When I started pastoring, our genre of churches promoted the idea that church growth was all about big days, hard work, and hard preaching. There was also a lot of competition between the churches over attendance and baptisms. Everyone operated on their own level of awareness—so my thinking was:
If it’s hard work—a German farmer can handle it.
If it’s competition—an athletic competitor can handle it.
If it’s hard preaching—I have trained for this. I will do well.
If it’s big days—I will be fun and creative.
Let me pause here and say that it brings pain and grief to me now as I write this reflecting on my inner self. But this was all I knew. At the same time, I want to extend grace to all who read this that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with these tools if they are God-ordained for your situation. No guilt is intended here—only a heart that needed to learn a better way.
We hit the ground running. On the first Wednesday night after a “hard” message, “Ruth” was saved. She was our “first fruits.” Then, we had “picture” day. I was on the parking lot snapping pictures with my Polaroid camera as families got out of the car. After that we had “baby” day and so on. Working hard was no problem. Arising every weekday morning at 5:30—I was live on the radio at 6:05—I had a goal to make 50 visits a week while overseeing administrative duties and studying for preaching. I often arrived home at 10 p.m.
DiAnne, who was pregnant with our third child (Jewel), asked me one day, “Have you noticed how Jason laughs and plays with Bo (a man in our church) after the services?” I actually had seen my son enjoying the ride on Bo’s shoulders. Her question gave me pause—but there was no significant change. Hard work and sacrifice was my way. One severe blow to our marriage due to this attitude was when I personally borrowed money from the bank in order to give to a church building project. When the payment stubs came in the mail, it hurt her deeply. She had sacrificed and lived on a shoestring budget through college and seminary and was looking for better financial footing for us and the children. With a third baby on the way, this brought even further insecurity. All of this was in keeping with my learned paradigm of ministry though. “Ministry happens when we work hard, promote excitedly, and preach interestingly.”
All in all, we seemed to be doing well. Attendance grew, we were becoming family, and we called “Dave” to be pastor of music and youth. He was a dear servant. He and I are best friends yet today. He fell in love with our secretary, Connie, and I married them. Connie was in my original youth group. Several came to know the Lord. We even started proceedings to expand our K-5 program to a full-fledged Christian school. But inwardly, I was dying. The combination of exhaustion, ignorance, constant responsibility, and mild turbulence amongst the leaders rendered me powerless, and I crashed and burned. I found myself crippled with worry, fear, and depression.
Since then I have learned that Jesus Christ obviously present and actively in charge is our paradigm for success. Why? Because the natural by-product of His activity is lasting fruit. In one short verse, He both promises and warns us. “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). The fruitfulness of the church is determined by its intentional practice of abiding in the Vine. The barrenness of the church is most often found in its prayer-less busyness.