That’s an easy question. The answer is fear! In my more than 20 years of pastoral ministry, both in local congregations and at Disciples Church Extension Fund (DCEF), the greatest threat I’ve seen to successful ministry of any kind, including successful building and capital projects, is the power of fear. It is the same power Jesus faced in his ministry. How many times in scripture do angels or other emissaries of God have to warn humanity not to be afraid? Look how often in the gospels Jesus’ teachings and healings not only bring joy and life, but also fear. Jesus’ birth story begins with an angel telling Mary to not be afraid and ends with a frightened Herod committing genocide to stop the work of God in the world. Saul was afraid until he became Paul. The disciples were often afraid. Fear is the greatest threat to faith. The opposite of faith is not disbelief or atheism. The opposite of faith is fear. In scripture, those who work against the movement of God are almost always afraid. That same fear keeps congregations from moving forward. Fear retards new ideas. It creates lethargy and passivity. Fear quenches the spirit and keeps the church from using the power of the Holy Spirit to transform people’s lives. Therefore, permit me to offer four fears that congregations must combat in order to have both a vibrant ministry and successful building and capital projects.
Fear of Change
Perhaps all ministry projects (building or other) should begin with communal confession that we are all fearful of change. None of us like change—even those of us who say we do. And, in our politically charged environment, it is important to note that change is just as difficult for people who are liberal as it is for those who are conservative. We all like what we are familiar with. Taking the pews out of a 75-year-old building makes us uncomfortable. Ministries and projects succeed when the entire congregation names this demon. All projects should begin with a prayer of confession stating that new things are difficult. Once we do this, we can move on to fundamental questions:
“God, where are you calling us to go and what are you calling us to do?”
And, here is a little secret: scripturally speaking, God almost never asks or even allows God’s people to sit still. There is always movement. The Spirit moves.
Fear of Angering Someone
Too many ministry ideas and potential life-changing acts of the Holy Spirit are sacrificed on the altar of “this will anger (insert name).” God never promised any person in scripture, and Jesus never told a single disciple, that their work would be easy or without conflict. In fact, when he sent out the seventy, he warned them that there would be places where they would not be welcome. If you are doing the Lord’s work, you will face resistance. If a congregation is moving forward in ministry, there will be some small group of people who will not approve and who will actively try to thwart the good work. There is always someone who will act out of his or her fear. There will always be someone telling you that it is against God’s law to heal on the Sabbath or to touch a leper. Some of the most successful projects I have worked on at DCEF have had to overcome a few people who worked tirelessly to stall them. This is not to say we charge through with an idea or project when the church is divided. Indeed, there is a time for prayer and discernment. But we cannot allow a few people who are afraid, to stop the movement of the Holy Spirit and the advance of the gospel.
Fear of Insufficient Funds
The weapon most used by those who are afraid is: “We can’t afford this and how are we going to pay for it?” What an effective weapon! Two promises about any God-sized and God-inspired projects:
- You will always have a vision that is larger than a congregation’s current available resources.
- If God has provided the vision, then God will provide the resources.
How many God-inspired projects die because we lack the faith to believe that God will provide the resources necessary to do God’s work? This is a faith lesson I learned over and over again as a new church planter who began with not much more than a few loaves of bread and couple of fish. Resources come with steps of faith. Five thousand were fed only when they divvied up what they had and sent it out to the masses. The disciples offered what they had, with an assist from a boy, and Jesus did the rest.
New vision has a way of inspiring new resources. I remember the year my church board added a $30,000 part-time youth director to our budget as we were moving into our first building. We were already $25,000 over budget (that made us $55,000 over budget) for the following year. I will never forget that night as a group of faithful people gulped and said:
“God has called us to minister to children and God will provide a way.”
Two weeks later, a stranger who lived in another city, and who knew of our ministry through a family member, put a check in the mail for USD $30,000 with the promise of another USD $30,000 after the first of the year. Just like that, God erased our deficit. Do you think that check would have come without our living and acting in faith? I recently worked with a congregation that had struggled for years on how to move forward with a substantial vision and project. After deciding to act in faith, the largest gift in their capital campaign came from someone who lives in a different city but who believed in the vision so much that he was willing to give $250,000 to the project. Today, that church is moving forward in faith with a million-dollar project that will transform their downtown community. Money always follows vision and faithful action.
Fear of Resurrection
Acting in faith, and resisting fear, really does change lives. Things can never be the same for a person or congregation that chooses to intentionally act in faith. The Resurrected life, a life of walking in the light of faith, is a different life from the life and fear of Friday afternoon. In the gospels, the resurrected Jesus stood in front of his disciples who were “startled and terrified.” He said to them,
“Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (Luke 24:37-38).
After Easter, the disciples were afraid because they knew that everything was about to change; that they would now carry the mantle and spend the rest of their lives doing what Jesus had done — healing the sick, raising the dead, and setting people free. Their lives of Friday fear were about to give way to Sunday faith.
The most profound and significant acts of faith in scripture, the greatest miracles, the most outrageous acts of God, all began with a small step of faith over fear. By faith, not fear, Abraham and Sarah took a long walk that ended with milk and honey. By faith, Moses got his feet muddy. By faith, Peter dipped his toe in the water, Mary ran to the tomb while it was still dark, and Paul and Silas sang the city jail into rubble.
Indeed, fear is the biggest obstacle to successful ministry and building projects. But its power is like straw when confronted by the power of faith. And, as Jesus reminded the disciples, even the smallest amount of faith can move a mountain. I believe Jesus.
Rev. Dr. Craig Walls consults on loans, fundraising campaigns, and other services available from DCEF. Prior to joining DCEF, Craig spent more than 15 years as pastor of SouthPointe Christian Church in Lincoln, NE, where he engaged in building projects, capital campaigns, and creative land lease/use opportunities for the congregation. Craig received his BA from Hiram College, a Master of Divinity from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, and a Doctor of Ministry in Homiletics from McCormick Theological Seminary. Craig and his wife, Dr. Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, President of William Jewell College, make their home in Liberty, Missouri, with their sons Alec and John.
For 137 years, DCEF has offered mission-driven building and capital planning services to congregations and organizations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Together with our investors and partners, we are Disciples helping Disciples.