Around the Table With Nothing To Add

I always feel like the odd man out when sitting around a table with other pastors or denominational leaders. I don’t ever feel like a true participant in the deep theological and methodological conversations that seem to pervade these gatherings. I never have anything to add. I am, at best, a spectator or a fly on the wall. I am along for the ride but I never get to drive. I am 35 and outdated. I am a moot point before I open my mouth. I am passe. I am. . . well you get the point. The conversation seems to always move quickly away from anything that I, or my church members, would be familiar with. Terms and definitions start flying around the table from all the latest books, which I probably should have already read, but just haven’t. Things that seem so relevant to some of my friends but somehow seem so distant and meaningless to me.

Here are just a few words, phrases, and questions that seem to dominate evangelical conversation these days:

1. Elders verses deacons. 2. How about a plurality of elders and deacons? 3. John Calvin versus Arminianism. 4. John Calvin verses. . . well just about everyone. 5. I have even heard John Calvin versus Calvinism. (I would personally like to see a loser leave town cage match between Calvin and say. . . . John Wesley.) ANYWAYS back to the list: 6. 20 new definitions of what it means to be reformed. 7. Nine Marks, Mark Dever, and John Piper. 8. Blended versus traditional. 9. Has your church become missional? 10. Do you vision cast? 11. How do you vision cast? 12. What do you think about a multi-site church? 13. What makes you and your church relevant to the culture around you? 14. What are your contextual concerns? 15. What do you think about Emergent churches? 16. Is your church incarnational? 17. Do you still use “Baptist” in your church title? 18. What kind of outreach program have you implemented? 19. How do you move people from the “foyer” of your church to the “living room” of your church? 20. What is your church planting strategy? 21. How do you assimilate people from your small group gatherings into the membership of your church? 22. And my all time favorite: “who is your target group”?

I usually walk away from these brief encounters with the outside world with a renewed sense of joy for how simple our rural route church is. We were simple before “Simple Church” was cool. I admit that, at times, I have struggled the last few years to figure out what kind of congregation our rural church is. Who hasn’t right? Where do we fit? Which book and ministry methodology best describes our experience in Cottage Grove? Which one of those pastor, teacher, and authors am I supposed to be like?

I wondered how my church members would feel sitting around the afore mentioned table as all the new buzz words began to fly. I imagine they would feel like I often do. They would have nothing to add to the conversation. They, like me, would listen intently and politely but would just feel overwhelmed. I think they would have that sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach like I do at times when the conversation moves away from what is familiar. I think they would feel passe and outdated. They would wonder where they fit in. They would wonder if they should even have a place at the table.

Recently I came to a very important conclusion. It was life altering and earth shattering and it only took me about 3 years to discover. COTTAGE GROVE BAPTIST CHURCH KNOWS WHO THEY ARE ALREADY! We don’t have to struggle with identity. For over 100 years our identity has been set. We won’t sell many books and it won’t get me booked as the leader of any conferences but we know who we are. We are in a good place. We are healthy. We are a church that evangelizes, disciples, worships, and fellowships. We are known in our community as a church that cares (does that make us incarnational?). There are some things that have changed (technology) over the years but nothing has changed that would shake the foundation. We are basically doing what we did 100 years ago. We have Sunday school. We have a major emphasis on biblical preaching, discipleship, worship, and fellowship. Even though we are doing what we have always done people are getting saved and young families are joining the church.

About the same time I realized that Cottage Grove already knew who they were I realized that everone else around the table didn’t. It seems that all of Christendom is struggling for identity. Every new book and new term is another attempt at identity. The only time we have struggled over the years is when we have allowed ourselves to be drawn into everyone else’s attempt to be relevant.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is the same thing you’ve been doing. There is nothing wrong with redefining methodology and being open to change. There is something wrong with unnecessary change. I guess each pastor and church has to figure out when to back away from the book buffet and just be who they are. Perhaps a conglomerate of our church members should write a book on how to be relevant for 100 years without changing much. Maybe then we would have something to add to the conversation around the table.

