Our Church Is Not Thriving

Two things are essential in order to find peace about anywhere you may find yourself in ministry.

by Gabriele Rienas

Q: Our efforts at this church seem to be going nowhere, and it seems that we are failing. When we came here five years ago, we were so excited about this opportunity. We came to pastor a small church plant in a popular, urban setting, and we were hopeful that we could approach ministry in a new and innovative way. My husband and I work closely together in ministry, and we felt God leading us to leave a staff position at a large, metropolitan church in order to minister here. We have prayerfully put in our best effort. Among other things, we have built a core team, reached out to the community, and sought the advice of experienced leaders. However, after a short spike in numbers, we now consistently minister to the same number of people as when we first came. I wonder if we should move on and let someone else tackle this project, but my husband thinks we should stay.

A: I am intentionally directing my answer to the ambivalent feelings you express about failure in ministry and the decision to stay or leave. I will leave the issue of numerical church growth to those more experienced on the topic.

My main concern is your sense of failure in ministry. You secretly suspect this calling is wrong for you and your husband. Such doubts are troubling — yet all too common among ministry couples. Many leaders faithfully give their best daily for seemingly meager results. To top it off, other churches in close proximity often seem abundantly blessed and thriving. Seeing the glaring differences, it is easy to conclude inadequacy.

However, God did not give you these feelings of self-doubt and failure. The Word of God reminds us that the God who calls us is also faithful to equip us. We must make peace with the fact that increase is in God’s hands and that our job is to be faithful to the day and moment of His calling. I remind myself frequently that God’s definition of failure is vastly different from our culture’s definition. Our world would have quickly dismissed many of the biblical heroes, as well as historical giants of the faith.

Two things are essential in order to find peace about anywhere you may find yourselves in ministry. First, the measure of success must be more than numerical growth. While an impressive attendance count can certainly reflect God’s blessing and favor, it is not the only criteria for increase. Nor is it the only agenda God has at all times and in all seasons. If your validation rises and falls with the numbers, you will be vulnerable on both sides of the scale: thinking too highly of yourselves when the momentum is up and facing self-doubt when the numbers are down or stagnant.

Second, do not measure yourself against other ministries. This can be especially difficult when there is a larger congregation down the street or in the next town that seems to be numerically growing, more financially blessed, and more endowed with talent and potential. It gets even more complicated when some people visit your ministry and then end up at the larger church. Though it is difficult, resist the tendency to compare. Always remember that God’s calling and agenda are unique to each situation. Focus on the task in front of you as your contribution for a certain time and place. Embrace your specific calling with your whole heart, and don’t apologize for what you don’t have. (I’ve now lived long enough to say with confidence that no matter how it appears from a distance, the grass isn’t always greener elsewhere.)

As for your current ministry, there is nothing wrong with exploring the best way to present the gospel message and build the community of Christ in a relevant, invitational manner. By all means, pursue whatever education and resources are available to help you be innovative and creative. At the same time, recognize that Kingdom results do not come by sheer effort and expertise, but by the Spirit of God for the right season and the right time (Zechariah 4:6).

You and your husband are currently church planters. The term itself implies sowing and reaping. This principle is a much-emphasized spiritual law (1 Corinthians 3:7–9). There are times for sowing, times for watering, and times for harvesting. All are needed for crop growth. Not all contributors will see the results of the harvest. Yet all contributors are essential to the process.

You mentioned that your husband has come to a different conclusion about what the next step should be. This is an opportunity for you to enter into a mutual discussion about your thoughts and feelings. Ask open-ended questions, and explore his perspective and rationale for staying. Pray together about the situation and for one another.

Working with your husband as a team is your strongest asset in ministry. Do not let conflicting agendas undermine your unity. Encourage one another with biblical truth about your calling, and continue to work together resourcing one another’s strengths and input. Together, God will guide and direct your steps.

Lastly, do not underestimate the honor in showing up and offering your best, day after day, time after time. God is certainly capable of accomplishing His will. He does not require that we make it happen solely by our best efforts and personal intelligence. He simply looks for willing, submitted servants who faithfully carry out the task placed in their hands as each day presents itself. That is the key to success — in ministry and in life.