For the past few weeks, I have been preaching at Good Hope Baptist Church in Iva, SC, as they begin searching for a new pastor. Truly, it is a unique church: rural, agrarian, historic—and contemporary. Unlike any congregation I’ve ever been part of, this one meets in a metal, multi-purpose building, worships with a praise band (a really good one, too) complete with lights and multimedia. Additionally, Good Hope follows a remarkably simple ministry model: worship, connect, serve.
This past Sunday, it happened. I had been enjoying some after-worship fellowship and was headed for the door when a woman stopped me. She said, “You are a perfect fit for us! It’s like you’ve been here for years!” I’ve heard that before. In fact, I’ve heard it at every church I’ve ever served–Limestone Baptist in central Indiana, Pellville Baptist in western Kentucky, and Bethany Baptist in Louisville. My perceived “fitness” for these churches would be less confounding if they were somewhat similar in context, taste, and style. Yet, outside of doctrinal congruity, these congregations could not be more different from one another. Limestone was a recent church plant, struggling to find its place in a blue-collar town. Pellville was as country as it gets. Bethany was a white-collar church in Louisville’s most culturally diverse area, and traditional with a capital “T.” Good Hope is, well, a rare bird. How, then, could I possibly be perceived as the “perfect fit” for all four scenarios?
I certainly haven’t reinvented myself for each context. My strengths and weaknesses remain generally consistent. My approach to preaching and manner with people stay mostly the same. I’m just me. I think the “perfect fit” aura that follows me, though, results from something I learned from a mentor early in my ministry: give yourself to finding small ways to connect with people. Do what Paul says of himself in 1 Corinthians 9:
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself servant to all, that I might win more of them. . . . I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor 9:19-23).
Minimize what matters least so that you can maximize what matters most: the gospel. In the context of local church ministry, accommodate—as much as possible—the congregation’s culture. Consider the following aspects:
Dress and Appearance
Recently, I heard Clint Pressley, pastor at Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte, say that a pastor shouldn’t dress to demand recognition, but he should dress so that no one is surprised to learn that he is the pastor. At Pellville, that meant slacks and a sport coat. Anything more and I looked too well-to-do. Anything less didn’t seem pastoral. At Bethany, it meant a suit, tie, and nice shoes. They weren’t uppity, but they did expect the pastor to take his job seriously and, in that context, looking the part mattered. At Good Hope, khakis and a shirt is plenty. One Sunday, I wore a tie (because I had an activity at Anderson University immediately following worship) and felt uncomfortably out of place. If I wore a suit, they might perceive me as aloof or ostentatious.
Interaction outside of the worship service is important for building connections with people. If the folks are farmers, talk farming, even if you’ve never driven a tractor or slopped a hog. You don’t need to know anything about it, just be interested, ask questions, and listen. If they are business people, sports fans (even if you despise their team), professionals, or whatever, learn to converse within their culture.
Participate enthusiastically in the manner that the church worships. If they sing “I Can Only Imagine” or “I am Bound for the Promised Land,” sing ‘em like you mean ‘em! Obviously, you may want to adjust the worship order and/or style over time, but that should not prevent you from worshiping authentically in whatever style the church expresses.
Go to where the men work and the children play. See and experience life as they see and experience it. Occasionally attend a high school football game, a little league soccer game, or play on your church’s softball team. Show up for local business leaders meetings and soon you’ll be asked to voice a blessing or invocation. Schedule lunch with the men in the church, and meet them at their workplace.
Although I was a bit surprised to be called a “perfect fit” for a church like Good Hope, I must admit some strategy to it. Before preaching there, I met with the outgoing pastor and allowed him to give me a feel for the congregation. I fine-tuned my sermon for the context, dressed according to their custom, and even strategically chose to drive my old Jeep. I arrived early to meet and greet, and stayed late to hang out.
Accommodate the stuff that matters little to maximize that which matters most, so when they say, “Hey, you’re one of us,” they’re right. “For you are all one in Christ” (Gal 3:28).
Dr. Chuck Fuller comes to Anderson University with 13 years of experience in pastoral ministry, serving churches in Kentucky and Indiana. He holds a BA in Christian Studies from Campbellsville University, and an MDiv and PhD from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. His primary field of study for the Ph.D. was in Christian preaching, with additional studies in systematic theology and philosophy. Before arriving at AU, Dr. Fuller was pastor at Bethany Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and adjunct professor of Christian preaching at Boyce College of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Additionally, Dr. Fuller has served on committees and boards of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
Married to Jessie, Dr. Fuller and his wife have two children–Kaylen Marie and Ian Charles. Jessie holds a Bachelor of Bible from Ozark Christian College, with a concentration in deaf ministry. Currently, Jessie works as a stay-at-home mom and brilliant culinary artist.
Homiletical theology comprises Dr. Fuller’s primary research area, as demonstrated in his recent book, The Trouble With “Truth Through Personality”: Phillips Brooks, Incarnation, and the Evangelical Boundaries of Preaching. Dr. Fuller also presented a paper, titled “The Pulpit at the Precipice of Heresy,” at the 2010 meeting of the Evangelical Homiletical Society.