When a pastor is called to an ignorant church

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18).

“By this time you ought to be teachers, but you need someone to teach you again the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and have come to need milk and not solid food” (Hebrews 5:12).

The pastor had been called from his rural church to another part of the country. He was excited about the new challenge, as he well should have been. In a parting comment to a friend, he assessed the state of spirituality of the church members he was leaving behind:

“There is enough ignorance in this county to ignorantize the whole country.”

What happens when a pastor gets called to a church like that? A church where the members and leaders alike do not know the Word of God and have no idea of how things should be done (what Paul called “how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God”–I Timothy 3:15), or why it all matters.

A church that exists to condemn sin and sinners, that knows only slivers of Scripture, that sees ministers as slaves of the whims of the congregation, and that is ready to reject as a liberal any minister who wants the church to feed the hungry in the community, take a stand for justice, or invite in the minority neighbors–the ignorance takes all kinds of forms.

We wish we could say such congregations are few and rare, but they aren’t.  Veteran preachers have stories of those churches, tales of run-ins with those leaders, and scars from the battles they have waged to set matters right.

–One pastor told the group of ministers meeting in his fellowship hall, “This building is actually owned by a member of the KKK. We rent it from him.”  The rest of us were naive and thought the Ku Klux Klan had died out ages ago. Here they were living among us in our own southern town.

–One lady visible in church leadership told her pastor, “I don’t know what the Bible says but I know what I believe.”

–Another church allowed a deacon and a woman Sunday School teacher to live together as husband and wife but without being married.  The head deacon admitted the rest of them were too cowardly to confront the outspoken couple. When the new pastor tried to deal with it, the couple turned on him and slandered him in the community. Finding himself isolated with no support from the congregation, he resigned and moved away.

It is not true that such churches know nothing of the Bible. They know snippets of it, depending on what previous pastors majored on. Some went to seed on prophecy (a typical sermon dealt with the antichrist or the beast of Revelation) or salvation (every sermon was “get saved now! or burn in hell forever”) or works (the pastor defined the proper length of women’s hemlines and the amount of makeup they were allowed, the proper raising of children, and such).

What’s a pastor to do when the Lord sends him to such a church?

1) Do not lower yourself to their level.

Leaders will insist on a diet filled with sermons on sin, prophecy, judgment, and the like, but have no taste for extended series on one book of the Bible.  Some will grow impatient when you insist the church needs a proper constitution and bylaws which spell out the right way to do things. And ministering to the poor children in that trailer park a half mile from the church? Well, if that involves busing them to church where they can get saved and nothing else, you might get support. But if you want to feed them and clothe them and provide school supplies and counsel for their parents, you will find almighty scant support, pastor.

2) Be steady, be faithful, be consistent.

Stay close to the Lord in your daily walk. Stay in the Word, on your knees, and close to your people.

Be willing to risk the anger of those who want to continue unscriptural practices at the church with the rationalization that “this is how we’ve always done it” and “Deacon So-and-so is not going to like this.”

Do not invite as a revival preacher that gimmicky showman whom some heard over in Sharptown and think you should bring here. Invite no people-manipulator to your church.

Don’t invite anyone who cannot help your church become healthy and strong in the Lord. Hold to this, because some will put pressure on you. Buckle your seat belt, it could be rough.

3) Be prepared for criticism.

My wife says you should go there expecting this pastorate to be a brief one.  She may be right, as she is on a lot of things.

Just recognize that the enemy does not want your congregation to know the Word, to have a strong church, to be healthy and Christlike and unified and effective. He will do anything he can to stop your efforts to grow your people, including turn some of them against you.

4) Love the people well.  That means always, heartily, and “anyway.”

Luke 6:27ff pertains to “loving our enemies,” who are defined as people who hate you, curse you, mistreat you, and would steal from you.  From time to time, you will find a few church members behaving this way. When that happens, delve deeply into Luke 6:27-38 and do the loving things Jesus commanded: 1) do good works to them, 2) bless them, 3) pray for them, and 4) find ways to give to them.

You must not be vindictive. You must not stoop to their level.  You have two objects here: the first is to grow them into Christlikeness by demonstrating what that looks like. The second is to demonstrate to the teachable ones what Christlikeness looks like by the way you respond to the trouble-makers in the church.

5) Take a lesson from schoolteachers.

The math teacher, on finding that her students know nothing of algebra, does not harass them or condemn them. Instead, she gently introduces them to the basic concepts, a little at a time, giving them a taste and hoping that some will like what they are finding.

The first grade teacher, on discovering her pupils cannot read or write, does not give up in despair. She does not blame the students. This ignorance is normal, and in fact, that’s the very reason she chose this profession. She loves to teach.  And she teaches the students gently, carefully, feeding them a little at a time until they develop a taste for learning.

6) Be gentle and firm at the same time.

If your church has regular business meetings, you will want to teach the basic principles of Roberts’ Rules of Order. Some will not like being asked to follow a structure, but the others will see the wisdom in it.  Take the long view. If after a year or more, the church is doing things orderly and graciously, you have succeeded.

Choose a time and place to have Bible studies that go deeper into the Word than what you are able to do in sermons (where you have to connect with a diverse audience).  At first, only a few will respond, and that’s to be expected. Go with those who enjoy this. Expect their enthusiasm to attract others in time.

7) Take the long view.

You will not stay there for your full ministry, chances are. But if the church is stronger and healthier when you leave than when you arrived, you have done well.

And perhaps, if you have done a good job, the sweetness and maturity in your congregation may be infectious and spread to other churches.

You might just healthize (and de-ignorantize!) the whole county. And wouldn’t that be something?

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