I have friends who are church planters and revitalizers. I can’t even describe how thankful I am for them. I praise God for calling these guys to establish new gospel communities and empower dead churches with gospel life. There is indeed a need for this kind of work. However, I’m not that guy. I’m not a visionary or revitalizer, and honestly have no desire to be. Quite the contrary: I actually serve in a small, rural, established traditional Baptist church. Sounds sexy, right? It is filled with the old hymns accompanied by a single piano. The average age of the congregation is 65. But the fact of the matter is I love this church because they love Jesus, and have loved Him longer than I’ve been alive.
Most young pastors fresh out of seminary usually don’t dream of going into this type of church. I have known young pastors who have served in these churches and within a year they have transitioned out to “move on” to bigger churches. Let me say, if God has called to you to “move on” then follow His leading. However, don’t miss the opportunity to serve in a small older church just because they don’t play the latest Chris Tomlin song.
Within my short time I’ve learned a few things along the way that has helped me minister in an older established traditional church.
It is a Gospel Opportunity
Each church has its culture. Every church has a history. All churches have issues. This is especially true for smaller traditional churches. The pastor jumps straight into all of this. In order for the pastor to navigate the waters of the church, he must recognize that within every church there is a gospel opportunity. Don’t mistake what I’m saying as some sort of pastoral idealism. There are churches that chew up and spit out pastors. But God loves His church and within even the toughest places He will spread His gospel. Don’t view the small church as a “stepping stone” until the next church comes calling. Instead view it as a gospel opportunity.
Point Them to Jesus
I preached my first funeral for a church member only a month after being called as pastor. The man that passed away was a member of the church for many years and was unable to attend due to health issues. Yet he was able to come listen to me preach once. I knew he was sick and by God’s providence my text that morning he arrived was Romans 8:18-25. I preached with everything I had just for him. After the service with tears in his eyes he said, “Thank you for pointing me to Jesus.” It should go without saying but in every sermon and lesson, point to Jesus. Provide the congregation with hope, not just in this life but the life to come.
Ministering to God’s people as they enter the older stages of life can be challenging. Key words like “missional” and “relevant” don’t seem to stick. Simply pointing to the glories of the New Creation, the resurrection from the dead, and life that will never end in the presence of the Eternal King is not only biblical but pastorally wise given the context. Immerse God’s people in the deep, deep love of Jesus.
Take it Slow
Older established traditional churches are often smaller in numbers. Honestly, many of these churches have been declining for years and on the verge of shutting their doors. There are several reasons for this. Some simply don’t want to grow; others want to grow but don’t know how. The key is not turning over tables and getting rid of all the fake flowers. Instead change takes time and patience by focusing on the heart. As a pastor you’ll have to decide what hills to die on and what sacred cows to sacrifice. But getting rid of the “old hymns” and “church traditions” just because you don’t like them may do more harm than good.
In the congregation I serve, patience, and persistent gospel empowerment has been the key to change. I started by teaching the “old story” with new language, attempting to provide fresh perspective on the first century gospel. Take it slow, preach the gospel, and allow God to bring the increase.
Listen and Learn from Them
I was sitting down with an older member and I mentioned that I was born in 1988. Upon hearing this he chuckled and said, “I retired in 1988 and I have shoes older than you.” In this moment I realized two things: the significant age difference, and the fact that we are both the same. His shoes may be older than me but we share similar human experiences. Even though I’m his pastor I can learn from him in ways I could have never imagined.
I’ve had the opportunity to watch older members get excited about sharing the gospel with their neighbors. I’ve sat with members in the hospital and listened to them share stories about their children growing up. I’ve held the hand of a widow as she cried at the memorial of her late husband. In those moments age really doesn’t matter at all. We are humans, living in a broken world, seeking the same Savior. I’m convinced I have received a great blessing by shepherding them. I’ve grown significantly as a follower of Jesus by learning from them. They have shaped me and will continue to by God’s grace.
My encouragement to young guys in ministry who are wanting to pastor is simply get plugged into a church, even an older church. The ministry may look different, but it always points to the Savior. These older saints need someone who love Jesus and will love them. Humble yourself and quit worrying about “ministry success.” In the span of eternity it really doesn’t matter if you’re preaching to 40, 400, or 4,000 people on Sunday morning. The arc of history is bending towards Jesus, not your ministry accomplishments. Be faithful in God’s assignment for you. Shepherd God’s people through God’s Word for God’s glory. And while you’re at it, pick up a hymnal.