By Thom S. Rainer
I remember my first church like it was yesterday. The church was in sad shape. Typical worship attendance was seven.
You read the number correctly; I did not leave off the zero.
The church had not seen a person become a follower of Christ in more than 25 years. The facilities stunk. I mean they literally stunk. It took me a few weeks to get used to the moldy, musty odor without getting nauseated.
It was really a lousy church. And I told them so. I chastised them. I preached to them with an unloving edge. They could see and feel my frustration, even anger. But they had been beaten up so long that they took the negativity from me. For them, it was the normal Christian life.
Of course, they responded with negativity toward me as well. After all, that is the role of church members, isn’t it? They are to keep the pastor and staff in line. They are to make critical comments at the most inopportune times.
In fact, a negative comment right before or after the sermon is normative.
Such was the relationship between my church members and me: sometimes pastoral, mostly adversarial.
If someone had asked me if I loved my church, I would have responded with a hearty “yes.” But the reality is I loved the church I wanted them to be more than the church they were.
I’m glad Jesus didn’t accept me on those terms.
The good news is that God convicted me during a time of prayer on Saturday night before the Sunday service. He showed me through His Word how I practiced conditional love. He showed me my harsh attitude toward the church members.
He broke me.
The church members would later tell me something was different about me the very next Sunday. They could not pinpoint the difference. One of them said I seemed happier and more loving.
God taught me to love my church as He loved me. Of course, I never got it perfectly, not even close. But I did learn to love the church I had rather than the church I wanted them to be. It’s kind of like how Jesus loves us, isn’t it?
Yes, the church did grow. Instead of a church of seven, we became a church of 70. But far more important than the numerical metrics were the changed attitudes. And the biggest change was in me, the pastor. Frankly, I was the one who needed the most work.
I tell you that story because it was my own journey toward becoming a scrappy church leader. Now I have heard from hundreds of scrappy church leaders. Their stories are not identical, but they have commonalities. And one of the most often mentioned commonalities is their commitment to love their churches unconditionally.
Did you get that last word: unconditionally? They loved them despite their criticisms. They loved them despite their sporadic attendance. They loved them despite their quarrels and differences.
It seems like they loved them a bit like Jesus loves us.
“It was the turning point in my ministry,” Aaron (a church leader) told us. “When I began to pray that God would give me the heart to love my church members unconditionally, my ministry was revolutionized. To be sure, it was not always easy. I still had some frustrating moments.
“But I voiced a prayer to God on a regular basis. He changed my heart and attitude. He changed my ministry. Instead of looking for the next church, I became content in the church He had given me.”
Excerpted with permission from Scrappy Church: God’s Not Done Yet by Thom S. Rainer. Copyright 2018, B&H Publishing Group.
THOM S. RAINER (@ThomRainer) is the author of more than two dozen books, including I Am a Church Member, Breakout Churches, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Simple Life, Simple Church, Raising Dad, The Millennials, Essential Church, and Who Moved My Pulpit?