Declining Churches Searching for the Silver Bullet Pastor

  The problem of declining churches in America was nothing new when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck in March 2020. I tend to ignore 2020 through 2022 when measuring whether a church has declined. But let’s be honest: if you look back to March 2020 and compare your attendance and financial giving back then to that of today, in March 2024, and both are lower, on average, by more than a few percent, your church has declined. If you had a children’s ministry before the pandemic, and you now struggle to wrangle up more than a few kids on a typical Sunday, you have declined. Your church needs revitalization. Sure, there are other, less tangible measures of health. How are you doing evangelistically? Are you reaching your neighborhood with the gospel? Are you making disciples? Maybe your church has already taken proactive steps in the direction of revitalization. Perhaps you’ve already decided to make some hard decisions rather than kicking the can down the road. If so, good on you! Sadl

Leaders Wanted

Have you ever been job hunting?  Sure you have unless you’re lucky enough to be independently wealthy or were born with the proverbial silver spoon in your mouth.  After theIt’s great when you find that dream job. Well, okay, maybe it’s not a dream job, but at least you don’t have to go through the grind of a job hunt anymore.  Then, suddenly, your company downsizes, you tick your boss off for the last time, or you just plain get tired of your job and know you need a new one. Time to go job hunting again.

So, where do you start looking for your new job?  Before the internet, we all went to the newspaper “help wanted” ads.  Today, you go to or Monster or to the website of companies that you are interested in, and you look up the available jobs.  You look at an overview of the job.  You check out the qualifications for the job:  Do you have the minimum education and experience needed?  Are you overqualified?  You pay particular attention to the duties and responsibilities:  Does it sound like something you’d like to do all day, every day?  You look for the salary, and usually, there’s nothing there about pay, because the company typically wants to get you as cheaply as possible.  Finally, you pay attention to the challenges particular to the job.  Does the job require extensive travel or difficult working conditions? 

If any of you have served as an employer, you have probably placed such ads yourself.  You needed a job done, and you needed the right person to do it.

In Titus 1:5-16, we see a newly planted first-century church in Crete.  It’s a church that needs a job done—that is, the church needs leaders—and it needs the right leaders.  Paul has left Titus behind in Crete to finish putting in order everything that still needs to be done in firmly establishing this new church for the long haul.  The most important of the things Titus needs to do, as Paul writes, is to find the right leaders for the fledgling church in Crete.

Paul writes Titus to tell him the qualifications he should seek in church leaders, the duties those leaders will be required to perform, and the challenges those leaders will face.  If help wanted ads existed in those days, Titus could have lifted most of the ad right out of Paul’s letter:

“Leaders Wanted.” 

Let’s imagine what that help wanted ad might have looked like, based on what we see in today’s text, Titus 1:5-16:

5 This is why I left you in Crete so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. 10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. 12 One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, 14 not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. 15 To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. 16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.[1]

First, Paul tells Titus what kind of qualifications we would see in a help-wanted ad.  We might write that ad this way:

Leaders Wanted: Only Godly men of impeccable character need apply

Paul first talks about the basic qualifications of an elder.  Here are the qualifications for the help wanted ad.  Paul tells Titus to appoint elders who are “above reproach.”  No, he’s certainly not talking about someone who never sins, but he’s talking about men who don’t make sin a lifestyle.  Elders should be men of commitment, and the first place where their commitment must be evident is in their family lives.  Let’s look here at verse 6.

Elders should be “the husband of one wife,” though some will disagree with me, I think that first, Paul is clear that elders should be men—male leadership in the church and in the home is not just something for ancient cultures, it’s a biblical principle.  So along with that, men, I’m going to pick on you in particular during the course of today’s message…and ladies, you have a huge influence in helping us become the kind of men we ought to be, so you listen carefully, too!

Second, when Paul says an elder must be the husband of one wife, he clearly excludes polygamists from church leadership.  Less clear is whether Jesus’ teachings placing divorce on a par with adultery excludes divorced men from eldership.  While some people believe that divorce is a disqualifier for eldership, I think there must be some room for grace here, and we shouldn’t put an exclamation point where the Bible is silent.

