Leaders need to rise to the challenge

Our youngest grandson, David, is into ‘thumb war’ in a big way. As some will know, the game is played by two players, using the thumbs to stimulate fighting.  The object of the game is to pin the opponent’s thumb, down to a count of three.   As we discovered, it’s a great game to enliven what otherwise might be a dull car journey.  David would initiate the game with the rhyme: “One two three, four, I declare a thumb war”.  He would then add “Five, six, seven, eight. This should be a piece of cake”.

On one of the first occasion Caroline, my wife, played thumb-war with David, she said to David: “I’ll let you win”, to which David replied: “No, I don’t want you to let me win.  I love a challenge.  You do your best, and I will do my best to win”.

As we came to discover on our recent visit to Vancouver, where David lives, this grandson is very much up to a challenge – not just when playing thumb-war, but when racing other children in a BMX race too.  Indeed, his general philosophy in life seems to be seeking out a challenge, however difficult it might appear to be.

By contrast, some ministers seem to dislike challenges.  They just want a quiet and easy life. You might think, for instance, that every minister would want to see their church grow.  But in fact research has revealed that 50% of minister do not want their church to grow.  For the fact is that as growing children can present challenges (just think of the teenage years!), so too do growing churches:  it’s hard work being a pastor of a growing church.  As a result many pastors prefer the status quo – they want an easy life.   As Charles Chaney and Ron Lewis, two Southern Baptists, somewhat provocatively stated: “Thousands of evangelical churches in America today are on the pill. They do not want to grow. Consciously or unconsciously, they have repudiated reproduction. There is no burning desire to obey Christ in making disciples of every creature”.

The other Sunday I was preaching in a church not far from where we live.  It is a lively and responsive congregation, who always say kind things to me after I have taken a service.  There are some children, but most of the members seem to be retired. This was the context when in the normal pre-service chat, I asked their minister how things were going, to which he replied: “We are ticking along nicely”.   Now the minister if a thoroughly nice fellow, who has a real heart for the Gospel, and I am sure that he is not normally as laid-back as his answer appeared to indicate.  Nonetheless, I almost exploded, as I sought to point out – as diplomatically as I could – that no church could afford to ‘tick along nicely’, not least his church, which without a major influx of younger members faced a very uncertain future.

The fact is that over the next 10 years or so churches in the UK face a major challenge.  Unless churches rise to the challenge of wining the next generation for Jesus Christ, then there will be whole-sale closure of churches.

Sadly there are all too many churches who are like a football team engaged in a ‘game’ on a field without goal posts.  The players are content to kick and pass the ball, but no one tries to score.  Or to use a different analogy, some churches are spiritual ‘Winnie-the-Poohs’, not really knowing that they are ‘hunting’:  To quote A.A. Milne:

‘Hallo!’, said Piglet, ‘what are you doing?’

‘Hunting’, said Pooh

‘Hunting what?!’

‘Tracking something’, said Winne-the Pooh very mysteriously.

‘Tracking what?’ said Piglet coming closer.

‘That’s just what I ask myself. I ask myself, Wwhat?”1

‘What do you think you0’ll answer?’

‘I shall have to wait until I catch up with it’, said Winne-the Pooh.

I think the Apostle Paul would be amazed to see how laid-back so many ministers are today when it comes to church leadership.  My mind, for instance, goes to Paul’s description of the church at Philippi where Paul speaks of them as “striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the Gospel” (Phil 1.27 NRSV).- or in the words of the GNB: “with only one desire you are fighting for the faith of the Gospel”.  Church life involves a struggle: the underlying Greek verb (sunathlountes) is connected with the word from which we get out word “athlete”, and- it conveys the idea of going all out in the struggle for the faith. Or to use a slightly different metaphor, we are involved in a spiritual battle.  People’s live are at stake.  The Devil and his minions are doing their darndest to maintain their grip.  Effective evangelism, then and now, involves a rising to the challenges of apathy and opposition.  And what is true of churches in general, is true of ministers in particular.  If men and women are to be won to Christ and his church, it will be to the extent that their leaders are prepared to be like my grandson, David, and rise to the challenge before them.


  1. I don’t think I could consider myself a “dynamic leader” and certainly do have a tendency to like a comfy life! Nevertheless I agree with you entirely. However may I make three points in reply.

    1. I have found the many churches (and Christians) seem to have little idea of “thinking strategically” or “setting goals”. I suspect that this may be due to a fatalistic belief that “everything is in the hands of God”,or because Christians want to church to be a resting-place rather than a place of active thinking and work, or because they somewhat selfishly want the church to stay just as it is – after, they joined it because they like it! So the minister must work hard to foster a sea-change in fundamental attitudes.

    2. Those of us who are ministers in congregationalist churches know that we are not masters or mistresses of our ship. So we have to take both our lay leaders and church members with us, and at times they can seem very reluctant – or even resistant – to “grasp the nettle”. We may need to use all our diplomatic skills to effect even a small amount of change; and the effort of doing so may be draining.

    3. Most ministers who have been around for any length of time bear the scars of battle. They may be worn down by criticism, battered by backchat, hurt from unwarranted ‘ad hominem’ attacks, or exhausted from trying to “keep people on board”. Obviously personal mileage will vary; but there comes a time when many ministers, unless well-supported by the “lay” leaders, will simply give up the fight and settle for simply “ticking over” as you mention.

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