It can be easy for those serving in church to get discouraged by many of the numbers that seem to be in decline today. While some churches are growing, a greater number of churches are shrinking in most denominations. While many churches are planted each year, more churches are closing their doors. While new people come to Christ each year, the trend is that more Americans are leaving religion altogether.
Beyond those longer-term trends, churches have also been running at partial capacity through the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost a year into the pandemic, 31% of churches were running less than half their pre-COVID worship attendance, according to Lifeway Research. At the beginning of 2021, another 37% reported attendance of 50-75% of what they saw a year earlier. Whether short-term or long-term in nature, most of those serving in the church have seen their church’s numbers decline.
What, then, creates a healthy ministry mindset during a downturn? What can you do to remain faithful, even when ministry numbers are down?
Most objective numbers measure ministry outcomes. These are things we want to happen (e.g., new people coming to Christ, more people joining together for worship, and more people investing in relational small groups focused on God’s Word). If we are honest, these outcomes involve us, but actually depend on God’s activity. These outcomes are gifts from God.
The first element of a healthy ministry mindset is to not view these outcomes as measures of our activity or our worth. When we begin to view these as gifts, we will remember to thank God for them, as well as ask God for these good gifts. There is no such thing as asking Him too much, knowing He is the one in charge. Jesus challenged us to wear Him out with our asking.
At the end of the day, we want to hear from God, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Since the parable of the talents includes many numeric references, it follows that being faithful should have some visible fruit, even if it is spiritual in nature. The talents referred to in the story are money, a currency that has value. It is clear throughout Scripture that literal growth of money is neither God’s goal for us nor an automatic sign of His blessing. So, what is the currency of your ministry in your church? What noticeable quantifier would be an indication of your faithfulness?
Chances are you grew up in ministry observing people measuring success in church by the number of people who were members, attending, and giving. Yes, for some churches and for some moments in history, those may be the appropriate currency to use for measurement. After World War II, Americans began to head to church in great numbers. A good measure of faithfulness of a church in those times was how well a church did in welcoming these people and not messing up what God was doing. Membership and attendance were ideal metrics.
Today, we serve during a time when Americans are leaving churches in great numbers. We are not looking to change our metrics to find something that makes us look good. In fact, we cannot walk away from numbers such as membership because, the truth is, we will always need to track those who God has entrusted to our church’s care. But we cannot allow growth in a metric such as membership to be the sole measure of our faithfulness and the driver of our ministry self-image.
We need to look at success differently today, because the thing of value God has given your church is likely not a flood of new people. But the parable of the talents suggests that God has given you and your church something, or several things, of value that He expects you to use and to multiply.
In the Bible study, Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby comments on the parable of the talents, “When God gives you or your church resources, people, or assignments to develop and use for the kingdom, He expects faithful stewardship. To those who are faithful, He will entrust even more and greater things.”
What resources, people, gifts, or assignments has God given your church? The faithful use of these is your best metric. Your movement toward where God is at work is the best activity to track.
God made us all different with varying skill sets, personalities, body types, and intellect. It would be difficult for someone five feet tall to be a basketball player. It would be difficult but not impossible. Similarly, our churches are all different. Some have bigger budgets, while others have smaller ones. Some have a plethora of lay leaders; others have fewer.
Comparing yourself to a church with more resources would be demoralizing using any metric. Instead of expecting in your church exactly what you see in other churches, celebrate the prodigal who returns, the senior saint who finishes well, and the sincere praise of God from His people.
God may have called you to serve in a one-talent church. In God’s providence, He knows what you have the ability to handle. Don’t expect five-talent results in a one-talent setting. Be careful assuming the practices of a five-talent church will work in your context. What does God expect in both one- and five-talent situations? He expects faithfulness while He is away. He expects you to take what He has given you and put it to work to generate more for the kingdom.
In Experiencing God, Blackaby also addresses this question: Why doesn’t God give me a big assignment? He responds:
“God is far more interested in accomplishing His kingdom purposes than you are. He will move you into every assignment that He knows you are ready for. Let God orient you to Himself. The servant does not tell the Master what kind of assignment he needs. The servant waits on his Master for the assignment. As you obey Him, God will prepare you for the assignment that is just right for you. Any assignment, however, that comes from the Maker of the universe is an important assignment.”
God has entrusted His church in America with much through the years. It is incredible to think of the people, financial resources, technology, biblical content, and religious liberty we have received from Him. While we know of many who were faithful with these opportunities, it is possible that our lack of faithfulness in the past is the reason God has not entrusted us with more today.
Are there gifts from God that come to mind that we as Christ’s followers have buried or your local congregation has ignored? Our mindset as a servant today should be to seek God’s forgiveness for any expressions of unfaithfulness.
Numerous parables, including the parable of the talents, address the theme of how members of Christ’s kingdom spend our time as we wait for His return. Many wrongfully conclude that if we don’t know when He is returning, we shouldn’t think or talk about His return. But ignoring His return is much like denying it will take place. Failing to anticipate His return creates a mindset that is harmful to your ministry.
During a season in which your congregation will likely face external opposition, unpopularity, a flood of lies, and numerous temptations, it can be easy to feel like our Master has been delayed. Matthew 24 indicates that this mentality leads to two harmful behaviors: beating our fellow servants and eating and drinking with drunkards. These may sound extreme, but if we are honest, we can at least momentarily slip into these hypocritical responses. When the going gets tough in your church, you can play the blame game and beat up fellow believers or you can leave the church behind and enjoy something the world has to offer.
When we are motivated by the fact Christ will return, we won’t let trendlines dictate our service. We will seek to embody Matthew 24:46, to “be the servant whom the master finds doing his job when He comes.”
Serving today involves being aware of the realities around us. We should not ignore the movement of people away from Christ, but our focus should be on God’s activity. As we invest in listening to Him and watching His activity, He will reveal to us how we can be faithful in our time and place of service.