I'm writing this post knowing that it's not an exciting issue for most people. But it actually is, if you love God's church, think it should be conformed to the instructions God gave us for church in the New Testament, and love seeing more people leading in his church (which equals growth of his church).
First, it is not the goal of Providence Church to be a megachurch or to have bragging rights because we are the largest church in town. That's just vain. Our goal is to utilize our time and resources in order that through us God will make disciples of as many people as possible and have the largest impact on this world. That means it's more about quality (disciple-making) than quantity (converts or attendees). That's because real disciples are on mission and reproduce themselves. That said, we have for 10 years struggled to break the 1000-attendee barrier. It's not an uncommon thing, and it's not necessarily a bad thing (if we are planting churches and making, growing, and unleashing disciples). I am convinced that there is a correlation between the size of a disciple-making church and the impact it can have in this world. For many reasons (that I will not expound upon here) and in our context, I think that the "sweet spot" number is 1500 to 2000 people. There are some practical factors that can determine whether we grow that large, like: our building's size, our lack of parking space, our leadership structure, as well as our culture of inviting and welcoming and encouraging new people, and caring for those already in the family. These factors, and to a greater degree our struggle to grow, has caused our elders to pray and think and read and discuss solutions.
Several things are obvious:
1. We need more space. This can be accomplished in several ways: multiple services, different campuses, larger facilities (either by constructing more or moving to another location), or getting rid of people by planting new churches. NONE of these are easy.
2. We need more, capable leaders. After all, we are in the people business. An essential ingredient to making disciples is disciple-makers. These should be raised up IN THE CHURCH, or we are not accomplishing our mission.
3. We need more resources. Specifically, money. Because there are many practical necessities for disciple-making and church planting.
Let me deal with the first and last of these quickly:
1) The space problem is real, especially regarding parking and children's ministry space. Yes, the auditorium is tight at times, but that's not our primary problem. We have and are trying to accommodate for this until we're able to plant a church and build more space.
3) As people grow more mature spiritually, they are obedient to God and give more. We have started classes to help people manage their money better, and we have significantly paid down our debt (I have not given up hope that we will retire it). This frees up significant amounts of money each month.
Also, growth in members also results in more giving.
That leaves number 2. How do we raise up leaders who are capable and accountable to, and passionate about making disciples and planting churches? We must be intentional about this. We recognized (again) the need for our current staff and leaders to raise up "replacements" for themselves and recruit and train more who will "own" the ministries of Providence. These leaders must be identified as equals to the staff (much the same way as our non-staff elders are equals to Jesse and me).
About a year ago, I read a book entitled, RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith by Michael J. Svigel. Unbeknownst to me, Jesse was reading it for a class about the same time. In the book, Svigel accurately describes the simple structure of the early church, consisting of elders AND deacons, that remained basically the same and allowed the church to grow exponentially for the first few centuries. That is, until the Roman Emperor became a Christian and the church exchanged the simple structure it began with for a much more complex structure that more resembled Roman society. Corruption and stunted growth followed, ushering in the dark ages.
Jesse wrote me an email early in 2016 dropping the idea of calling this new categorization of leaders, deacons. My first reaction to this suggestion was not positive. I've dealt with "demon" deacons before (and not the Wake Forest University variety)! It usually wasn't pleasant. Deacons tend to be winners of a church popularity contest vote who, instead of serving, become the Mayberry town council-type complainers and troublemakers—dividers, not disciple-makers. I re-read the scriptural passages about deacons, and read germane sections of RetroChristianity again. I realized that what Jesse had said was true: the only biblical name for the type of leaders we were wanting to establish is "deacon."
After much discussion, Jesse and I made the case to the elders so that we could all pray together about this. After much more deliberation, we decided to put it before the church. Here is the white paper we wrote about the new (to us) office.
After much prayer, we presented to the church that we wanted to establish the office of deacon at Providence. Of course there was some pushback. We totally expected it. In fact, it was not as much or as fierce as we expected. And all was lovingly delivered. All those who struggled with establishing deacons at Providence had churched backgrounds where deacons were not defined and determined biblically. This had resulted in problems for the church.
In addition to the white paper (which answers most questions), I answered a few emails and had additional conversations with people. For example, here is part of one email reply to a member who is (like me and many others in our church and area) from a Baptist background (I've hidden the name of the recipient). In addition to having some bad personal experiences with deacons in a traditional church, he was struggling with the idea of women deacons.
