Addition By Subtraction?

By Matt Henslee

A few months ago, I got to hang out with a few pastors. We talked about our families, our spiritual walks and our churches. In this tiny sample size of pastors, all of us, by God’s grace, shared encouraging things happening in our lives.

All of our families seemed to be thriving, as were our walks with the Lord. By all accounts, everything was going well––until we got to the topic of our churches.

Some were growing and facing spiritual warfare. Some were declining and battling discouragement. One was open and honest about struggling with complacency. We talked through our varied experiences, but one went silent.

No one noticed at first as we went back and forth in our discussion, but then one member of the group asked, “What about you, *Bartholomew (*name changed to protect the dude)?”

He replied: “Can I be real for a moment? We’re burying the wrong people.”

An awkward, uncomfortable silence ensued, and he added, “I’d heard some churches are a few moves or funerals away from health, but the wrong people are moving or dying, y’all. I’m just struggling.”

After the immediate feelings of “what did you just say?” ran their course, each of us empathized with the struggle and began to offer much-needed encouragement to this dear brother at the end of his rope.

Addition by subtraction
In one of my church revitalization seminars, Dr. Priest pushed back on the adage of “addition by subtraction.” I pushed back against his argument, although he made an excellent case for it that began to change my outlook. His convicting counsel had more to do with humility.

Yes, sometimes it might seem like a good thing when someone, especially someone who seems to be in the way, moves on. But pastor, tread carefully here. After all, we have one enemy, the evil one, and rarely (if ever) a church member.

In fact, our biggest struggle will almost always be our pride and the temptation to celebrate the departure of someone we’ve chalked up to as the enemy. When a member seems to oppose us at every turn, it’s easy to move them into the same category as the devil himself.

And I get it
If you’re leading change, there’ll be opposition. And that opposition may be influenced by our true enemy, but brothers, be careful. We don’t know their hearts; we don’t know their motivations. It could just be an adverse reaction to change.

Our church has grown as much as 325% in my time here. Many changes had to be made for this to happen, of course. Most celebrated and embraced the changes in a reinvigorated church. Most, but not all.

Some changes saw opposition, and others led to departures. To be honest, it was tempting to be disheartened by the opposition and celebrate the departures.

Just get out of the way
When I speak with pastors, especially pastors doing the hard work of revitalization or replanting, I sense a similar struggle. Most don’t come out with it as blunt as “We’re burying the wrong people,” but we do tend to share a hope that some people would just get out of the way.

What if —and hear me out here—the biggest win isn’t them getting out of the way? What if the biggest win is them  getting on board? What if the biggest win is to lay down your pride, humble yourself and pursue these so-called enemies we’ve created?

Keep at it
I realize there’s a tension here; I realize it may seem wholly impossible. And do you know what? It might never work, but I didn’t learn to ride my bike without a few scraped knees. With that in mind, allow me to make a few suggestions.

1. Stay focused 

God has placed you at ________ Church as their pastor. Accordingly, you’re called to “preach, pray, love and stay,” as they like to say here at NAMB Replant.

As you aim to see God revitalize the church you’re pastoring, stay focused on preaching, praying, loving (yes, even the hard to love) and staying. It’s easy to let a few naysayers take your focus off the main thing or throw in the towel too soon. Don’t. Stay focused.

2. Don’t give up on anyone

In a given church, you’ll have your fans, your foes and those on the fence. Your fans will love you—even if you preach in a hideous Christmas suit (trust me, I’ve tried this). Your foes only celebrate if you leave. Those on the fence are still undecided, but a few things:

  • Don’t let your fans give you a big head.
  • Don’t let your foes make you wish you were dead.

Whether a fan, foe or fence-sitter––all are made in God’s image, loved by Him and placed by Him in your church. Accordingly, if we genuinely believe passages like Philippians 1:6, knowing God won’t quit on ’em––will you?

3. Don’t give up on yourself

You’re putting in the hard work of sermon prep, training your folks well to share their faith and seeing (or not seeing) growth. As you’re leading and face opposition, it’ll feel like you’re not enough.

Mrs. So and So sends that negative email on a Monday, and you’re just done. Well, let Spurgeon cheer you up: “If anyone thinks ill of you, don’t be angry with them, for you are far worse than they think you to be.” Encouraging, huh? But it’s a good reminder.

Stay lashed to the cross and remember your identity and worth is in Christ, not someone’s opinion of you. Stay in the fight, and you might just see that foe become a friend.

Or God might use them to keep you humble and reliant on Him.

Published April 27, 2021

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Matt Henslee

Matt Henslee (@mhenslee) is the pastor of Mayhill Baptist Church in Mayhill, New Mexico, D.Min student of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of a few books, including Evangelize to Revitalize and Text-Driven Invitation.