Ever thought of district pastoring as a challenge? Consider the story of J. Frank Norris.
Born in 1877, he grew up in a dilapidated shack in Texas, and was often beaten by his alcoholic father. Nearly killed in a gun fight at age 15, his Christian mother nursed him back to health, telling her son that God had called him to be a preacher. Her prophecy came true. He would become known as the “Texas Tornado,” taking the country by storm with his colorful, flamboyant, and controversial ministry.
Norris wasn’t afraid of multi-tasking. In 1909 he assumed the pastorate of the First Baptist Church of Ft. Worth, and he did everything he could to make it the biggest church in the world. He produced a daily radio program that fl ooded the airwaves, and edited a religious newspaper that reached a circulation of 70,000. He achieved his goal: By 1924 the church had 5,000 in attendance.
In 1934, at age 57, he was invited to pastor the Temple Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, which he accepted without giving up the Ft. Worth church. For the next 16 years he pastored both churches though separated by 1,300 miles, commuting by train and later by plane. During those years the Sunday School attendance of each church exceeded 5,000. By 1949 the churches’ combined membership had reached 25,000—at that time the largest membership under one pastor in the world.
His accomplishments are especially impressive in light of his limitations. From a poor, troubled home, he had few advantages. He did not have a great preaching voice. His combative personality was a liability that often caused the loss of key supporters, yet he became a master pulpiteer, attracting huge numbers and powerfully reaching hearts.
I stand in awe. After ten years of district pastoring, I know the difficulties of this juggling act. The task can seem overwhelming. We are called to reach entire cities or towns with the gospel, build up two or more churches in different communities, and keep up with the never-ending demands of a pastor—all at the same time! Not long ago I was secretly complaining of my plight. This surely would be easier if I only had one church, I thought.
Then I came across Norris’s story.
It gave me much pause for thought, and a challenge began to form in my mind. His example showed that big things can happen when a district preacher does his best with God’s help. A new vision gripped me.
His unusual two-church ministry seemed to add new dignity to the role of the district pastor. Here was a very talented megachurch leader who could have easily stayed with his one large parish, yet he willingly chose to oversee an additional church. Far from being a lesser ministerial task, such ministry must indeed be a higher calling.
I discovered several of his inspiring personal qualities. A man of vision, he boldly aimed for significant church growth. Everything from his provocative sermon titles emblazoned on large canvas banners to his personal contacts was bent toward this end. I was reminded of two statements from the pen of Ellen G. White: “Success in any line demands a definite aim.”1
“We are altogether too narrow in our plans. We need to be broader minded. . . . His work is to go forward in cities and towns and villages. . . .We must get away from our smallness and make larger plans.”2
Norris’s preaching was described as “heartrending and convincing,” and I readily agree after listening to an audio file of one of his powerful sermons.3
He firmly stood for his convictions, and his fearlessness attracted the common people. He wrote: “. . . I had a broad axe and laid it at the tap root of the trees of dancing, gambling, saloon, houses of ill fame, ungodly conduct, high and low, far and near. . . . I asked no questions. . . and went in arm and hammer brand style. The crowds came; large numbers were saved!”4
But what he did for his two churches got my attention. I found four principles that can be applied today:
Valuing the churches. Imagine the impact when his Sunday-morning hearers knew he had traveled 1,300 miles to stand in the pulpit. By doing this regularly for 16 years, he showed that he valued both of his churches equally and served them at great personal sacrifice. Such valuing would surely inspire members to give of their service in return. By my presence I reveal how much I value a church, and this becomes a major principle of successful district work. “We never see the pastor” is a sad but honest complaint sometimes voiced by the smallest churches in multichurch districts. One minister faced the daunting task of a five-church district, but he was able to make weekly contact by holding prayer meeting Monday through Friday evenings, each night in a different church. In today’s multichurch districts, it may not be possible to give exact equal time to every congregation, but if we have Paul’s “deep concern for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28),5 it will be revealed by our actions. Paul set a fine example: “He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:41).
Training leaders. In 1939 Norris founded the Bible Baptist Seminary. A number of the graduates went on to establish some of the largest churches in America. He also conducted a weekly one-hour exegetical Bible study class for his 250 Sunday School teachers. This underlines the importance of training. “Every church,” wrote Ellen White, “should be a training school for Christian workers.”6 Training events attract both long-time and prospective members, and they help keep the newly baptized in the faith. For the skills I can’t teach, video-training resources are available.7 People are hungry to discover and use their spiritual gifts, and they will be attracted to a church that can teach them how. Trained leaders make for stronger, vibrant churches and happier, less overworked pastors.