Published in: on July 21, 2008 at 1:58 pm  Comments (12)  


  1. Excellent post. Bravo! That is exactly why I wrote my booklet, “The Beauty of the Small Church.”


  2. Mike, for as long as I’ve known you, you have always had a special rapport with the rural church. I totally agree with your post…it’s not about the size of your congregation, it’s about knowing who you are. You and I have known very big and very small churches who couldn’t quite define their identity, and that’s always a road to nowhere. Great post!

  3. Les,
    I can’t wait to read the book.

    The Summit is a perfect example of a church that knows who they are. I am amazed when I read about the way God is using you guys.

  4. I understand the experience!! I even agree about the assessment. I find it most painful when we have someone from the State speak. However, I do think it is dangerous to just pass off some of the terms and ideas that you have used. Yes, they are used by many people who have no clue what they mean and they use them for the purpose of sounding impressive, creating division, or establishing an agenda. Nonetheless, some of the issues that these “buzz words” represent are biblical issues. They deal with the gospel, missions, and ecclesiology.

    I understand that you are writing about identity and how evangelicalism is searching for it on every corner. In that context, I understand full well how one can be blinded by even important issues. I’ve been one of those people. Oh!! the joy of ministry now that I am not concerned about identity. However, 10+ years has a pastor and living through the horrors of some of those buzz words has actually taught me that my understanding and convictions concerning some of those buzz words are often more important than once thought.

    Barnhart told me about this coming Sunday. I’m pumped!

  5. Yeah Perry,

    I’m not saying they are bad terms, ideas, or philosphies. I’m just saying that, for the most part, they are for us. It took me a long time to figure out that we were dealing with semantics. Many churches are simply confused by the fact that we need new words to describe the church, missions, and the Gospel. I still want to see Calvin and Wesley in a loser leave town grudge match. I would root for Calvin I think.

  6. Semantics was the word I was looking for:)

    It is hard to talk about the need for a “church planting” strategy without sounding like a surrogate promoting a State program or parachurch ministry. But freedom is found in getting off the identity merry go round. (that is not a slam on thoughtful discussions on “Baptist Identity”)

    Dude, would Wesley even be given a chance to leave town?? He better not agree to fight in Geneva:o! OK…low blow. I can give it because Calvin is my buzz word for the day!!

  7. The buzz words mean little to the people in our pews don’t they? I try them out from time to time, but the great thing about the church I pastor is they simply want me to preach the Bible, and preach Jesus from the Bible. If I don’t do that, then I will hear it. THAT is the great relief for me. We ought to stay abreast of what’s going on out there. It keeps us from being isolated from a much larger Christian world that’s out there. It helps keep us from being caged in by our own perspective. Sometimes an identity shake up is a good thing. To realize that other people do things differently than us, and are still Jesus following Christians. The best way out of it though? I believe missions. I believe you are on the right path with that. We’re still getting there. Check back in 5 years. Peace Mike.

  8. Oh, and I’ve tended to shy away from associations. I suppose I’m part of the newer group of young pastors who’d rather bypass it. At least my current association, God help them. I love the DOM, but I feel like I’m sitting through a 10 year old conversation everytime I go (which has gotten progressively rarer). It’s not me bragging. I want to cooperate. Maybe that means I’ll be a catalyst instead of a passive bystander. Inspire me Mike. Inspire me.

  9. Josh,

    I have had to back away from some of the groups I used to meet with simply because the water got muddy for me as they discussed philosophies and visions that just scrambled the vision God was trying to implement in my life and in our church. I think you should be discriminating in your association simply b/c you time is so valuable. Do what you can in your association but job # 1, as far as I can tell, is the local church.

  10. My biggest problem isn’t when I participate in activities with the association but when my people do! It seems like we can’t have any event without someone from the State coming out and promoting the latest emphasis as if it was the only way to be a good church. Of course, it is always Lifeway.

  11. Hey Mike,

    Think you have nothing to bring to the table – here is an idea. Bring a box of “Raisen Bran” ceral with you to the table and when one of these coversations start up, put the box on the table and ask for some milk. When you’ve got their attention then ask, “Anyone else need their daily dose of bran today?”

    And hey, when the conversation turns to “numbers” just tell them it has two scoops of raisens.

    I know exactly what you mean about the calvanism too. We have had numerous conversations where it was about “turning” people because Calvinism was important to their salvation. Why can’t we just be Christians?

    Have a Great Day!

  12. Did I spell Raisen right? Oh well…..

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