10 Lessons I’ve Learned About the Church, All Gained the Hard Way

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When I began pastoring–that would be 61 years ago, in 1962, I’d just finished college and gotten married–what I did not know was there were 100 things about the church of the Lord Jesus Christ I still had to learn.  What follows is a few of those.  And yes, I’m still learning.

In no particular order….

One. Bigness is overrated.

“It doesn’t matter to the Lord whether He saves by the few or the many” (I Samuel 14:6).

Most pastors, it would appear, have wanted to lead big churches, wanted to grow their church to be huge, or wanted to move to a large church.  Their motives may be pure; judging motives is outside my skill set. But pastoring a big church can be the hardest thing you will ever try, and less satisfying than you would ever expect.  (Now as a very-senior citizen, I find myself admiring and even envying those pastors who put in decades serving churches in small or rural communities.  And I hope they know how well they have things!)

Small bodies can be healthy too; behold the hummingbird or the honeybee.

Trying to get a large church to change its method of operation can be like turning around an ocean liner.  The Lord’s parable about the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32 and Luke 17:6) should forever disabuse us of the lust for bigness.

I groan at the stories of pastors who have manipulated God’s people and lied about numbers in order to create the illusion of bigness.  Forgive us, Father!

Two. Lack of formal education in the preacher is no excuse.

The pastor of the small church often has far less formal training and education than he would like. As a result, he often feels inferior to his colleagues with seminary degrees. I have two thoughts on that…

One.  It’s a mistake.  He can be as smart as they are and more if he applies himself.  Let the Lord’s preachers not be overly impressed by certificates on the wall or titles before their name.

Two.  He can get as much education as he’s willing.  All seminaries have online programs that make seminary education attainable, practical and affordable. So there is no excuse.

My dad, the eldest of twelve children, had to leave school after the seventh grade to go to work inside the coal mines alongside his father. But he never quit learning.  He took courses and read constantly. When God took him to Heaven in 2007, Dad was almost 96. Our mom had to cancel four or five magazine subscriptions he was still taking and reading.

Some of the finest preachers of God’s word I’ve ever known have had little formal theological education.

Three.  There are no lone rangers or solo acts on the Lord’s team.

He sent them out two by two. (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1)

The preacher who says pastors are not allowed to have friends and thus shuts himself off from colleagues in ministry has bought into a lie from hell that causes him to deceive himself and limit his ministry.  While a pastor may choose not to have intimate friends among his own members, there is every reason for him to befriend other pastors and ministers who serve the Lord well.  Failing to do so limits himself and hurts the kingdom work.

Furthermore, he must have co-workers alongside him. Paul needed Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, and many others. Read the last chapter of I Corinthians and ask God to forgive you for trying to do this work alone.

Four. Doing a job by yourself is easier than enlisting and training someone else, but it’s violating your calling.

“Make disciples,” said our Lord.  That mandate calls for us to help people come into the kingdom, then nurture and grow them to the point they will know the Word, can share the Word, and can make disciples of others.

Barnabas did not find it convenient to leave Antioch and travel to Tarsus “to seek Saul” (Acts 11:25).  But in doing so, he connected the man called as an evangelist to the Gentiles with the opportunity of a lifetime.  We are forever grateful to the best disciple-maker in Scripture, Barnabas!

Five. I cannot lead people to do what I’m not doing.

God did not send me only as a talker, but as a doer. Not as a coach only, but as a player-coach.  It is enough for the disciple to become like the teacher, said our Lord.

So, as a pastor and church leader, my job is to show them how. Not just tell them.  (James 1:22 and I John 3:18).

Six.  Not only is it difficult to start tithing my income or sharing my faith (and a hundred other discipleship things), God likes it that way.

Watch the butterfly emerge from its chrysalis.  The struggle, we are told, is a necessary part of its development.