An elder’s children must be believers, and their lives ought to show it.  If an elder is a believer, his life will show it, and his children will naturally become Christ-followers.  I’m not sure how “debauched” a minor child can be, so I agree with many scholars that this applies even more to an elder’s adult offspring than to younger ones.

Look at verses 7 and 8.  Paul calls elders God’s stewards—there is deep trust and confidence in there.  Elders must be more than men of commitment, especially at home, but they must be men of character and impeccable conduct.  Again, above reproach.  Not drunks or hot-heads, or brawlers.  Rather, Paul says elders ought to be hospitable—they should go out of their way to help others. 

When Paul writes that elders should not be “greedy for gain,” he’s not talking about a prohibition on paid ministry, as some have taught.  Rather, an elder ought to have his priorities right—he’s not in the ministry because he seeks profit.  What’s more, an elder ought to be self-controlled, honest, and self-disciplined.  They love what is good, and their lives show they actually believe what they say they believe.

Not long ago, I was cleaning out my closet and I found my original officer’s commission in the Navy.  When I read the certificate, it opened with, “The President of the United States of America:  To all who shall see these presents, greeting:  Know Ye that, reposing special trust and confidence in the patriotism, valor, fidelity, and abilities of Bart Lee Denny, I do appoint him and Ensign in the United States Navy…”  Special trust and confidence.  The President was demanding absolute trustworthiness, a life beyond reproach. Seems like a lot to put on a young fellow’s shoulders.

Likewise, there was good reason for Paul to demand Titus only appoint elders who were above reproach—he didn’t want elders who would be open to the charge of hypocrisy.  In 1 Timothy 3, Paul laid out similar qualifications for elders at Ephesus, and when he talks about an elder’s family life, he says, in 1 Timothy 3:5, “for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”  Paul knew that other people would be asking the same question.  People know when their leaders don’t live up to what they expect of those who they are leading.  I’ve had leaders over me who were hypocrites, who didn’t follow the same rules that they were supposed to enforce.  When they told me to straighten up and fly right, my inner voice was saying, why don’t you practice what you preach?  I know I’m not alone in such thinking, and that’s what makes hypocrites such ineffective leaders.

In my lifetime, we’ve seen the devastating results of church leaders who fail to meet or to continue living up to the standards of commitment, character, and conduct demanded here in Titus 1.  We have seen the devastating and embarrassingly public moral failures of television evangelists and church leaders.  Each of us can think of some examples.  We don’t have to name them out loud.  Every one of those failures inevitably leads a local church shaken and rudderless.  More than that, such moral failings can shake the very faith of believers and is an incredibly terrible witness to the life-changing power of Jesus Christ.  Rest assured God will hold such failings to account.  As James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

The church still needs leaders today, and the qualifications Paul outlined for Titus and the church at Crete.  Men, maybe you’re sitting here today and you say to yourselves, “I don’t have to worry about that, I don’t want to be a leader?”  If that’s you, I have to ask, “Why not?”  All Paul is outlining here for elders is a life of Christian maturity to which every believer should aspire.  In fact, the writer of Hebrews comes right out against an immature Christianity when he says, in Hebrews 5:12, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God.”  Men, we ought to aspire to be leaders in our church.

Our help wanted ad from Titus shows the qualifications for elders, and in summary, we see that elders are men of commitment and character.  They’ll need every bit of that character and commitment to fulfill the duties required by the job, which we read about next, in Titus 1:9.

Leaders Wanted: Must teach sound doctrine and correct false teaching.

Look here in verse 9.  It’s the description of an elder’s duties and responsibilities.  An elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”  A pretty simple list of duties and responsibilities, really.  Give instruction and sound doctrine, and correct those who contradict it.  The elder is to teach.  In 1 Timothy 3:2, Paul writes that an elder ought to be able to teach—because that’s the lion’s share of the elder’s job.  An elder must “hold firm” to the trustworthy word.  He’s constantly in the word, and his life and teaching reflect the devotion to which he has towards the word.  He’s got to know the word so well that his teaching just flows with ease, both in providing sound doctrine and in correcting errors.  We’ll get more into some of the errors being taught in Crete in just a bit.  Just like today, there were many errors out there.

