Not every pastor is called to serve during a season of growth.
As Western churches enter a period of disruption, many of us might discover that we’ve been called to shepherd and lead during a period of decline. Not every pastor is called to serve during a season of growth. Click To Tweet
When I was an undergrad studying theology in Scotland, we were told that churches throughout the U.K. were in decline. The Church of England, the Church of Scotland, and the Church of Ireland were all shedding members and shuttering buildings. But don’t fret, we were told, there’s growth in the house church movement. There are warm embers of vitality on the windswept islands of the Hebrides and in the rain-soaked valleys of Wales, where revivals most recently roared.
That makes sense, I thought: The house church movement is clinging to the gospel.
When I was in graduate school in Canada, we were told that mainline denominations across North America were in sharp decline. The Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, and the Methodists—their strength was sapped, their numbers were dwindling, and their congregations were aged. But Evangelical churches were growing. Pentecostal churches were growing. Even some Charismatic elements within a few traditional denominations were surging. Churches filled with first- and second-generation immigrants were brimming with life.
That makes sense, I thought: These churches are hewing to historic Christianity, and they’re rapidly innovating to meet the changing culture where it is.
But the last several years have witnessed a tectonic shift. Young people are leaving solid, Bible-teaching churches. Families left vital, Spirit-filled churches at the start of the pandemic and have never looked back. I’ve watched faithful, talented, godly pastor friends see their churches hollow out. The old, convenient explanations don’t seem to cut it anymore.
In short, during my training and first decade of pastoring, I could (wrongly or rightly) always dismiss church decline as a product of drifting away from the deep center current of historic Christianity. But convenient explanations don’t suffice any more. Church membership is dropping. Doors of orthodox churches are shuttering. Faithful pulpits are empty. And when the handy explanations are gone, so is the security.
Even for those of us blessed with healthy congregations, it feels like decline could come knocking any day.
Not every generation is one in which the Church grows numerically in a given nation. By attending to the often-overlooked examples of leaders during times of decline or stagnation, we can find both encouragement and instruction. We’re not the first to be at the helm on seas like these; it helps to see how others steered through them.
Not every generation is one in which the Church grows numerically in a given nation. By attending to the often-overlooked examples of leaders during times of decline or stagnation, we can find both encouragement and instruction. Click To Tweet
Spotlight Some New Heroes
If all your pastoral heroes lead flourishing congregations, it may be time to find some new heroes. Lately, Philip Dodderidge, the eighteenth-century English dissenting pastor, has encouraged me. He was a peer—actually a close friend—of the likes of George Whitfield and John and Charles Wesley, and yet most of us don’t know his name. He was an exceptional scholar, preacher, and pastor, but his congregation was never that large. In a day when most pastors are grappling with significant challenges and setbacks, Dodderidge is relatable. In fact, he even griped privately to a friend when a flashy new church set up nearby and siphoned off some congregants.
There are days when I want to stoke hopes for a great movement of God in our time by reading about William Seymour and the Azusa Street Revival or Duncan Campbell and the Hebrides. But there are also days when it is actually more encouraging to read about someone slogging two steps forward and one step back.
Maybe it was that same impulse that led me to reading about Lord Shackleton’s attempted trans-Antarctic expedition. By standard metrics, the expedition was a colossal failure. Shackleton’s expedition didn’t accomplish what they set out to do. They lost their ship and most of their equipment. Even their purported scientific goals were abandoned. And yet, in a fashion that could only be described as heroic, Shackleton led the entire expedition through unforeseen dangers and uncharted waters—with great difficulty and no little suffering—to safety.
Sometimes the heroic thing is simply to get yourself and the people you lead through to the other side.
Shepherd Out of Your Strengths
I’ve heard Jon Tyson say, “Comparison is the enemy of joy.” And I feel that. Sometimes when I see peers who seem to have an instinctive grasp of how to use social media or how to address a cultural issue or how to lead a new campaign, I’ll start comparing myself. When I copy what seems to work well for them, it often means I’m not playing to my strengths.
Here again, Dodderidge’s example was helpful for me. He was a strong preacher who had a few sermons that sort of went viral for his day, but he also possessed some less flashy strengths that he gave himself to daily. Dodderidge poured himself into training a new generation of pastors, exposing them to both sides of the theological controversies of the day, teaching them to think well but, more important still, teaching them to be whole-hearted followers of Jesus. And nearly every day for over a decade, he chipped away at a translation and exposition of the New Testament designed for families to use together in the home.
Both of those efforts, within the succeeding generations, impacted tens of thousands of people.
There are ways we all need to pivot during this season, but that doesn’t mean we all pivot to doing the same thing in the same way. God has given you some particular strengths in your ministry. Don’t abandon them to do what the famous pastor on Instagram is appearing to do better.
Double Down on Friendships
My late friend, professor Don Lewis, used to say, “I’ve never met a pastor that couldn’t use some encouragement.” The shaking that the Church is experiencing right now is exposing cracks in pastoral character that only get epoxied by deep, Christian friendships.
Dodderidge’s correspondence with a handful of friends over the decades shows how deeply they leaned on each other for encouragement during seasons of turmoil and tepidity in the church. So vital were these friendships that he’d sometimes prioritize them above the work of the parish. In one letter to his closest friend, Samuel Wood, he writes: “Let twenty affairs lie by neglected—sermon, Family Expositor, letters, visits, the care of our nearly approaching and warmly contested election—I will write to my dear friend, Mr Wood.”
Just a few years before the pandemic, I formed a bond with three other pastors over the course of a year-long preaching cohort. We have radically different contexts—some lead megachurches; others, smaller church plants. We come from different ethnic backgrounds and different theological traditions. But we’ve each experienced the shaking of these last few years:
- The steeply pitched political landscape that automatically shapes the way any sermon or any tweet is interpreted.
- The disorientation of mixed responses to the pandemic and public-health procedures.
- The deep-felt loss of people leaving, dying, or disappearing. We’ve shared our failures and fears together.
We’ve shared our discouragements with one another, and our triumphs. And all four of us will move mountains to make our schedules converge every few months so that we can gather around a fire pit to encourage one another. C.S. Lewis had it right: “Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?”
I’m not sure what Dodderidge would have been like if he’d pastored in a different generation. His predecessors were the Puritan giants, and his successors were the Evangelical revivalists. But his calling was to shepherd a generation in-between.
- It fell to him to fight for unity when the previous generation’s theological fervor had calcified into fractiousness.
- It fell to him to lead toward spiritual tenderness and urgency in a time of spiritual torpor.
- It was his to build bridges across denominational ditches and theological chasms.
- It was his to train the next generation of preachers.
It was his to shepherd the precursor generation.
When times of refreshing did come to the churches of England in the Methodist revival, Dodderidge had very nearly run his course. But he’d run faithfully the leg that was given him.
I’m contending for a revival in our day. But if the leg I’m given to run is that of the precursor, I want to do it wholeheartedly, gratefully, and faithfully.
 Stated in personal conversation.
 Stated in personal conversation.
 The Correspondence and Diary of Philip Doddridge, DD, ed. J.D. Humphreys, v. 5, p. 58.
 C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Volume II, 50