Imagine you are the pastor of a small church. You have been there for years. You have consistently preached, consistently visited, married and buried your share. You have shepherded the church out of debt. You have loved your church and served them faithfully. You have done everything that a biblical pastor is to do. But your church has not grown.
You look around, and you find that other churches in the area are growing steadily. It is not that they are compromising. They seem to be doing the same things you are doing. You are just not seeing the growth that they are.
One day, a fellow elder comes to you privately. “Pastor, I’ve been here for fifteen years. You know that I love this church. I’m concerned, though, that we have not been growing like the other churches in the area. We are sharing the Gospel, and we are doing well with the families here. But… look at the other churches. Should we rethink our strategy?”
How do you respond? After all, there are plenty of resources suggesting a total overhaul of ministry. They will tell you rather bluntly that you are not getting the job done (Have they ever been in your city or church? How do they know?!), and they just happen to have the secret to making your church bigger than all the others in town. You just have to begin a huge marketing campaign throughout the town. Buy a billboard with a big picture of you and your wife. Maybe change your slogan to something more inviting, like “A Place for You.” You could add a DJ onto your staff, since hip-hop is the new pop.
Or you could listen to the words of John the baptizer when his disciples confronted him with the same scenario. They were noticing that people were coming to them for baptism (John 3:23), but Jesus was also starting to get a decent crowd for baptism in his ministry (v.22). They came to John and asked, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness– look, he is baptizing, and all are going with him.”
By saying “he who was with you” and “to whom you bore witness”, they were in essence saying, “Rabbi, do you know that man that you supported in the beginning of his ministry? Well, now look at him! Everyone’s going to him now! What should we do?”
John’s answer is so important for the small church pastor, and for all of us who have been called to make much of Jesus:
A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increease, but I must decrease (27-30).
There are three things that we see in John’s words. First, any blessing in ministry is by the providence of God. John makes this clear when he said, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” His disciples were implying that John had to do something to be more effective. Why else would they go to a “competing baptizer”? But this was a misunderstanding of how things work. Ministries succeed because of the providence of God. You can do all the right things and remain in a small ministry. Conversely, you could do all the wrong things and find yourself over tens of thousands in Houston. Your actions do not determine the blessing you will receive. That is God’s prerogative.
Second, God has designed for Christ to be exalted as the bridegroom. John mentions Jesus as both the Christ and the bridegroom. He also identified himself as “not the Christ” and “the friend of the bridegroom”. He understood that God’s purpose was not to exalt John, but to exalt Jesus. The wedding imagery is key here. The groomsman does not get upset when the bride goes to the groom in the wedding! That would be a nightmare of a wedding (though that would make for great YouTube entertainment!) Weddings are about the bride and the groom. The groomsman rejoices when the bridegroom calls for his bride. John is just the groomsman celebrating for the wedding of Jesus to his people.
This leads to the third point. We must rejoice when Jesus is exalted, and his own come to him. John’s joy was completed when he saw that people were coming to Jesus, for that meant that God’s purposes were being fulfilled. As his ministry was coming to a close, he rejoiced that God used him to bring people to Jesus. He was glad to decrease, if it meant that Jesus would increase in his work on earth.
We must share the same mindset as John. We exist to make much of Jesus. How should we respond when other Gospel-driven ministries increase? We must rejoice that the Bridegroom is calling for his bride. Your ministry is not small. It is a part of the great work of God in redeeming souls and proclaiming his rule. We therefore must not look to marketing and other means to “increase”. We too must be faithful to decrease, so that Jesus would increase.