By Bob San Pascual
As I read Pastor Tim Suttle’s book, Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture, I found myself YOL (yelling out loud): “Yes! Yes! It’s faithfulness, not success, that matters!”
This reminded me of an axiom I heard early in my ministry, though have sometimes forgotten: “We’re called to be faithful, not successful.” His desire is that ministers follow John the Baptist’s example (“He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease”) rather than seeking a bigger church, a bigger profile, etc. He takes aim at the business practices that many churches have adopted, the church growth movement, and even some megachurches, though he does acknowledge the good effect that some megachurches have had on his life and on those of others. While I confess to not being familiar with the church growth movement, Suttle has seen the harm that it’s inflicted on local churches. He’s seen the harm that churches of all sizes have inflicted on themselves as they applied business practices and techniques at the expense of the radical message of the Gospel.
In Part 1, the main message Suttle tries to get across is: “Don’t try to be great.” Why not? Because “Great is the enemy of good.” Trying to be a great pastor in the mold of CEOs isn’t the model that Jesus gave us. Likewise, he tells his readers, “Don’t try to copy the megachurch.” Trying to make our churches great (read: megachurch) isn’t necessarily God’s desire for our churches. There are advantages to being small or medium-sized. He critiques the megachurch culture for several reasons, but primarily because they make Jesus fans rather than Jesus followers (p. 72). They can lead people to Christ, but they can’t lead them to maturity in Him.
Suttle challenges us church leaders to make three changes in part 2: 1) From models to an eccelesiology; 2) From strategies to stories; and 3) From techniques to virtues. His message is to stop patterning our churches after models, especially megachurch models, and to begin to develop our own ecclesiologies—to build our churches from our conclusions of what the church is and what it’s to do. “This is what we default to, especially as evangelicals — we try to solve our problems by finding models of success and then copying them. When we sense trouble, we search for a model when what we need is a deep ecclesiology that will inform everything we do from top to bottom” (p. 81). Since I’ve never been part of a megachurch, I was fine with his critiques of them, but when he started criticizing the evangelical culture in chapter 4, he began to hit too close to home (smile).
The final section of the book revolves around developing five virtues: vulnerability, cooperation, brokenness, patience, and fidelity. Although I don’t consider myself a competitive person, I do understand what Suttle is saying when he makes the observation about how we pastors compete with one another. Certainly the “I can top that” attitude is always just below the surface, if not outwardly apparent. Just as important as cooperation is patience: “Church growth is meant to be measured not in weekly attendance numbers, but in decades and half-centuries. If that is true, then patience is a leadership virtue none of us can afford to go without” (p. 216). I like this call to patience for both pastors and church members alike. It’s easy to become impatient when we don’t see numbers growing. He’s also on the mark when he says that our churches are going to have many more times of obscurity than sensational times. The miraculous and spectacular experiences will be few and far between; we shouldn’t expect them to be everyday occurrences. On fidelity, he writes: “I shared my hope that everyone in our church would be willing to stick around long enough to say one of two things: either ‘I told you so,’ or ‘You were right and I was wrong’” (p. 227). We ministers are greatly encouraged when members stick through the hard times, church fights, frustrations, and changes. I’m sure members would say the same about us.
Shrink is for pastors everywhere, whether they’re serving in a small, medium, large, or super-sized church. It’s an encouragement for those of us in smaller churches and a challenge for those in larger ones. You don’t have to feel like a failure anymore. Just be faithful to Christ over the long haul, and especially through the wilderness times when you don’t see any progress. “Instead of chasing after pragmatic success, I pray for those who have the courage to pursue faithfulness no matter what the perceived results may be. I pray that we’ll have the humility to see that we have no right to quibble with the results of our ministry life. We only have the duty to be faithful in all the small things and leave the results in the hands of the loving God who holds our future” (p. 240).
To this, I give my heartiest “Amen!”
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Bob San Pascual received his Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Management from Nyack College and his Master of Divinity in Theological (and Biblical) Studies from Alliance Theological Seminary. He’s been in ministry since 1993 and has taught at Nyack College. Currently, he serves as a part-time pastor at one church and as a regular speaker at another. Bob’s passions are to study, teach, and write about God’s Word by His grace and for His glory. He’s the author of the ebook, I once was lost, but now am found: Poems and songs on life, love, and our Lord. His spiritual gifts include teaching and administration and his aim is to minister so that, as His people, we may be transformed by the Holy Spirit into the image of Christ and make disciples of all nations. He also enjoys reading, watching movies and sitcoms, and relaxing at the beach.