Pastoring Is Tortoise Work” – Even though that article was written to pastors, I encourage you to read it. It both encouraged and challenged me in my weekly labors as your pastor. However, it also made me think of you, the members of CPC Eufaula. Not only is pastoring “tortoise work,” but so too are growth and change (ordinarily) in the life of a church.

Most people enjoy hearing about the big success stories around us – rags to riches, poverty to wealth, nobodies to somebodies – yet forget the challenges, obstacles, and struggles those “success stories” had to endure. Diligent labor, countless setbacks, and steadfast perseverance form the background of those stories we like to hear so much. Success rarely, if ever, just “happens.” Rather, the people with those “success stories” identify their goals and then doggedly pursue them. They cannot control when a big opportunity will come, but they are committed to being prepared when the opportunity does come. In other words, they control what they can control, and recognize and receive opportunities as they arise.

Every analogy falls apart at some point, so I am not saying the previous paragraph offers a perfect parallel for churches! But in many ways, the same principles do, in fact, apply to a church/congregation. What does a church want to be? What are its goals and purposes, and what is it (collectively) doing to persevere in pursuing them? Those are the questions so many churches try to answer, but asking only those questions addresses only half the issue.

Consider King David. Did David, the most “insignificant” child of Jesse, ever aspire to be a great “success story?” No! God directed Samuel to pluck David from a menial shepherding role when David was probably only 13-15 years old. Based on appearances, no one – neither Samuel nor David himself – would have expected what happened. Nevertheless, the Lord God of Israel knew absolutely everything about David – history, personality, influences, cultural context, relational tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses. Whatever combination of those were present in David (1 Sam. 16:1-13) constituted sufficient “raw materials” for God’s purposes. David was “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22). But did “success” come quickly for David just because he knew what he had been called to be and to do? Again, no!

Admittedly, David did have a big moment at the beginning of his career, but even that victory against Goliath did not “just happen.” God had already prepared David for that moment. David knew his abilities and limitations, strengths and weaknesses, and responded to Goliath’s challenge in a manner consistent with what he believed about God and knew himself to be (1 Sam. 15:1-58, specifically vv. 34-47). From a human perpsective, those are the reasons for his victory against Goliath.

Yet despite defeating Goliath and some success in Saul’s court, David actually spent the next fifteen or more years running around Israel, living in caves, being targeted by the king, and even living with Philistines. Still, he was not king. Most of us, including me, would have grown irritated and grumbled impatiently. David certainly endured much pain, hurt, and sorrow through those years. He asked difficult questions of God, hoping to understand how and why things played out the way they did (just read the Psalms!). But one thing did not change. David, no matter his level of personal uncertainty, held fast to God’s promises in faith, knowing he was being prepared for the day when his “big opportunity” would arrive. Just like the challenges, obstacles, and struggles of shepherding sheep had prepared him to face Goliath, so too had the challenges, obstacles, and struggles after defeating Goliath prepared David to be king (cf. 2 Sam. 2:1-7; 5:1-4).

Here are four quick lessons that we, both as individuals and as a church, should learn from David’s life:

  1. David had to endure much tortoise work before stepping into the role God had prepared for him (as did Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, and many others – even Jesus!).
  2. David did not allow sinful ambition to replace patient faith (e.g., 1 Sam. 24:1-22).
  3. David set himself to whatever task was in front of him, controlled what he could control (i.e., his thoughts and actions), rightly recognized and received opportunities as they arose, and, above all else, trusted the Lord God to fulfill his promises in his timing.
  4. David knew the glory for whatever degree of success he achieved belonged to God, not to him (2 Sam. 7:18-29).

Now, to bring David’s “success story” full circle…how does it apply to church growth? It applies in the same ways just given! We must view setbacks and struggles as preparation for whatever lies ahead of us, not necessarily as punishment for the past. We must understand that God’s word, not the world’s metrics, sets the standard for the “success” of any church. And the greatest lesson we must learn is this: any “success” we experience is not because of anything good in us but is due to God graciously blessing us for the purpose of proclaiming his glory.

Every church, just like every person, is unique – having its own history, personality, influences, cultural context, relational tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses. All those things (and more) must be learned and understood before a church can grow and prosper. To state it differently, the more “self-aware” a church becomes (like the “self-awareness” shown by David; cf.1 Sam. 15:34-47), the more accurately it will understand itself in light of God’s word and providence, and rightly recognize and receive opportunities when they arise. As this process happens again and again, that church, like David, will realize more and more how little it deserves any “success” it experiences, and increasingly give glory to God alone for his grace and mercy.

Ultimately, any church seeking to be a “success story” will be self-destructive because it is self-seeking. However, any church remaining faithful to God’s calling and purposes (and the dogged pursuit of them) will inevitably be a “success story” because such things are not self-seeking but seek the glory of God. Whether or not our church, Covenant PCA in Eufaula, AL, ever achieves big numbers or a big budget truly makes no difference in the grand scheme of things because the story of God’s Church is bigger than us. Can God grant us those things? Of course! But he never will if we are exclusively focused on our “success.”

So let us instead focus on the tortoise work of church growth through plodding faithfulness, understanding ourselves better in light of God’s word, and committing ourselves more fully to the God who created us, redeemed us by the work of his Son, and continually transforms us by the work of his Holy Spirit.

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