I was recently assigned the responsibility of delivering the pastors’ report at Brackenhurst Baptist Church’s (BBC) 41st annual general meeting, held on Wednesday, 12 February 2020. The goal of a pastors’ report is to assess the health of the church, which, at one level, is not an easy task.
How does one assess the health of a church? What markers should be used?
If numerical growth is the gauge of church health, BBC has much to be thankful for. In the twelve months between the 2019 and 2020 AGMs, BBC welcomed 27 new members—13 via baptism and 14 via confession, having been baptised elsewhere. While the church also lost a good number of members for various reasons, the number of new members give cause for great encouragement.
If financial growth is the gauge of church health, there is far less to be encouraged by. While the church ended the year without reporting a loss in its income/expenditure stream, giving was significantly down over the previous year, which was significantly down over the preceding year.
Are new ministries the measure of church growth? A new adoption care ministry was recently started under the initiative of a church member, and there are encouraging signs of church members embracing a discipling mentality in church relationships. This is cause for encouragement.
Is church attendance the measure of church growth? If so, questions must be asked about some members who have shown disinterest in attending much more than a Sunday morning gathering.
Is the measure of church health the addition of elders or the commissioning of missionaries? One elder was added to the church in the last year but, currently, the church does not have any of its own in the mission field, though a number of men from other churches receive missions support.
But are any of the above definitive measures of church health? While they can be helpful indicators, and should certainly not be ignored, I am not persuaded that these are the primary indicators. By what standard is a head count an indicator of health? What control can a church exercise over economic realities among its membership? Does the Bible describe how many missionaries a church must send in order to be deemed healthy? Do we have any idea how many missionaries were sent from Antioch or Philippi or Ephesus? What if we applied these measures to Jesus’ ministry? Would he be considered successful by these metrics?
Someone recently challenged my thinking about church health, noting a church is not healthy because it lacks problems—even serious problems—but by how it responds to troubles. If a church responds faithfully and biblically to troubles, it is an indication of health. By that metric, I believe that BBC has cause to be encouraged.
We have, as a church, faced discipline issues in the past year, some to the point of excommunication. We have faced financial struggles this year—individually as members and corporately as a church. We have lost some wonderfully fruitful church members to geographic moves. We have experienced sinful attitudes and broken relationships, many of which (because of repentance and restoration) have not even needed to be brought to the attention of the church at large. But in the face of such challenges, we have sought to respond biblically.
Many in our church have been faithful and therefore fearless in their response to troubles—because they know the Scriptures and the power of God (Mark 12:24). There has been much illness and yet perseverance. Many have taken a stand for what is true, even to great personal loss. Members have persevered in financially trying times and others have come to the aid of those who have experienced this. From my observation—and I believe I have a good vantage point from which to make this judgement—BBC is largely characterised by love for one another. I often thank the Lord for this.
The harmony and unity within the eldership speaks of health. Elders’ meetings are sometimes tense, but there is nonetheless mutual love and respect. Some of the interns who have attended meetings recently have commented on this.
In short, I believe that, in the face of difficulties, many are showing that they know the Scriptures and the power of God.
Having said the above, there are at least three broad areas of covenantal faithfulness in which I believe we need further sanctification.
First, we can improve in our commitment to gather. There are some members who never come to a Sunday evening prayer meeting, despite covenanting as members to gather and pray together. Sadly, those who will not gather are also missing out on the Lord’s Table, which we observe on Sunday evenings. This year has shown some improvement in commitment to Family Bible Hour and Sunday school, and I pray that this will continue. Our midweek Grace Groups should be fuller than they are. Sadly there are quite a number who choose to not attend. And though the elders are cautious about being prescriptive about Grace Groups, a refusal to gather cannot be a sign of spiritual health.
Second, we can improve in the area of extending grace one to another. While it is not a widespread problem, there is room for growth in giving the benefit of the doubt to one another, in not being so hard on one another, in forgiving one another, and in learning to walk in one another’s shoes rather than being quick to criticise and condemn. Some of the best Christians in our church may not immediately stand out, but they have faithfully persevered and overcome great affliction and temptation.
Third, we can do better in our giving. Late last year, the church has approved a bare-bones budget for 2020, with a significant deficit that will need to be funded from reserves. While our books show healthy fiscal restraint, there can be no masking the fact that, with the state of our economy, and with losing members over the past eighteen months, we face a financial challenge. However, if each member will be faithful in tithes and other commitments, the church will come through the year well. There are so many ministries that we can assist if we have the funds. It is our prayer that God will keep us generous and grow our generosity to the good of the church to the glory of God.
At the same time, I am excited about opportunities that lie ahead. The church recently restructured its diaconate to remove a deacon board mentality and empower a more task-oriented diaconate. I and my fellow elders are persuaded that this year will show the advantages, which will make serving on the diaconate more to be desired. At the same time, there is need for more servants to raise the hand in this capacity, whether as formal deacons or as servants who come alongside the deacons to help.
Our intern—Makgale Molopo—has proved to be a blessing beyond what I expected. This is not only because of the kind of person he is, but because this internship has cemented how important this kind of exposure can be to someone who is in the ministry. I have been surprised at how some of the things that I take for granted have proven eye-opening to him. It has also helped me to learn how cultural differences must be taken into consideration when assessing a local church and how things are done. It has helped me to learn to listen.
We are anticipating widening the net when it comes to providing more pastors with a look under the bonnet of a working church. There is opportunity in the near future to host weekenders and perhaps even a longer intensive. To this end, I have been invited to attend a couple of meetings in the United States under the sponsorship of 9Marks and Capitol Hill Baptist Church. I will be gone for about three weeks in May as I observe how that ministry does this kind of training. It is possible that not only pastors in Africa, but also in India, will be able to come and observe and learn from us here. This will doubtless build a good network.
One of our young elder candidates decided to step aside from this pursuit this year, realising that he cannot commit sufficient time to it. At the same time, another young man, whom we have been eyeing for some time, has, after much discussion, consideration, and prayer, asked about commencing the candidacy. We are excited about that. We also welcome back another elder candidate, who recently spent six months in the United States.
I don’t know how many baptisms we will be blessed to witness in 2020 or how many new members we will add. Neither do I know what kind of troubles we will face. But whatever God has in store for us, I am responded that we can respond biblically. We can respond faithfully. We can be a healthy church.