I appreciate your email so much. I love you and I LOVE your commitment to the Bible. I assure you there will never be a day while our current elders are alive where we compromise the clear teaching of Scripture, and I hope we put measures in place for the future leaders of Providence to have the same commitment. I am thankful for you for lots of reasons, including because you are a convicted conservative, evangelical, protestant, Christian. SO AM I. Even though we are not affiliated with a denomination, we are certainly "baptistic" regarding doctrine. I'm proud of my Baptist heritage (well, most of it anyway :) )! Truth is, we from Baptist backgrounds must forget some of what we have been taught about deacons, and look to the Scriptures alone for the definition. While baptists get most things right, many of them miss the biblical role for deacons. That has everything to do with Baptist history in the United States.
In Baptist churches, deacons have over the centuries become "rulers" rather than "servants" as they were intended to be in the New Testament. Baptist churches in the USA usually began in small communities, in rural areas, or on the frontier, and hardly EVER had a full-time pastor when they began. Most of them had itinerate or "circuit" preachers who would alternate between 2 to 4 different small churches! Because there was a shortage of pastors/preachers/elders (they considered these terms to be synonymous) and didn't have a plurality of elders, the deacons operated as the ruling "board" of the church. If a church was able to grow enough, they would eventually celebrate the day that they could hire a full-time pastor. But the power vested in the deacon board never changed. That's why virtually all Baptist pastors have stories of having trouble with "the Deacon board" of their churches (I know you have experienced this!). The deacons had become a ruling board, rather than what the NT intended: a group of leading servants who served under the authority of the elders. Most conservative scholars agree that the word sometimes translated "wives" in 1Tim.3:11 should be translated "women" and refers to women deacons. I quoted John MacArthur in the "white paper" and I could bore you to tears with the many conservative commentaries and early church fathers who were convinced of this interpretation. Here's just one more from the great conservative Baptist Charles Haddon Spurgeon's favorite scholarly resource: Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible:"their wives" — rather, “the women,” that is, the deaconesses. For there is no reason that special rules should be laid down as to the wives of the deacons, and not also as to the wives of the bishops or overseers. Moreover, if the wives of the deacons were meant, there seems no reason for the omission of “their” (not in the Greek). Also the Greek for “even so” (the same as for “likewise,” 1 Timothy 3:8, and “in like manner,” 1 Timothy 2:9), denotes a transition to another class of persons. Further, there were doubtless deaconesses at Ephesus, such as Phoebe was at Cenchrea (Romans 16:1, “servant,” Greek, “deaconess”), yet no mention is made of them in this Epistle if not here; whereas, supposing them to be meant here, the third chapter embraces in due proportion all the persons in the service of the Church. Naturally after specifying the qualifications of the deacon, Paul passes to those of the kindred office, the deaconess.
Trust me, there is not a single early church father of the first five centuries that disagrees with this interpretation. It was not until much later when it was translated or interpreted "wives of deacons." I know what you're thinking. "No conservative believes women can be deacons." I know! I have felt the same way! And I still do regarding churches where deacons [unbiblically] are rulers! Again, we want the office of deacon to be what the New Testament intends: servants. I think it is more important to bring our church in line with what the Bible really teaches than to hold to man-made tradition. Please know that there is no biblical case for women elders (who ARE the ruling body of the church) and that Providence will not compromise regarding the Bible's teaching. I give you my word on this. So unless we see something in the Bible that suggests that we should change our practice to conform better to the Bible, we will not change it. I am thankful that we have a men-led church. In most churches I know, most volunteer and leadership positions are filled by women. However, we actually have more men involved in all aspects of leadership (including traditionally woman-dominated positions, like children's ministry and worship) than any other church I know percentage-wise. That's due in part to our focus on men being the leaders God has called them to be. This is in no wise a put-down for women! God loves strong women and we want them to serve in the church in myriad ways.
Brother, the decision is not made yet. The elders are presenting the idea to the whole church so that we can all pray about it, study what God's Word says, and then vote on it.
There it is. Exciting stuff, right? I actually think so. We MUST raise up new leaders if we want to make more disciples and plant churches. I think God is trustworthy to build HIS church. As we conform it to the description given in the New Testament, we are trusting HIM to do so.