This is the third post in a series reflecting on the lessons learned while planting church. The previous two were on the blessings of confident humility and the blessing of being clueless.
The benefits of a working pastor
I will always cherish the first 3½ years of planting and pastoring Shofar Pretoria – the time when I was still working as engineer in the Air Force. It was a busy time for me – I worked during the day, studied post-graduate engineering part time, and also pursued relationship with Magriet whom I later married. So my ministry in the church was really “part-time”: leading prayer meetings on Monday evening, teaching in Bible School on Tuesdays, attending small group meetings on Wednesday evenings, regular outreaches or discipleship courses on Saturdays, ending with Sunday services. The reason why I cherished this memory is for two reasons: firstly I did not get paid to do for a long time; I did it because I loved God and his church. And secondly this “part-time” ministry inspired everyone in church to value and participate in our times together. Since I did not “work for the church” everyone “worked in the church” – we all pulled together and shared responsibility. There was such a joyful, selfless spirit of serving in the church!
Also, the pastor who worked – as everyone else – meant there was no elitism, no class difference between the “spiritual” and the “secular” people. It made not just “volunteering” and “activities” in church normative – it made every type of ministry in church normative.
So the fact that the pastor worked inspired unreserved partnership in and ownership of the congregation – each pulled their weight joyfully. And this high degree of involvement and service set the tone for a growing, learning church. There were no passive, stagnant church members – every member was minister.
A warm environment
One of the key characteristics in Shofar Pretoria right from the offset was the warm and authentic relationships. It usually takes a while to cultivate such an accepting, loving relational environment, but this was true form the offset in the church.
Very early in the church plant I boldly approached six of my very close Air Force engineering friends (who served God and studied with me in Stellenbosch) to help us in the church plant. One by one they agreed and came in to help with the church plant.
Our friendship was cultivated over a period of six years by that time, having gone through Basic Military Training, Officers Course and engineering studies together. Our friendship was robust and sincere, having been forged in good times and hard times. By then we really knew each other well and loved each other sincerely. That meant there was no pretense among us; we were well aware of one another’s strengths and weaknesses and we had the habit of watching out for one another.
So when these young men joined the church they did so exclusively to help build the church – they “came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). When I asked them they were already attending other congregations, but they came over to help build a church in which a friend – whom they knew well, fully aware of all his flaws and mistakes – was pastoring. Their loyalty and devotion to a friend caused them one by one to prayerfully join the church to help build the church.
Another man is worth mentioning here: my brother Conrad van Niekerk. When we started with services in Pretoria Conrad served as Lieutenant in the Military Medical School in Pretoria. He was frustrated with his work, not really seeing a future career there, and not in a good space. He was on the point of leaving for greener fields in the UK when he made a vow to God to put his career and life on hold to serve and help me, his younger brother, to build the church.
I must mention that most of the initial church planting team also knew each other really well from our days in Shofar in Stellenbosch from years together in campus ministry and medium term outreaches. But when these men joined with their tight working relationships and the sole motive to help build, it added much momentum.
The coming of this “band of brothers” early in the church plant set the tone for the culture in the church: a warm relational culture of loyalty, service, transparency and accountability was formed. From the offset these Christian values were visible and normative in the relationships of the young congregation. And because they were a relatively large in the beginning the new members who joined the church were disciple in this warm, honest and selfless culture.
In the next post “the blessings of influence” I will reflect on my insights gained as I reflected on how the church grew, and it might challenge some people’s view of church-growth a little.