By David K. Bernard
Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient (James 5:7-8).
But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (II Timothy 4:5).
James explained that we must wait patiently for the coming of the Lord, just as the farmer waits patiently for the harvest. The farmer is totally dependent upon the blessings of God—the sunshine, the rain, and the miracle of life in the seed. He cannot force growth to take place but must allow it to develop and unfold naturally. Yet he does not sit by idly and wait for God to work. He cannot do what God must do, but God will not do what he can do. Therefore, the farmer works diligently and at the same time waits patiently. The combination of diligent effort and patience is persistence.
The Christian life requires persistence. Jesus taught the need for it: “Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). Paul’s life was characterized by persistence: “I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).
Christian ministry also requires persistence. Despite persecution, the apostles continued to preach and teach daily in the Temple and from house to house (Acts 5:40-42). To establish the church in Ephesus, Paul held discussions in the school of Tyrannus every day for two years (Acts 19:9-10). As the New Testament repeatedly records, the apostles persevered in their ministry despite intense opposition and hardship.
Paul described the circumstances in which he and other apostles ministered: “To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the off-scouring of all things until now” (I Corinthians 4:1113). “We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (II Corinthians 4:8-9).
Paul exhorted Timothy to work hard to fulfill his ministry—continually being watchful, enduring afflictions, and reaching for the lost (II Timothy 4:5). He compared the preacher’s responsibilities to those of a soldier, an athlete, a farmer, a workman, a vessel, and a servant (II Timothy 2).
A Realistic View of Church Growth
In short, growing a church is hard work! It takes effort, time, patience, and persistence. When we hear reports of great revival and church growth, we should rejoice, but we should not think that there are shortcuts to growth. Instead, we should realize two important truths.
First, someone generally has labored diligently for a long time to lay the foundation for growth. If a minister seemingly builds a quick work, he is probably benefiting from the efforts of others over many years. In my own case, I am deeply indebted to the training I have received from my father and mother, to the many advantages afforded by the United Pentecostal Church International, and to the apostolic ministry of many people over the years. In our congregation are people who first heard the gospel on a foreign mission field. I am reaping a harvest from the labor of home and foreign missionaries, fellow pastors, and even ministers who have retired or deceased.
Second, even when there is quick growth, significant effort is still required to ensure long-term results. For instance, if many people quickly and easily come into the church, then it will likely take quite a battle to retain and establish them solidly in truth and holiness. On the other hand, if there is slow but steady growth, then much of the work of discipleship will already have been accomplished during the conversion process. Either way, a significant amount of work will be involved. The point is not that we should prefer one type of growth over the other, but to recognize that however growth takes place, it will require hard work, patience, and persistence to see lasting results.
Some ministers continually search for a pathway to rapid success. This approach often results in disillusionment or deception.
Disillusionment comes about when they identify a success formula and operate accordingly but the predicted results do not materialize. One minister was convinced that the key to planting a church was prayer and fasting. He went to a major metropolitan area, adopted a strict routine of extensive prayer and fasting, and began services. Unfortunately, he was never able to establish a work, and he became quite disillusioned because it seemed that God had failed him. In reality, while a personal relationship with God—developed through prayer and fasting—is indeed an important component of church planting and growth, no single method is the infallible key to success, nor can we earn spiritual results by doing good works.
Deception can take place when ministers seek rapid growth and revival without taking into account the need for persistence. In some cases, they identify a certain doctrine or practice as the key to growth even though they cannot demonstrate this point from Scripture. Consequently, they abandon sound biblical principles, and this approach leads them further into error. Typically, the key that they have identified does not in fact lead to the results they expect, so they drift farther and farther away from their biblical foundation. In many cases, they eventually redefine success by compromising apostolic doctrine, apostolic lifestyle, or both, so that they can finally claim the success they seek.
Some ministers achieve significant church growth but then promote a favorite idea as the key to growth, even though their own story of success involved a number of factors. They may neglect to mention hard work and persistence, and those who seek to learn from them do not think about this factor either. The reason is that most people desire more glamorous and exciting answers. All too often, the followers employ the recommended plan only to find that they do not achieve the same results. In many cases, they need persistence more than they need a particular method.
Commitment of Time
If a pastor really wants his church to grow, he must make a significant commitment of time—both in hours per day and in years. In this respect, he must think like an entrepreneur or a professional. An entrepreneur expects to work long, hard hours and to spend several years establishing his business. Similarly, after a lawyer spends seven years earning his law degree, he still expects to work for several years to become a partner in his law firm or to start his own practice. And during those years, he will work much more than forty hours per week. A doctor also spends years in school, internship, and specialization, working long hours.
