One of the most consistently disheartening experiences for both the members and pastors of Old School Presbyterian (OSP) church plants is the small size of the congregations. I can well remember one particular Sunday sitting and listening to one of the greatest sermons I think I have ever heard being delivered by one of the finest Presbyterian preachers alive today and literally weeping, not only because of the convicting power of the message, but because there were fewer than 30 people present in the congregation that day. How I wished at that moment that I could literally fulfill the command of Christ’s parable and “Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.” What a tragedy – here were the words of life, being delivered with rare eloquence and sincere compassion and yet there were so few to hear!
For the member of a small OSP church, this phonomenon can quickly be turned by the devil into a tool for his use. He reminds the member of that congregation that all around his own struggling congregation are churches filled to bursting with people listening to barely Christian drivel, and as he reflects on that sad fact his heart is filled with bitterness and disgust. He burns with anger at the stupidity of the attenders of those mega-churches for preferring thin milk to strong meat, and often he comes to despise the churches and Pastors that profane the Sabbath with such drivel. Therefore instead of aiming to do all he can to bring in the lost multitudes about him in a winsome and urgent way, he instead makes it his task to make sure that all see how unfair it is that the houses of the milk merchants are full. He turns from the compelling power of the Gospel, to the repelling power of the bitter Jeremiad, and then wonders why those who know not the word nor its power will not hear him and see sense!
For the OSP pastor on the other hand, to labor sometimes for years for the benefit of such small flocks can also be tremendously disheartening. Week after week he sees little if any growth in numbers, or worse his tiny flock begins to diminish in size as people move away, or give up on the ministry. This too can be used by the devil either to cause depression, inertia, or hopelessness or else the same kind of anger and bitterness that we discussed above. Worse, the Pastor’s bitterness and anger is often a direct result of his wounded pride, because he “knows” his skill and learning deserve far more acclaim. Sometimes he can hardly stomach the stupidity of the world in not responding to his ministrations. The younger and brighter he is, the more susceptible he will generally be to this line of attack.
If that Pastor merely stopped to consider for a moment the reception the Chief Shepherd received during his own earthly ministry, or even the fact that no one tried to throw him over a cliff after he preached his first sermon in a house of worship, or that the world only generally loves its own, he might not be so quick to conclude that a grave injustice is being perpetrated.
But as Scottish Pastor and Professor of Theology, John Brown of Haddington pointed out in a letter to one of his own bright young students by the name of Waugh, another grave consideration should operate to check the hubris of the pastor:
“Waugh, happily for the Church, was amenable to the advice of his Professor and friends, and soon justified their decision by proving an able and acceptable preacher. In a short time he was called to minister to a newly-formed congregation in Newton St. Boswells, that is today an important centre on the railway system of the Border countries, but was then a struggling village. It was hardly worthy of his talents – it only numbered some thirty members; and it seemed like wasting his sweetness on the desert air to minister to such a handful. But a letter from his watchful and faithful Professor placed matters in a different light, and enabled him to see larger possibilities than he imagined in so small a sphere.
‘I know the vanity of your heart,’ wrote the Professor, ‘and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself, on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ, at His judgment-seat, you will think you have had enough.‘ The appeal of the brief letter to the sensitive and diffident preacher sank deep into his susceptible mind, and he accepted the charge. He was only privileged to labour in it for two years, when, after three successive calls, he responded to the invitation to go to Wells Street, now Oxendon Church, London; and often in his crowded ministry in the metropolis he recalled gratefully the sharp reminder of his Professor concerning the heavy responsibility of fulfilling his trust.” [John Brown of Haddington, by Robert Mackenzie, BOT, 1964, p.150-151]
Your post literally left me in tears. As I have done supply preaching at innumerable PC(USA) churches in Western Pennsylvania there is the constant message of “to attract new members we have to become hip and trendy. What young people want is entertainment not Doctrine”. I am sure you have heard that line more than I could imagine. While these churches are hardly “OSP” in the true sense they have been hoodwinked by the Church-Growth=quality mindset.
Andy, I was just turned on to your blog by Scott Clark (old prof). I have only read the latest entry but it hit me good and hard. I pastor a very small church plant and constantly struggle with submitting my attitude to the Lord of the harvest. Keep up the good work. I would love to speak with you sometime about our common task. Until then I will continue to enjoy your blog.