Only people of faith and determination will set out to learn to tithe and witness and understand the Bible, then stay with it until they are able to do it well.  Everyone else drops by the wayside, intending to wait until it’s easy.  In doing so, they’re asking for and expecting what never was and never shall be.  “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).

The members of your church need to be reminded that God does not need their money.  He is not suffering from a cash flow problem. “If I were hungry,” God said, “I would not ask you.  The cattle on a thousand hills is mine!” (Psalm 50:10-12).

God is growing disciples.  That accounts for the hundreds of teachings on money in the Word. When are we ever going to understand this? When are preachers going to quit fearing criticism and get back to teaching stewardship until people do it!

Seven.  God makes His leaders servants, not bosses or lords or bigshots.

I keep running into husbands who want to lord it over their wives because “God made me the head of the home and told you to submit!” Such men may call themselves believers, but they are pagan to the heart and have probably never been saved. They certainly don’t know the first thing about God’s word or Jesus’ heart.  If they did, they would know that they are sent as servants. “Even so, Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it.”

Bullies on the playground or dictators in the pulpit are cancers on the body, and must not be tolerated.  The parable of all parables on this subject is Luke 17:7-10.  We must keep saying to ourselves–even when we have done everything Jesus required– “I am only an unworthy servant; just doing my duty.”

Eight.  The more righteous we are, the less we will be aware of it.  “Moses knew not that his face did shine” (Exodus 34:29).

I said to the 75-year-old saint in our church, “Marguerite, you are the most Christ-like person I know.”  She didn’t flinch.  “Oh honey,” she said to her young minister, “if you only knew.”  I did know, in a way, but have learned a hundred times since:  Those closest to the Lord are the last to realize it. The nearer to the light we get, the more imperfections and blemishes we will see.

Beware of ever thinking you have arrived. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”

Nine. Those who serve well are going to run into the buzz saw of opposition from the nay-sayers, do-nothings, status-quo lovers, and carnal. That’s no fun, but it’s not all bad.

Reading the mandate of the disciples in Matthew 10:16ff, we cannot say we were not warned.  But it has ever been this way.  God’s faithful are swimming upstream in a downstream world.

Jesus prepared us for this by saying that whoever receives us is receiving Him, whoever listens to us is listening to Him, and whoever rejects us is rejecting Him. (See Matthew 10:40 and Luke 10:16.).  If being treated like Jesus is not enough for us, we’re in the wrong calling.

Ten.  Not only does the Lord allow His choice servants to suffer sometimes, He even plans for that to happen. See Matthew 10:16ff.

Caesar ain’t coming to your revival, preacher. So, the Lord is going to be needing someone to get arrested for preaching. Then, the high and mighty ruler will order the saint in chains to “tell us what you’ve been preaching.” That’s how it worked with Paul (see 2 Timothy 4:16-17), and how it has been with His choice servants ever since.

When Paul and Silas were falsely charged, then beaten and jailed, even though their backs were open wounds and they were hungry, tired, and hurting, “about midnight, they began praying and singing hymns of praise to God. And the other prisoners were listening to them.” (Acts 16:25)  They’re always listening and watching when God’s people suffer unjustly.  That’s a fact which God uses to reach many for Himself.

No one wants to suffer.  No one volunteers to hurt. But sometimes it’s the only way.

What God’s faithful must never do is groan and bellyache and say, “Why me, Lord?”  Your suffering may turn out to be the highest compliment the Father ever gave you.  Early believers rejoiced they were counted worthy to suffer.  (See Acts 5:41).

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Joe McKeever
A native of Alabama and the son of a coal miner, Joe McKeever has been saved more than 68 years, been preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ more than 58 years, and has been writing and cartooning for religious publications nearly 50 years. He put in 42 years pastoring six Southern Baptist Churches– the last three were FBC Columbus MS, FBC Charlotte NC, and FBC Kenner LA– followed by 5 years as director of missions for the SBC churches of metro New Orleans. He retired in the summer of 2009.