Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Fellowship of the Unknown

According to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches ( there are over 600,000 clergy serving in the United States. The median size of all congregations in the United States is 75 ( That means, of the approximately 300,000 congregations in the United States, half of them are smaller than 75 and half are larger. The Barna group says that the average Protestant church size in America is 89 adults. The same study shows sixty percent of protestant churches have less than 100 adults in attendance. Only 2 percent have over 1,000 adults attending. Outreach magazine recently reported that 90% of U.S. pastors will never lead a congregation over 200 people and 99.99% will pastor a small church at some point in their ministry (

What do all those numbers mean? It means that the vast majority of those ministering in the United States do so in obscurity. I suspect most of us would be hard pressed to identify fifty pastors by name. The number who we have received personal ministry is far lower. Even with the advent of our social media networks, ministry, to a large degree is done in obscurity. And, pastors are, for the most part, the fellowship of the unknown.

 I mention all of this because October has historically been Pastor Appreciation Month. The fact is that most church members reading this have been significantly impacted by a pastor who will spend most of his ministry in obscurity. Yet, God uses these people to make an eternal difference in the lives of men and women, boys and girls. While our culture prizes fame and notoriety, neither is essential to effectively serving others. What is essential is a willingness to be used by God on His terms. The Bible is filled with just such people. They have names that appear for a brief time, in a short narrative, never to be heard from again. People like Kenaniah (1 Chron 15:21-22), Zechariah (Lk 1:8-25), Simeon (Lk 2:25), Anna (Lk 36), Phillip (Acts 8:5-8), Ananias (Acts 9:10-17), and Shamgar (Jdgs 3:31). People who lived in obscurity, emerged for a brief moment to serve the Lord, and then returned to the shadows.
 The vast majority of those faithfully serving the church as pastors will never write a best selling book. They will never be the featured speaker at a conference. They will never have anyone stand in line to take a photo with them. No one will ever want them to sign their Bible (a practice I still find quite awkward). They will never preach a sermon on television. They will never be invited to preach on a seminary campus. They will never be known by anyone outside of the circle of people they have been given spiritual responsibility to care for and nurture. And, that is perfectly fine. They are part of the fellowship of the unknown.

The two men who made the most dramatic impact on my life in their pastoral ministry fit this description perfectly. Steve Tanner and Dale C. Prince were my pastors during my most formative years. “Brother Steve” was instrumental in leading my parents to Christ, which transformed the trajectory of our entire family. Similarly, “Brother Dale” was our pastor when I came to faith in Christ and when I surrendered to full-time Christian service. I still find myself using sayings from his ministry in my own preaching and teaching.

Both of these men were serving a “small church” when our lives intersected. They were serving, largely, in obscurity; their membership in the fellowship of the unknown well established. To my knowledge, neither wrote a best selling book nor spoke at a state or national pastor’s conference. Yet, there are countless lives who have been impacted by their respective ministries. Indeed, the fact you are reading this is another life that has been impacted by those two men. And, I hope one more will be: your pastor.

Whether you are in a smaller church or a large church, would you make it a point to let your pastor know how much you appreciate them? You may not understand all of their struggles or challenges. You may not even agree with all of their decisions. But, for the sake of the gospel, would you simply let them know you love them, appreciate them, and will pray for them? I cannot tell you how much those simple things mean to those of us who are part of the fellowship of the unknown.

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