I was a freshly minted minister in 1984 when I preached an “audition sermon” before 26 parishioners at First Southern Baptist Church of Brentwood, Calif. After the sermon, the church voted unanimously to hire me, certain that my youthful enthusiasm would increase church membership.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the glamorous Brentwood, Calif., of O.J. Simpson fame. This was an unincorporated hamlet on the fringes of the San Francisco Bay Area with only one traffic light and one ATM. Progress wasn’t a speeding bullet for Brentwood businesses, much less a church.
During my first year, I proposed improvements to spur church growth. For instance, I suggested that removing “Southern” from our name might attract other cultures.
“Not in our lifetime,” they said.
I recommended we hire a secretary. Nope.
But mostly, I lobbied for building improvements. “Paint, remodel and landscape!” Not likely, they told me.
Most suggestions were paternalistically dismissed with their reply that they had grandchildren older than me. However, one day, I got a helpful phone call from the Brentwood fire chief asking to schedule the church’s annual fire inspection.
“What does that mean?” I asked, alarmed at the unlikelihood of passing inspection.
The chief assured me that this was a routine inspection for fire hazards.
I smiled at the possibilities. I was more than willing to hang our proverbial dirty laundry for him to see.
“You mean like the hole in the foyer ceiling?”
“Yes, I suppose so,” his tone shifting suspiciously.
“You’ll want to see the faulty wiring in our fellowship hall?” I asked.
“Sure, I guess so.”
When the chief arrived the following week, I was ready with my laundry list. For two hours, he dutifully recorded my dictated prompts onto a three-page form addressing blocked exit doors, overstuffed classrooms and faulty wiring.
Afterward, as he pushed the form toward me for my signature, he generously offered a few extra months to complete the list.
“Nope,” I said, dotting the “i” in Norris and crossing the “t” in Pastor. “This is long overdue.”
On the following Sunday, I presented the repair list to the deacon chairman.
He stared long at the list before releasing a low whistle. “We’ve never had so many violations!”
Then he fixed his stare onto me.
I took sudden interest in the chipped tile beneath my feet. “I sort of helped him find those things,” I said.
“I was just following James 5:16,” I said with a wink.
The Bible says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
His furrowed forehead and bushy eyebrows told me he needed more elucidation.
“Haven’t we been praying that our church building would be ‘healed’?”
He nodded with slow understanding. “So you just did the confessing part?”
“Precisely.” I said. “I confessed that our walls need patching and painting. Our electrical outlets need covering and our doors need replacing.”
The old deacon seemed a bit stunned by my creative exegesis of scripture, but eventually pleased that I’d found a way to light a fire under the congregation.
Over the next several weeks, our parishioners painted, hammered and plastered that building from one end to the other, until finally, after a summer of Saturday workdays and sumptuous potlucks, we finished the chief’s “honey-do” list. By year’s end we saw our lowly membership of 26 people climb to 56. And by the following year, 56 souls approached a hundred.
Amazingly, numerical increases and building improvements weren’t even the best things that happened. The best things came from the spiritual growth we experienced from confessing our shortcomings to one another — shortcomings like the holes in our hearts and the faulty wiring in our thinking. Only after we did that were we able to grow as people and pastor, as shepherd and congregants, and even as sons and daughters of God.