Why do most churches train their leaders to take care of groups of hundreds or even thousands of believers, when Biblical pastors trained groups of 20 or 30 people?
I talked to an associate pastor some time ago, and he shared with me the burden of him having the pastoral responsibility for families in his church. Since that meant 80 people, he had constantly work to do, and he felt pressured for not spending enough time with each family. There were two other pastors in the church, but they were also overloaded with work concerning the youth and the congregation as a whole (which includes over 400 people). I asked the associate pastor if he could delegate some pastoral care to cell group* leaders, but he was unsure whether they would accept the challenge. Many Christians just expect the pastor to do the work for them.
It’s biblical to delegate. Exodus 18 tells us about how Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, saw how Moses was being worn out with all the judging work, and so he recommended him to appoint God-fearing men to help him out, some having responsibility for a thousand people, other for one hundred, fifty and ten (Ex 18:20-21). When the apostles realized that they didn’t have time to help the poor, they appointed some other Spirit-filled people to do it (Acts 6:1-8). Leadership isn’t about doing everything yourself, but to inspire and give mandate to others so that they too can serve the Kingdom of God.
The Biblical church had various different types of leadership roles: apostles planted churches and had most authority in doctrinal disputes, evangelists preached the Gospel publicly and trained other disciples how to share their faith, prophets heard the voice of the Lord and brought important messages to the church, and teachers taught theology. And then we have presbyters, or pastors.
Now, there are some disputes whether these had the same office as overseers/bishops, but I’m not gonna dig into that issue right now; instead I want to emphasize that Biblical pastors or priests (I’ll just write pastors from now on for simplicity’s sake) had responsibility for groups of 20’s or 30’s rather than hundreds of people like many have today.
See, Biblical churches were house churches. There are numerous references to how the early disciples met in homes (Acts 2:42, Col 4:15, 1 Cor 16:9). And as you can tell, hundreds of people don’t fit into most homes. Rather, those who attended a Biblical church meeting were probably not more than 20 or 30 people – like a school class! Which is good, ’cause educational science teaches us that school classes shouldn’t be much bigger than that, since people learn less in bigger groups.
When the Biblical church met on public places for evangelism, like in the temple courts or on a public square, they could easily be in larger groups. Then, their primary goal was not to study the Word or share the burdens of life with each other, but to celebrate Jesus and tell others about Him. But home meetings, that later on developed into Sunday services, were originally small-scale.
This meant that there were a lot of pastors in a city church even from the beginning (Acts 20:17), and the requirements for being a pastor were primarily concerned about character and morals rather than extensive theological study (1 Tim 3:1-7, Tit 1:5-9). Yes, they should be able to teach and hold to the truth Paul says, but the requirements for being a pastor was lower than what they mostly are today (especially if you compare it to priestly educations in the historical churches – those can go on for years even for people being born into church!).
What’s my point with all this? I think cell group leaders are pastors. Church leaders with responsibility for hundreds or thousands of people aren’t pastors, they’re not what the apostles meant with presbyters. This doesn’t mean that they’re useless, but we need to refocus on house meetings and those responsible for them. Most churches I know of train what they call pastors, i.e. those responsible for hundreds of people, with years and years of theology, while cell group leaders – if the church even has any – receive very sparse training, maybe just a pep-talk twice every year.
This is yet another reason for me being skeptical to church buildings and the expensive, non-flexible system it brings. But even if one wants to keep church buildings, I think we have to realize that pastors aren’t supposed to take care of hundreds of people. We need to equip cell group leaders to do that.
*A cell group, or house group, is a simple group of Christians who meet in homes, read the Bible, pray and have fellowship together. Many churches have these incorporated today in their church life as a complement to the Sunday meetings in the church building.