Empowering leaders. Norris appointed leaders to take care of day-to-day operations in his churches. One of his special burdens was child and youth ministries. In 1913 he hired Louis Entzminger, known for his organizational skills and passion for child evangelism, to direct his Sunday Schools. In 1924 he hired G. B. Vick to superintend the teen and young adult department. Attendance grew by thousands, and no other Sunday School in the land could claim such numbers. Our districts may not be staffed with child ministry professionals, but having well-trained leaders will go a long way toward making the churches attractive to families. Every church has at least one person with a gift for working with children. Encouraging and empowering that person will be a richly rewarded task. Over the past decade the Kuna Seventh-day Adventist Church in Idaho has grown from 20 to 100 families, with 120 kids under the age of 18, largely as a result of emphasizing a child-friendly focus.8
Whatever the department, sharing the leadership makes it possible for ministries to continue in our absence. In one district I was blessed with an outreach-minded head elder who enthusiastically shared evangelism ideas with the congregation before the worship service each Sabbath morning. As a beginning pastor I wanted to be a good leader, so in my well-meant (but misguided) zeal, I phoned the gentleman and suggested that I should take over this role. A humble man, he graciously agreed. But I soon realized my error and asked him to resume his leadership, which he did. He was able to be there every week when I couldn’t. We worked as a team on several outreach events. Eventually church attendance doubled, and this elder was largely responsible. Other good leaders in this congregation made it easy for me to attend to needs in the second church, which also had fi ne leaders and began hosting lay-led evangelistic programs. “There are diversities of activities,” wrote the apostle Paul, “but it is the same God who works all in all” (1 Cor. 12:6).
Using media. Any “means of communication that reaches the general public” is the dictionary defintion of media.9 In 1924 Norris led his Ft. Worth congregation to purchase and operate a radio station. Eventually they had to sell it, but the church retained broadcasting privileges for the next 50 years. He also published The Fundamentalist, a widely read religious newspaper that included his sermons. All of today’s churches use some media, but as I look at my ministry I see ways I could use it more. Bulletin inserts, newsletters, press releases, DVDs, radio or TV programs, and Web sites, for example,speak to large numbers at once and that is the advantage of media to pastors of multiple churches. By using the few forms of media that were available in the ancient world, “all who dwelt in Asia heard” (Acts 19:10). If that could be done without electronics, certainly twenty-first century districts can make effective use of today’s technology. We have more media options than either the apostles or J. Frank Norris. From signboards to satellite evangelism, media continues as a necessary tool of any growing district. While not an encyclopedic list, the four principles above are key factors for success. If one gifted man could use them and see grand results, why can’t we do the same by working diligently with the tools at hand?10
1 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press® Publishing Association, 1952), 262.
2 ______, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald® Publishing Association, 1946), 46.
4 Quoted in www.higherpraise.com/preachers/norris.htm.
5 Scripture references are from the New King James Version.
6 Ellen G. White, Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press® Publishing Association, 1942), 149. Further counsel on training from this page: “. . . members should be taught how to give Bible readings, how to conduct and teach Sabbathschool
classes, how to best help the poor and to care for the sick, how to work for the unconverted. There should be schools of health, cooking schools, and classes in various lines of Christian help work. There should not only be teaching, but actual work under experienced instructors.”
7 Some resources can be found at: www. AdventSource.com, Seminar in a Box at www.ministerialassociation.com/resources/viewRelated.php, and Children’s Ministries at www.childmin.com/PDFs/Certifi cation/acma-self.pdg.
8 Noelene Johnson and Willie Oliver, “Creating a Family-friendly Church,” found at www.adventistreview.org/2003-1523/story2.html anda May 25, 2006, phone conversation with Aileen Sox, a Kuna church children’s leader.
9 New World Dictionary of the American Language, second college edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), 882.
10 Other sources used: Robert J. Morgan, On This Day: 365 Amazing and Inspiring Stories about Saints, Martyrs and Heroes (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997), May 8 reading: “Fighting Fundamentalist;” www.biblepreaching.com/bionorris.html; and www.answers.com/topic/j-frank-norris.