And Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work which the Lord did for Israel" (Joshua 24:31, RSV). The last part of this verse sounds ominous. The picture is familiar. One by one all the leaders who were eyewitnesses to God's power in the Exodus movement had passed away. Those who saw the deliverance at the Red Sea or witnessed the display of God's power on Sinai or experienced the drying up of a flooded Jordan were no longer there.
The scene had changed. A terrible crisis loomed ahead. Would Israel continue to serve the Lord? That was the big question as Joshua and his colleagues came to the end of their lives.
There were, of course, new leaders at the helm, but they apparently were not encouraging Israel to lead lives that were committed to the living God. The post-Joshua story suggests that men who should have formed a bulwark against evil actually led the way into the paths of disobedience. The result? Three hundred years of backsliding, and humiliating suffering at the hands of enemies.
What Israel needed then was a strong, committed spiritual leadership. The need is no less urgent today, particularly in view of the rapid growth of the church in Third World countries.
Caring for 32 churches Recently I received a letter from a former student of mine. He now pastors a district of 25 churches in a developing nation. His members are engaged in planting three additional churches. At a district meeting his elders expressed concern for five villages in their territory that have not yet heard this mes sage. They want to enter those villages before political conditions make it impossible to do so. So the young pastor will soon have 32 churches with more than 1,500 members to supervise and nurture.
He is not alone. In many developing countries, pastors oversee multichurch districts in which they cannot visit their congregations more than once every two or three months. The current policies and budgetary constraints of the church add to the difficulties posed by church growth. The situation is particularly acute in areas of the world where animist tribes are becoming increasingly responsive to the gospel. Congregations in such circumstances, where the economy is based on an agricultural barter system, cannot generate the finances to meet the church's policies for hiring a pastor.
Yet in many such areas the majority of the membership is involved in evangelism. The resulting upsurge in growth continues to compound the challenge confronting church administration, that of supplying pastoral services to the congregations.
Such situations do have their blessings. With their pastor living in a distant village or city and unable to visit for weeks at a time, laymen must lead out in the work of the church. In most of these areas lay participation in church activities involves as much as 75 to 95 percent of the membership. While teaching at Mountain View College, I witnessed again and again the significant contribution lay elders were making to keep the church growing and strong. The local district pastor near the college had more than 45 churches in his district. Ministerial students and local church elders did most of the work of pastoring these congregations.
On one occasion I drove my jeep up to one of his little village churches.
When I arrived, carabao carts were already parked near the church, with the animals tethered nearby. As I looked across the fields I saw little groups of people headed toward the church. Each group was led by one of the local elders.
During the prayer service earlier that week, the church board had decided to begin a visitation program aimed at the missing members. Arriving at the church early Sabbath morning, the little teams had reached several homes by daybreak. They had conducted family worship with the missing members and now were bringing them to the worship service.
How thrilling it was to see the elder lead out in a commitment service for these missing members. As the church service ended, the elder received some magical amulets and other objects that were a source of temptation to one of the reclaimed persons. The entire congregation gathered around as these items were committed to the flames. A spirit of revival had engulfed that congregation that day.
Elders organize evangelism I have sat in meetings where elders organized an evangelism task force to enter a new area. They selected their best lay preacher, provided him with a modest stipend, and sent him off with a small team of believers to plant a church in a new area. When harvesttime came, a new congregation would be ready to join the sisterhood of churches all a result of lay work.
In some areas, difficult circumstances attend the lay elders in their ministry.
On one occasion at the completion of a seminar for elders and pastors, a young man handed me a note he had received.
It read: "Do not revisit my village again, or you will die." The young man explained, "My brother and I recently completed an evangelistic meeting in this village. We must go back to strengthen the new believers. Please pray for us." It is just such courageous men and women who are lighting up unentered areas with the gospel, and who are nurturing the church.
And yet in far too many areas of the world we have not tapped the strength of our dedicated, committed lay elders.
Often we ask no more of them than to announce a hymn, offer a prayer, or call for the offering. They could do so much more to serve their congregations. To enlist their service, all we need to do is to provide training and support and give them the opportunity to exercise their spiritual leadership.
While the needs of elders in developing nations are obvious, the challenges facing those who hold this office in developed nations is equally as great.
Elders must provide their congregations a wide range of spiritual services. They have the responsibility of nurturing the members of their congregations, for in stance, and urgently need equipping to strengthen this part of their ministry.
Elders can effectively support their pas tors in closing the ' 'back door'' of the churches through a personal ministry to their congregations.
Elders serving in North American and European churches where their pastors serve as many as four and five churches urgently need similar support for preaching and giving adequate leader ship to their flocks.
We may now have just that opportunity. After consulting with church administrators and the Church Ministries Department, the General Conference Ministerial Association has agreed to take on a new responsibility that of coordinating the training and support of local church elders. The objective is to develop strong, committed, witness/ nurture-oriented pastor-elder teams that will provide just the spiritual and professional leadership our churches are waiting for.
In cooperation with the Church Ministries Department, the General Conference Ministerial Association is taking steps to support the ministry of elders in two important areas: supplying tools and clarifying roles. (The newly formed Elders' Committee and the committee for developing the elders' handbook [described in two of the following para graphs] includes representatives from the North American Division and General Conference Church Ministries departments as well as from the Ministerial Association.) Tools for elders Work has already begun on an elders' handbook. Formatted like the Minister's Manual, the handbook will serve as a guide and resource book to aid elders in carrying out their duties in the local church. A reading committee comprised of members from around the world will be involved in the preparation of the manual. A companion kit of training materials will also be available for conference leaders and local pastors to use in training elders.
Recognizing the elders' need of continuously updated information, the sharing of concerns and ideas, and discussion of issues, the Ministerial Association has asked Ministry to publish monthly a department dedicated to this vital aspect of church leadership.
The first column will appear in the September 1991 issue of Ministry. All church elders are invited to become regular subscribers to and readers of the church's premiere professional journal for clergy.
The Ministerial Supply Center at the General Conference will assist in making materials and equipment available for elders' use.
Long-range plans of the Ministerial Association also include producing a manual that will help elders in the preparation of sermons. Itinerating district pastors can get by preaching the same sermon several times, but their elders must have something new to preach every week! The role of elders If elders need tools to minister adequately, clarification of their role is also vital. While all of our elders can be great spiritual leaders, they are a varied lot.
Some of them cannot read or write; others are doctors, lawyers, or engineers. They serve in widely differing circumstances. Some rarely preach; others preach on more than half the Sabbaths in a year. Are there biblical principles of leadership that can meet the varying needs that exist in the world church? We need a clear biblical statement as to the meaning of ordination.
The elders' handbook being produced not only will provide information about the practice of this ministry, but it will look at its biblical foundations. Answers will no doubt lie along the lines the apostle Paul delineated for us in the model for the pastor/elder teams he established.
Some parts of the church are leading the way in attempting to meet the needs of lay elders. Two conferences in the South Pacific Division are providing Ministry to all their church elders. During the past quinquennium the Far Eastern Division took an action making local church elders associate members of the conference or mission Ministerial Associations. The Central Philippine Union recently adopted a goal of training 5,000 elders. The South Philippine Union Mission has a four-year cycle for the training of their elders. And for several years now the Papua New Guinea Union Mission has been operating a training school for elders.
Effective training and use of lay elders is indeed the answer to the demands that growth exerts on local church leadership.