Likewise, a minister should expect to spend several years in preparation for effective ministry, whether by schooling, on-the-job training, or both. Then it will probably take him three to five years as pastor before he really establishes the type of relationships within the church and community that are necessary for lasting growth. And it will take long hours of hard work to accomplish his job.
I spent seven years in college and eleven years in full-time ministry before I started a church. In my pastoral work, I have benefited greatly from these years of study and experience. I have been able to work much more efficiently and effectively than if I had started a church in my early ministry. This is not to say that no minister should become a pastor in his early ministry, but simply that he needs to have realistic expectations about his work. If God has called him to pastor a church, then he should do his best, recognizing that if he is diligent and persistent he can expect his effectiveness to increase over time.
A growth-minded pastor should plan to work at least forty hours per week, not counting service times. (After all, that is what lay members have to do.) And that is just to see average results. If he wants to see greater results, he will probably need to work fifty to sixty hours per week and sometimes more. Here is a typical week for me:
- Monday is my day off. However, I will probably spend one or two hours taking care of urgent matters or making calls in the evening.
- Tuesday through Friday, I usually work in the office from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, working through lunch or using lunch as a meeting time. (My goal is to arrive around 8:00 AM but to reserve the first hour for prayer, Bible reading, and study.) On most of these evenings, I will spend two or three hours in midweek service, special church functions, counseling, telephone calls, visits, or outreach. Then, late at night is my best time for reading, writing, and study—after the children are in bed and it is too late for telephone calls.
- Saturday is a busy day with calls, visits, counseling, meetings, special events, outreach, and study. While this is a good day to make appointments with people who are not available during the week, I keep my schedule flexible, for I need time for family and also to prepare for Sunday.
- Sunday is usually spent at church from 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM, with preparation, services, classes, meetings, and informal, on-the-spot counseling. When our church was smaller, I would take several hours for dinner and for relaxation at home, and occasionally I still do, but we now schedule many Sunday dinner functions at church—fundraisers, potlucks for new people, and departmental meetings. On the remaining Sundays, dinner is often provided for our family by members of the church. This plan was initiated by our care groups to accomplish three goals: (1) show appreciation to the pastor, (2) provide an opportunity for different families to eat with and visit with the pastor, and (3) help the pastor make efficient use of his time on this hectic day.
With this schedule, it is not unusual for me to work ten to fourteen hours per day. Sixty hours per week is typical, and it is not uncommon for me to work more. While I enjoy my work, I also enjoy family and personal time. As much as possible, I try to schedule recreational activities such as reading, swimming, racquetball, chess, the symphony, vacation, and so on. The point is not to become a workaholic but to keep up with the necessary work of the church. We must learn to delegate responsibilities, as chapter 7 discusses, and to manage time wisely, but the fact remains that growing a church is hard work and consumes a lot of time.
Persevering In the Work
Since we are seeking long-term, lasting results, we must be willing to work over a long period of time to obtain those results. A pastor may work for years with seemingly average results, but as long as he continues to feel confirmation from God, he should be faithful to his post of duty. God does not measure success as humans often do; He is more interested in our character and our faithfulness than in statistical results. If God has called us to do a work, we need to persist in that work until He releases us.
Sometimes we may question why we do not see greater results. It is appropriate to examine our attitude, motives, principles, and methods to see if any of them are hindering growth. If we find problems or inadequacies, we need to work on them. But many times we are doing our best, by God’s grace, and we simply need to persevere. When we do not know what else to do, we need to keep on doing what we know to do. Sometimes the answer we seek only comes by persistence.
When my wife and I came to Austin in 1992 to start a church, we did not quite know what to expect. In our first service, held in our home, we had eleven people—our immediate family of four at the time; my wife’s parents; my wife’s maternal grandparents, who lived an hour away but wanted to help us get started; one lady who moved from out of town; and two ladies who had been friends of our family for many years. We began contacting unchurched friends and acquaintances, and some of them visited for a while, but most did not come faithfully. Nevertheless, in ways that we had not foreseen, we soon gathered a few families and single adults who had a Pentecostal or charismatic background—some had recently moved to town, some were having meetings in their home, some had dropped out of church, and some were looking for a church home.
In three months, we were averaging thirty-three in service. Some people had been renewed to church, some were interested inquirers, and some were in home Bible studies, but we did not have one brand-new person whom we had baptized in Jesus’ name and who had received the Holy Spirit under our ministry. In fact, we did not win our first convert until six months had passed. While many exciting things were happening, this was a frustrating time for me, because it seemed that we were having a difficult time winning new people to the Lord. I had to learn that God was bringing people who needed our ministry and doing it in His way and His time.
