How to Start a Lay Church, Principle X: Use Volunteer Lay Pastors to Lead Local Churches

It’s hard being a pastor in a traditional church setting. You have to be a theologian, a public speaker, a counselor, a manager, an event planner, a fundraiser, a mediator, a facilities manager, and about a hundred other things. No wonder professional training is needed and burnout is so high.

As we worked with the North Korean underground church, however–arguably in an infinitely more stressful environment–we didn’t find burnout.

Come to think of it, we didn’t find full time paid pastors either.

Instead we found a very different model—one which, the more we reflected on it, seemed to have more in common with the New Testament model than the Western model with which most of us are familiar.

It also seemed to be growing Christians to fullness in Christ on a much more regular (and rapid) schedule than anything we saw happening in traditional Western congregations–even though the environment in North Korea is anything but regular.

The North Korean underground church—along with other persecuted churches around the world and throughout history (not least of which would be the churches named in the New Testament)—has had to learn ways of worship that do not depend on full-time local church pastors. Fathers, mothers, and household leaders became the natural overseers of churches that met in homes. If pastors visit (which, in NK, they typically can’t), they supplement–not replace–the pastoral oversight of the family head or neighborhood lay leader.

And such a model is hardly a New Testament relic or an inevitable result of living in a country where being a Christian will get you killed. It’s the model that John Wesley pressed into service, first in England and then in North America, when the Wesleyan Revival produced the kind of converts in the kind of places that didn’t much mesh well with the prevailing church model. Wesley appointed band leaders, local pastors, and circuit riders to do the kinds of things that today have been centralized in one figure: the pastor. What such centralization may gain in efficiency it loses—dramatically—in promoting maturity.

Meaning: if the pastor preaches in your church every Sunday, it’s unlikely that the average church member will learn to preach.

If, however, the pastor stops by once every six weeks…or six months…or (as in North Korea) never, then it’s amazing how well other folks learn to preach.

And do theology.

And counsel.

And manage.

And plan events.

And fundraise.

And mediate.

And manage facilities (which, in this case, aren’t church buildings but rather homes and other public places specially re-tooled to host church worship; in our house, for example, we’ve got this giant altar table right about where a big screen TV would sit in most homes).

And do about a hundred other things that develop when volunteer lay pastors are used to lead lay churches.

Like help ordinary Christians grow to fullness in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the early church, leadership wasn’t something you chose to “go into,” like a profession. It was something you grew into, as you grew to fullness in Christ and people recognized this about you—that you could help them grow in the same way. It’s what enabled Paul to say, in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

So using volunteer lay pastors is more than a tactical model with strategic benefits (like keeping costs low, which it does, of course). Using volunteer lay pastors ensures that the lay church places the highest priority on each member growing to fullness in Christ. Also, by making sure that all local lay pastors are volunteers, the local pastor serves as a model for each member of the congregation to imitate–as they imitate Christ.

So does this mean bible school and seminary and ordination are obsolete? By no means. They make perfect sense for people moving beyond the oversight of a single lay church, to regional church oversight. It is only at the level of a regional leader that there should be any pay or seminary training contemplated. And that pay should be something like a stipend—just enough to offset costs, not enough to cause someone to aspire to the position as a means of supporting himself or herself.

Remember: lay churches are small—two dozen people would be splitting the seams of one. And the purpose of the lay church is to grow members to fullness in Christ so that each one can lead their own lay church…as a volunteer lay pastor.

So right from the outset, make clear that members are permitted only one year “in the nest” of your lay church. Each lay church is composed of lay church planters in training. Each attendee is a church in seed form and should be trained and treated as such not only from the very first Sunday they arrive, but from their recruitment (see Principle 1 earlier in this series, and also check out 2 Timothy 2:2).

Oh—and one more note: We don’t say to our lay pastors, “Share a message each week that you dig out of a devotional magazine or a small group study series you think might be useful.” The message that lay pastors are sharing each week is one that the church’s ordained regional leaders have written, focused on the Work of Mercy that we’re hearing and doing that month. It’s a process much like that of John Wesley, who supplied books of sermons to his lay pastors and directed them to preach those messages.

So lay aside the goal of creating a big lay church. There’s no need (or value) in creating a congregation bigger than the ones in the Bible. Even Romans was written to a cluster of several small lay churches. Keep the size small enough so that each person is leading the whole group in something each week.

And twelve months is enough time to go through one Whole Life Offering cycle—one month of preparation, ten months of focusing on one Work of Mercy each month, and then one month of reflection and celebration. Then each member heads out…to head up their own lay church!

This doesn’t mean that the groups divide, like in a small group model. It really does mean that each member—or family unit (like a husband and wife) is heading out to head up their own lay church. For each person (or unit), that new lay church will be drawn from the individuals in their sphere of influence who they’ve evangelized and already begun to disciple as a result of doing the word in each of the Works of Mercy in year one.

The “nest” doesn’t get tossed into the trash can, however. The lay church that graduates its members also graduates itself, becoming a leaders’ meeting. The meeting time moves off of Sunday morning (since the new lay pastors will likely be leading new groups then) and moves to, for example, in our case, a Tuesday night. The lay pastor becomes a regional pastor, using the leaders’ meetings to train each of the members to be lay pastors.

And so on it continues from year to year—a 2 Timothy 2:2 symphony.

Some might wonder if it’s a realistic expectation for ordinary Christians to become lay pastors in a year. After all, many traditional congregations go years without producing even one pastor.

But in places where Christians are persecuted (including most all of the churches in the New Testament), there’s a word for a congregation that goes years without producing a pastor.


About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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3 Responses to How to Start a Lay Church, Principle X: Use Volunteer Lay Pastors to Lead Local Churches

  1. Pingback: 12 Unconventional Church Planting Principles From North Korea | Missio Links

  2. Pingback: It’s Time to Release! A close look at the Volunteer Lay Pastor’s approach – NAD Church Plant 1000

  3. Pingback: It’s Time to Release! A close look at the Volunteer Lay Pastor’s approach – NAD Church Plant 1000

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