I remember my first Easter as pastor in Auburn, Calif. I was excited and had some grand ideas for our congregation. We all needed a successful something. After all the negative events of recent months, our church needed a real positive. So six or seven weeks prior to the holiday, I announced a planning meeting to brainstorm about how we could make Easter really impactful for our community. I invited everyone back that Sunday afternoon to put our heads together and pray for a God-sized Easter Sunday.
About 25 people showed up, which was about one-fourth of our congregation, so I was excited. We spent the hour sharing ideas regarding themes, skits, food, mailers, decorations, etc. Before we prayed together I asked one final question: How many people should we pray and ask the Lord to bring on Easter? I wanted to set a God-sized attendance goal. I already had a number in mind, but I let the group discuss this. Someone said we should ask God for 150; someone else said 200, which was the number I had in my mind. Then our volunteer worship leader boldly proclaimed that 300 should be our goal. I shuttered, but many others agreed with him and before I knew it, we were set on asking God for the miracle of 300.
I remember staying awake on Easter eve that year and praying that God would perform a real miracle. “Please Lord, don’t let your people down. They are stepping out in faith and asking You for a real miracle.” I felt asking God to triple our normal Sunday attendance was mind-blowing and such a risk of faith. I was proud of our people for wanting to take such a risk in the name of the Lord, but 300… really?!?! What if only half of that number showed up? It would be another negative episode for our already downtrodden body of believers.
This last Easter Sunday was my 20th as pastor in Auburn. It was a wonderful Sunday filled with music, drama, and the Word. But this year there was no numerical goal. In fact, we haven’t set numerical goals for many years. I discovered long ago that real risk in ministry has nothing to do with how many people show up on Sunday or how much comes in the offering baskets. Real ministry risk is much harder and runs much deeper than these things. Dare I say our congregation can try gathering a crowd or give weekly gospel invitations without really risking much at all?
Real risk taking in ministry includes three elements; three elements which have nothing to do with goal setting or asking the Lord to answer ‘God-sized’ attendance prayers. These three elements are often shied away from by ministry leaders. I was unwilling to face these risks for the first five years as pastor in Auburn. But God wanted more from me and from our congregation. Discovering what He wanted, then having the courage to follow it through was the biggest risk I’ve ever taken as a leader, and our congregation has ever taken as a family of believers. But it’s more exciting now than any goal achieved in those early years.
This year at Flinch Conference, I’ve been asked to share a TED-type talk and briefly describe these three key elements for taking risk in ministry. I hope to see you there. — by Phil Sparling, pastor, Auburn Grace Community Church, Auburn, Calif.
This post was first published on the Flinch Conference blog — check it out for more great articles by speakers at this year’s conference! And don’t forget to make plans to attend Flinch at the conference website. Flinch Conference is July 23-26 at the Newark, N.J., International Airport Marriott.