On a typical Sunday, I would teach the adult Sunday school lesson, and my wife would teach the children. Then we would gather together for worship; I would emcee and lead singing, and my wife would play the keyboard. My two boys, ages six and three, took the offering. Then I would preach and give the altar call. When people would come to pray, I would pray with them while my wife played music. Soon, however, I would rush to the door to catch people as they left, meet first-time visitors, and make sure they had filled out a visitor card. In the meantime, the seekers would stop praying. As I said, it was frustrating.
One Sunday, we had a special speaker. A lady who was in a Bible study attended that day, and she was deeply stirred. The next night she came to our house for prayer, counsel, and study. She repented in our den, we baptized her in a swimming pool, and as she came out of the water she received the Holy Spirit. We had victory at last! Now we were ready for great revival.
In the next six months, however, we saw only one additional person—a backslider—filled with the Spirit. After our first anniversary, though, the pace began to pick up. That month we saw three receive the Holy Ghost—a backslider with a background in the Assemblies of God, a teenage boy, and an elderly, invalid Hispanic lady who responded to an advertisement in the newspaper. My wife taught a Bible study in her house, I baptized her in her bathtub, and she received the Holy Ghost at home a few days later.
What was the secret to this victory? We simply kept doing what we were doing. Over time, people from various backgrounds began to meld together as a body. After about a year, there was noticeable development in unity, worship, and prayer. Finally, we were enjoying an atmosphere that was conducive to faith and that was not solely dependent on my wife and me.
At this time a real breakthrough came. After fifteen months, we had special services with a pastor from a nearby city. He brought some of his congregation, and the worship was tremendous. At the end of the service, four people received the Holy Ghost!
In this second year, we had an average of one person per month to receive the Holy Ghost. The pace still seemed slow—but it was certainly better than one per year! The next year, the average was two per month, and the fourth year was much the same. Over the years we have seen a steady increase, so that in 2000, after eight years, we averaged well over two per week being filled with the Spirit. We are now believing God for an average of one per day, and indeed, in January 2001 we saw twenty-eight people receive the Holy Ghost in thirty-one days. That was more than our first two years combined.
Here is a graph that displays the number of people per year who have received the Holy Spirit in our assembly (excluding our jail services). The number for 2001 is a projection based on the first quarter. The graph illustrates the results of being persistent.
This experience has confirmed to me that when we are doing the will of God, we simply need to keep on keeping on. God will bring revival in due time if we will be persistent and faithful.
Persistence with individuals has also paid off. We try to follow up on everyone who has been referred to our church and everyone who visits. (See chapter 6.) In a number of instances, people did not respond to our initial contact, but six months or a year later they did. We also try to stay in touch with people who have stopped coming regularly. We have been able to help some of them get back on track. In both situations, repeated contacts over a period of time—fliers, calls, cards, letters, and visits—have often made the difference. While we try not to be pushy or annoying, we want to show concern and interest over a period of time. Some churches tend to write off visitors or dropouts if they do not return within a relatively short time, but we seek to maintain some form of contact if possible. As a result, a number of people are in our church today because of a persistent pursuit of their souls.
Several years after starting the church in Austin, I was teaching a doctrinal seminar in the country of Belarus, which was a new mission field for the United Pentecostal Church International. At that time, our pioneer missionary had only two Spirit-filled converts, both of whom had received the Holy Ghost privately in their homes. After a year or more of services, with about forty in regular attendance, no one had received the Holy Ghost publicly.
The missionary asked me for advice on what might be wrong. I told him that he seemed to be doing all the right things. He had fostered a positive, faith-building, friendly atmosphere with good prayer, worship, preaching, teaching, and fellowship. I concluded that he simply needed to persevere and that God would give the increase.
Sure enough, that Sunday three people received the Holy Ghost, including a first-time visitor. Today Belarus is aflame with apostolic revival. Even at that early stage, everything was already in place; the key to success in that situation was persistent faith.
Of course, hard work and persistence alone do not guarantee success. We can plant and water, but ultimately only God can give the increase (I Corinthians 3:6-7). Moreover, our labor must be in accordance with scriptural principles, and our persistence must be in a spiritual direction. Persistence in a worthy effort is commendable tenacity, but persistence in a misguided course of action is unreasonable stubbornness—and we cannot expect a reward merely for being stubborn.
We must learn to work smarter, not simply harder. When we apply this truth spiritually, we find that the foremost work of a pastor that will ensure both the qualitative and quantitative growth of a church is preaching and teaching.
The above article, “Persistence” was written by David K. Bernard. The article was excerpted from chapter three in Bernard’s book, Growing a Church.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.