A few years back, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life published the results of a very interesting, if discouraging survey on religious knowledge in America.  The survey found that atheists, agnostics, and Mormons all scored better in biblical knowledge than the average evangelical Christian interviewed.[2]  If Pew is right, that is a sad commentary on the spiritual state of the church in America today.  Pew is hardly alone in its findings.  Biola University, a major Christian institute of higher learning, says there is a crisis in biblical literacy today.[3]  How can Christians counter someone who thinks the Bible is untrue or, at best, unreliable when the Christians themselves do not know their own book as well as the person with whom they are dialoguing? 

If Pew is correct—and I fear they are—then what we see is a failure among American Christians, and even more of a failure on the part of the elders of the American church.  If American Christians are not knowledgeable in God’s word, it seems logical that this is because their leaders themselves are not immersed in God’s Word.  It’s quite possible that the leaders of American churches today cannot teach sound doctrine and correct false doctrine because they do not know it themselves.  They have neglected that firm hold to the trustworthy word.  They are not proclaiming the truth of salvation by grace through faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ alone.  They are not standing up to pluralistic claims that many roads lead to heaven.  They are not defending God’s word from the Scripture twisters because they don’t even know what is in the Bible.  If there is a crisis in biblical literacy, the fault begins with church leaders.

Someone reading this blog may say that he is not interested in church leadership, and again, I feel compelled to ask, “Why not?”  A deep understanding of God’s trustworthy word is not only the mark of a church leader but of a mature Christian.  Men, when it comes to serving as the spiritual leader of your families, you are under the same obligation to your families as elders are to the church.  It’s your job to see that your children are brought up in the correct doctrine.  It’s your job to keep the spiritual wolves out of your home.  So much of what Paul says is the qualification for a church elder is a natural outgrowth of consistent practice of the spiritual disciplines of study and prayer and differs little from what it means to be a godly man and father.

The church needs and wants leaders. If we were to look at a hypothetical help wanted ad for church leaders, we’d see that only godly men of impeccable character need apply.  The help wanted ad would explain that the primary function of elders is to teach sound doctrine and to correct bad teachings.  Any help wanted ad would talk about the challenges and difficulties associated with the position.  Paul tells Titus that the challenges are plentiful. And third, the ad might say:

Leaders Wanted: Must confront the insubordinate and the deceitful.

Paul explains to Titus that the ministry of an elder is, in large part, a ministry of confrontation—and for good reason.  Look at verses 10 and 11 again.  Paul tells Titus that there are many who are dangerous to the church.  Dangerous because they are divisive—failing to follow leaders, and stirring up whole families.  Dangerous because they teach false doctrines.  Dangerous because their motives are impure—they are out to make a buck.  It appears that many of them might have been what Paul, in other places, called “Judaizers.”  These were folks who said that all of the Jewish law applied to Gentile converts.  Look at verse 12, “One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’”  Here, Paul quotes Epiminides, a priest from Crete who six hundred years earlier characterized the average inhabitant of Crete as a self-indulgent liar.  In fact, Cretans were so notorious for their dishonesty that “to Cretanize” had become synonymous with lying.[4]

Paul tells Titus to deal with this problem in no uncertain terms.  “Rebuke them sharply,” he writes in verse 13, “that they may be sound in the faith.” Titus needs to confront these people because they are dangerous—they turn people away from the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and they devote themselves to myths.  False teachers contaminate everything they come in contact with.  Look at verses 15 and 16. The false teachers are defiled and impure—more specifically, their minds, and their consciences are defiled.  They are twisted.  As Paul says in verse 16, “they profess to know God, but they deny him by their works.”

It can be difficult to spot a false teacher, and often, it’s too late when everyone recognizes a false teacher for what he is. 

