think it's easier for non-pastors to say.

James Joyce said...

"Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many."

In the context of what Jesus says in Matthew 7:13, isn't becoming a mega-church possibly more of a sign of being an unsuccessful pastor?

Michelle said...

Thanks, Frank, for telling us about this book.

I often wonder what has become of many churches that bought into the marketing philosophy, in particular the PD phenomenon, with all the high hopes that went with it.

We struggled as the lonely naysayers as a previous church jumped wholeheartedly onto the PD bandwagon. Faithfulness to scripture can be a very lonely place, a theme I see in scripture. I still struggle to understand how so many shepherds believed the lie that the opposite was true.

I pray that resources like this become more widely available to point the way back.

donsands said...

I never read "Purpose Driven" stuff. I glanced through it, and it was boring.

But many liked it.

I shall order this book for my pastor. We are a young church-4 years old. The Lord has brought 100-150 on every Sunday. We meet in a school right now, and it's discouraging sometimes, when we leave church, and right down the road is a mega-church, where they have state-troopers directing traffic.

Thankd for the review Cent.

terriergal said...

Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome. I point that out because that book subsequently went out of print.

Yikes... the irony...

FX Turk said...

Yeah, well...

I think the mistake is trying to measure what God is doing with our stupid little Cartesian tools. Seriously now: what about D.A. Carson's dad -- success or failure? How about Mark Dever -- success or failure?

How about Paul who never baptized anyone in Corinth, and died in prison?

"You, however," Paul said, "have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived."

Be serious. The measure of Godly pastoring is persecution in spite of being found blameless -- not some kind of worldly benefit.

Anonymous said...

"It seems that most churches are not megachurches, and therefore most pastors are not megachurch pastors – that is, most churches are small and, apparently, are content to be that way."

I would say that most small churches long to be bigger, but they are usually wrapped up in a personality (members) driven mentality.

Alice said...

Thank you so much for this book recommendation. Kent Hughes was my pastor (at College Church) for many years, and he is the real deal. On his last Sunday before his retirement (he was flying out that afternoon), he never once mentioned his own ministry, his years of service, his commentaries, his other books, any of it. He preached God's greatness and Christ crucified--just like he did every other Sunday.

There is another book--"Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching in Honor of R. Kent Hughes" that came out recently and was named by Al Mohler as his #1 pick for pastors to read in 2008.

Anyway, thanks for writing this, and LMFTSS is a great book...

Stefan Ewing said...

If seminaries are teaching would-be pastors, "Be faithful and god will 'bless' you" (according to Dan), then perhaps it's out of despair and not seeing growing numbers that pastors reach out for stuff like Warren's. (Rather than focusing on following their calling and relying on God alone for His sufficient grace, which may or may not mean mushrooming numbers.)

Stefan Ewing said...

...I mean, God's sufficient grace may or may not involve mushrooming numbers; he may bless His vice-shepherds and His flocks in other ways.

If Joshua and Caleb were all that were left of the Holy remnant at the end of the forty years' sojourn in the wilderness; and Jesus Christ said that where two or three are gathered in His name, then He is there among them; then clearly it's not about numbers.

I do have one caveat to this, though: if a church is standing on the Word of God in a denomination that's drifting, then large numbers testify to the strength of Christ-centered preaching and discipleship, and give encouragement to smaller churches led by like-minded pastors and elders.

Nash Equilibrium said...

It seems that most churches are not megachurches, and therefore most pastors are not megachurch pastors – that is, most churches are small and, apparently, are content to be that way.

What I've observed is that most churches are not megas - but many pastors seem to be willing to claw each others' eyes out to become megas. It's basically success at any price.

Wouldn't it be neat if we could leave PDL behind and get back to the place where the most prevalent church growth method is prayer?

geekforgreek said...

I struggle with this as a seminary student myself.

Sometimes it feels as if saying there is no empirical way to measure pastoral success is just an excuse for us to be less than stellar.

2 Cor. 8:18 mentions a brother famous for his gospel work -- shouldn't we strive to be famous among all the churches for our gospel work?

Michelle said...

John MacArthur in his message "Certainties that drive an enduring ministry" reminds us that being a pastor is a calling (and a difficult one, at that), not a job. You mentioned, Stefan, that pastors should focus on following their calling.

Perhaps there are too many "career" pastors (instead of "called" pastors) coming out of the seminaries and the "success" offered by the church-growth pied pipers is very enticing.

Michelle said...


I'd highly recommend you get your hands on John MacArthur's two-part message "Certainties that drive an enduring ministry", based on the stellar ministry of the apostle Paul.

I think pastors should strive to be faithful in their high calling to preach the Word and leave the outcome to the Lord (whether that be numerical growth or fame, or not). If they do that, they have been successful. We know that the world measures success differently.

Timotheos said...

Having read both books, and pastoring a small town church that seems to be going nowhere ala PDC criteria, I will echo the sentiments voiced here.

Kent's book is a great encouragement to small town pastorates, as well as any other pastorates. It resonates with the theology that our faithfulness in ministry is imperative but, God's hand of blessing is at His disposal.

In a manner of speaking, Hughes theology ala more Calvinism than Arminianism has influenced his presentation. While, Warren's theology ala more Arminianism than Calvinism has influenced his presentation.

I have had the opportunity to hear Hughes in person at Rural Home Missionary Association's annual Small Town Pastor's conference just last year and found his instruction a blessing.

Nash Equilibrium said...

I know this isn't a forum for pet peeves, but one of mine is increasingly, pastors whose background is that they went seamlessly from Christian home to Christian school to Christian college to being on the payroll of a Christian institution. They are career Christians, hence maybe they are more prone to painting in the church by numbers?

Pastor Rod said...


Excellent point about the pressures placed upon pastors to "succeed." Let me tell you that they are much greater than a non-pastor could imagine. Not only must a pastor battle with his own ego drive for "success," but he must also fend off those who measure effective ministry by means of an Excel spreadsheet.

I can also recommend a book: The Crucifixion of Ministry, by Andrew Purves. He is a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. This should be required reading for every pastor and church leader.

I'm sure that I could find something to disagree with in your post if I looked harder, but right now I'm too worn out.

God Bless,

Charles e. Whisnant said...

"How To Pastor A Small Church in a Small Town and Keeping It That Way." Is a good book that I would like to write. A small church of 100 in a town of 500 after 16 years as a pastor of one church would qualify for this book.

I enjoyed those sixteen years. Why? Those whom the Lord gave us, were growing in their love for the Lord Jesus Christ. It was a ministry versus a job. Ministry was a mindset of joy rather than a struggle to do ministry.

I keep stats, but the important one was the progress of those in the fellowship.

A small church which is alive in ministry is better than a large church dead in their spiritual life.


doug said...

Glad to see you recommend "Liberating Ministry". I'm a church planter and I gave a copy to another fellow planter and have recommended it to an accountability group we attend just a few weeks ago. If there is anyone who needs to hear this message it is church planters who are constantly bombarded with "how to succeed in business without really trying" type methodologies. The question is "how do we define success?" and Hughes addresses that question admirably. I also praise God for ministries such as 9 Marks and Matthias Ministries who are both heralding this same message that "Success is defined by faithfulness to God" and are equipping pastors to be faithful stewards of their calling. I commend them both to you.

davedryer said...

Some 20 years ago, when the church growth movement was getting everyone excited, I was given Hughes book. It saved me from wasting my time and encouraged me to pursue what really matters. I am delighted it is being republished and I'd highly recommend it.