Sometimes churches and pastors in our Regular Baptist fellowship surprise me—more, they profoundly puzzle me. Not being what I expect, they are effective and productive for no apparent reasons. Anomalies is what they are.
I’ve been able to travel widely among GARBC churches while an army chaplain, as a Bible college and then seminary professor, and in retirement. I’ve preached at Bible and missions conferences, been the invited speaker for special occasions, and provided pulpit supply. I have spoken regularly in some churches over many years, which has allowed me to observe widely as well as inquire deeply. I steal the churches blind of anything they put out in their foyers. I ask to read histories and constitutions. I ask a lot of questions and pay attention to answers.
While I cannot claim my observations to be fully accurate, they are actual observations. I suppose because I couldn’t account for or explain these phenomena, I had at one time dismissed them as “just one of those things.” They are anomalies, because they don’t fit the “expected norms” of what some consider to be the typical church.
Anomaly 1: Churches that have always been small but have ministries wider than their localities and longer than their time
During the Sunday afternoons I spend studying the churches where I preach, I try to gain a sense of the individual church. Reading the 100-year history of a church in Iowa, I was startled by the number who have gone into the pastorate and missions. That church’s membership had seldom been over 100, but so many Christian workers have come from so few.
I preached in a small church in central Illinois that never appealed to eager pastoral candidates. However, it is located near an air force base, and the congregation showed me scrapbooks with pictures of airmen who have attended through the years. I calculated that if all had attended at the same time, it would be one of our largest churches. In a very real sense it truly is a huge church.
Yet another church, in upstate New York, has a similarly wide ministry through students from a nearby state university. The church draws students because it reaches out to them in a persuasive manner. It isn’t bothered that students don’t pay their way, because they see them as a long-term investment. These students graduate and move on, and so does the church’s impact on the world.
Anomaly 2: Pastors who have never served large churches or are unknown but are uncommonly effective and unaccountably productive
I seem to learn more about a pastor by listening to his people talk about him than by hearing him talk about himself. I have learned to pay more attention to how they speak of him than what they say about him.
When one of my sons joined a church whose pastor had been my student, I was eager to hear my former student preach. The first occasion was a Thanksgiving service in which, to my disappointment, he did not preach. But I learned much about his pastoral effectiveness by listening to his people testify. I thought, This man is doing something right, and I’m going to find out what it is.
Those who puzzle me evidence no serious deficiencies and are not at all bad pastors. On the other hand, they’re really not what most people would call a good pastor. Yet each has always been the pastor of a church; some church has always wanted him. These pastors tend to have reasonably substantial tenures.
I have never heard their names mentioned as great preachers or outstanding pastors. They’ve never been published in the Baptist Bulletin or written lessons for RBP. They never served on a national or state council. No school or mission has ever invited them to serve on its board. These aren’t the type to get awarded an honorary doctor of divinity degree.
While I recognize the reasons some pastors fail, I wonder why these succeed. What is it about them that their people love, and what causes people to respond to their ministries? These men aren’t considered successful, but they certainly are not failures. What they are is effective. But then, I wonder how many institutionally successful pastors are actually pastorally effective.
More than merely performing customary pastoral acts, the effective pastors actually accomplish pastoral ministry. Lives are changed because they touched them. This much I will say: Uniformly, they are faithful to their Lord and to the flock He has entrusted to them. Their effectiveness is God’s grace in faithful pastors.
Anomaly 3: Churches served by quite ordinary pastors but which have grown generations of spiritually mature lay leaders who accomplish more than many pastors
Some churches have thrived even though most of their pastors have been merely adequate, because adequacy is sufficient when the congregation is effective.
For over 20 years I have hosted an e-mail chain of former members of my home church, most of whom have moved away from our city. I put out the question, Why do you think our church has been so outstandingly effective? The answer I received came quickly and unhesitatingly. I use the singular, because although many answered, they did so with the same answer, which was also mine: the godly laymen who led our church through the generations. And we named the men. There was one variation: none of us named our own fathers, but everyone else named those men.
With all respect due to those whose job it is to make recommendations, I have to say we have pastoral placement turned around. We send inexperienced recent graduates to churches where no pastor has ever succeeded—and no pastor ever will. The experienced and competent pastors get called to churches where predecessors have paved the way. It should be the reverse. Those churches that have never worked with a pastor should get confident veterans who know how to handle them. The young guys should go to the healthy, robust churches where the mature people can teach them how to become a pastor.
Anomaly 4: Christians who have no particular abilities or special talents but have a quiet, consistent influence on the whole congregation and community just by being who they are
Although most churches lack a large corps of unusually competent lay leaders, God has blessed some churches with key individuals who exercise tremendous spiritual and moral influence as quite ordinary people with no special skills or talents. They need not be elected or appointed to church office for this to be true.
God is able to bless the character, words, and actions of these brothers and sisters when the pastor and church officers selflessly give them freedom to lead. Then they are no threat to officeholders but are, rather, an encouragement and a challenge. It matters less who does the job than that the job is done.
Women in the church. In an earlier day when women were severely restricted in our churches, some were recognized by their wise spiritual influence, even without an official position. A number were or are so respected for their spiritual maturity that we find wholesome guidance in their unique perspective. When certain issues were raised in church business meetings, I recall people looking over at such women in an attempt to read facial expressions. The women might not express opinions publicly, but votes have been informed by a smile or a frown.
It’s a wise pastor who seeks out such sisters privately and asks, “Will you help me think through this matter?” Although a women-controlled church is Biblically unacceptable, deacons usually do well to think through some decisions with at least their wives.
Disqualified or disabled members. Divorce might be considered a disqualifier from sensitive offices, but a forgiven and fully recovered person just might have a judgment borne of experience that others lack. Those with disabilities or those unable to leave home can contribute in ways often overlooked.
Untrained or young members. A person lacking a CPA might well be the best treasurer, and a dedicated person without voice training might testify more convincingly than a professional musician. Some youth can connect with young kids better than adults can.
God’s grace in the anomalies
I’ve called these puzzling observations anomalies because they are apart from the norm. Yet they seem so right and, well, normal. Who is to say average or usual should be our standard? Let’s look for God’s grace and find it in the most unlikely places for no apparent reason.
Wallace Alcorn (PhD, New York University) is a retired army chaplain, educator, and pastor. He is a member of Grace Baptist Church, Austin, Minn.