I still remember the images on the TV news back in 1978 in the wake of a mass suicide of over 900 Americans living in Guyana at a place called Jonestown.  Jim Jones was a cult leader—perhaps incidentally, he was born in an Indiana town named Crete.  At first, he appeared somewhat orthodox and gained a large following in Indiana.  His teachings quickly became mixed with his radical political views. After several years, Jones moved his group, the “People’s Temple,” to California, then to South America.  His false teachings lured in many followers, who became so loyal to Jones and so under his brainwashing that the whole group committed mass suicide by swallowing a fruit punch laced with cyanide.  Sadly, that’s where we get the phrase that someone has “drunk the Kool-Aid.”  They’ve mindlessly come under the spell of falsehood.

Jonestown may seem like an extreme example, but people follow false beliefs all the time—beliefs that deny Jesus is the only way to eternal life.  Beliefs that demand some sort of works or adherence to a religious system so that people can be assured of salvation.  Beliefs that say you can never really be sure that you know you’re headed for heaven.  Paul says that church leaders need to confront those false teachings because even if the results aren’t something like Jonestown, the eternal end result is the same:  False teachers lead people away from Christ and to an eternity separated from Christ in a very real place called Hell.

People naturally shy away from confrontation.  It’s just not a pleasant part of life.  But that’s what church leaders are supposed to do.  Today, it’s false religious teachings that lure people away from Christ are still out there.  But often, false teaching occurs in the form of the prominent ideology of the culture.  In a pluralistic, politically correct society, such as what we have here in the United States, we don’t want to offend anyone by telling them that their beliefs are mistaken.  We don’t want to seem “bigoted” by sharing that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and that “no one comes to the father but through” him.  Rather than speaking the truth, and enduring an unpleasant moment of conflict, we prefer to let people head off into a Christ-less eternity.  Church elders must confront this societal false teaching because it sneaks into the church not in the guise of religious teaching, but of societal attitude.

Today, just as in the first century, the church needs leaders, and our text today remains a great template for a help-wanted ad.  Only men of impeccable character, conduct, and commitment need apply.  The primary job of the church’s elders is to teach sound doctrine and to correct false doctrine.  One of the greatest challenges in the elder’s job is to confront those who cause division and spread deception.

What would it look like if today, throughout the entire church of Jesus Christ, biblically qualified elders boldly proclaimed the truth and confronted both deception and divisiveness?  What kind of unity would we see in the church today?  Better yet, what would it look like if all men in the church strove to achieve the kind of Christian maturity that would allow them to serve the church as an elder?  How many fewer church splits would we see?  How much more effective in reaching their neighborhoods with the gospel would our churches be?

Titus 1 remains a help-wanted ad for church leaders.  While God calls for impeccable character, elders are not supermen.  In fact, almost any man who truly surrenders his life in obedience to Christ could capably serve as a biblically-qualified church elder.  What would the church look like today if every man in it saw biblical eldership as something to be attained?

We ought to remain committed to leadership by biblically qualified elders.  Men, are you preparing for leadership in the church?  Why not?  After all, the qualifications for an elder are, in many ways, simply the marks of a mature Christian.  If you claim to be a Christian, I cannot understand why that kind of maturity is not something you would want in your life.  Men, wouldn’t your families benefit if you exercised the same kind of leadership in your homes as God expects from elders in the church?  What would your Christian life and your homes look like if you knew the Bible well enough to teach it?

The church in America is in a bad way—inward-focused, unevangelistic, politically polarized, and desperately in need of leaders. Where will we find them? Who will step into the gap? Will it be you?

[1] All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.

[2] Life, Pew Forum on Religion and Public, “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey: Executive Summary,” Pew Research Center, September 28, 2010. (accessed March 29, 2016)

[3] Kenneth Berding, “The Crisis in Biblical Literacy:  And What We Can Do About It,” Biola Magazine (Spring 2014). (accessed April 1, 2016).

[4] David Platt, Daniel Akin, and Tony Merida, Exalting Jesus in 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus (Christ-Centered Exposition). (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2013):  248.


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