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greg liston – getting the congregation you deserve

Just recently in the middle of a seminar on “Growing a Culture of Prayer” I was talking about the close link between the prayer life of a church and the prayer life of their pastor. And I wondered (out loud) whether congregations end up getting the pastor they deserve. “If you are an overly demanding congregation” I said, “if you constantly expect them to do ‘just a bit more’, you will get an overworked pastor who never has time to pray. But alternatively, if you are a deeply empowering congregation, a congregation that gives them lots of support and has their back, a congregation that lifts your pastor up in prayer yourselves, then you’ll get a deeply spiritual leader who models a life of prayer.” Now, it’s not entirely dependent on the congregation, of course. The pastor has quite some responsibility too. But often what a pastor can do, depends a lot on what a congregation will let them do.

But as I was making these comments, I wondered (silently) to what extent the reverse is equally, or perhaps even more, true – whether pastors end up getting the congregations they deserve. And in particular, whether pastors end up getting the kind of congregations they preach to. It’s an intriguing idea. If our preaching aims to meet felt needs, should we be altogether surprised when our congregation demands their needs be met? If our preaching is “dumbed down” for everyone to understand, should we be altogether surprised when our congregation refuses to think? If our preaching is heavy on cute youtube clips and light on Biblical depth, should we be altogether surprised when our congregation spends hours on the internet and seconds in the word? Now, it’s not entirely dependent on the pastor, of course. The congregation has quite some responsibility too. But often what a congregation can do, depends a lot on what their pastor will let them do.

To put the same point another way. To what extent does a pastor who preaches a broad gospel which extends well beyond the borders of New Zealand cause their congregation to adopt a global worldview? To what extent does a pastor whose preaching is saturated with grace, life and prayer grow a grace-filled, life-giving, prayerful congregation? To what extent does a pastor that preaches from the word form a congregation that lives in the word? How much would change if you preached to the congregation you really wanted, as opposed to the congregation you’ve actually got? In your preaching? In your life? In theirs? It bears some thinking about.

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Greg Liston is currently pursuing doctoral studies in systematic theology, after recently completing 7½ years as the senior pastor of Hillsborough Baptist Church. Previous roles include strategic management consulting and a Ph.D. in quantum physics. He is married to Diane and has two children, Emily (9) and James (6).


  1. Geoff New says:

    Hi Greg. Your usual high standard of thought-provoking blogs! You remind me of a pastor who has been pastoring the same congregation for 30 years or so in the same town I’m ministering in. He is also the national leader of his denomination. He once told me that “You bear the fruit of your preaching within your congregation after 7 years.”

    1. Myk Habets says:

      O yeah – nice! I think you are spot on and spot on on both accounts.

  2. Allen Hince says:

    Yes, it does bear thinking about thats for sure.
    The relationship between the pastor (pulpit) and congregation is a unique one. I wonder, is a pastor responsible for feeding his/her congregation from were they are as a opposed to from were he/she wants to be? I mean, a pastor can ’cause/grow/form’ a congregation and the reverse is true also – which, you have stated. Is there a balance between the priestly/prophetic roles of a preacher in this? That is, the caring for them in the ‘now’ while leading them onto the ‘what could be’? A good read, very thought provoking…

  3. Greg Liston says:

    Great comments, Alan! I agree with you. I think what I was trying to ask above (to use your neat prophet / priest terminology) is whether Kiwi preaching tends to overemphasise the “pastoral” side of preaching at the expense of the “prophetic”. And whether one result of this is that our congregations tend to stay wedded at the “as is” rather than move consistently towards the “to be”. Perhaps “prophetic” preaching doesn’t have quite the right allusions for what I’m trying to say here. Often “prophetic” preaching has the negative connotations of “you slackers, why aren’t you more holy / proactive / forgiving etc.” whereas I was musing about whether if we simply preached to people as if they were more holy / proactive / forgiving etc., (not telling them that they should be, but simply assuming that they are) whether that would subtly encourage them to be (or become) so. Kind of like how you play cricket better if they put you up a grade, not because of any improvement of ability or coaching, but just because the cultural expectations are higher.

    1. Rilma Sands says:

      Yeah thats soo right – its just like with the kids, if we expect them to be ‘naughty’ they will be naughty but if we assume they will do the right thing they tend to do so. thanks so much for your great thoughts.
      I find it really difficult to perform the prophetic role, though, and very ‘lonely’ for most people do not want to hear the prophet’s words, most people want to hear the ‘nice’ messages.

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