A couple of years ago ago my youngest son wanted to add some pet fish to our family. Being the super dad that I am, we went down to the local pet store. We didn’t want just your run-of-the-mill goldfish, so we hand picked four different breeds that looked cool and could live together. Apparently, one fish was pregnant and a few weeks later our family grew by five more. We were all excited and it became a morning ritual to watch the little babies come out from under their little rock sanctuary in order to eat.
As time went on, my son noticed something that began to concern him. Two of the babies were growing nicely but three of them were substantially smaller. About a week later five baby fish became four, then three and eventually only the two that were growing remained. Saddened by the loss of three of his new little brothers, my son questioned why and how.
Personally, I chalked it up to “survival of the fittest”, but my son’s evaluation was intriguing. “Maybe they just weren’t hungry. Maybe they didn’t like what we were feeding them? Maybe WE did something wrong.” Hmm, I think there’s a lesson here.
When it comes to growth in our churches, there are so many variables to consider and metrics to evaluate that I think we easily get side tracked from the simple. Over the years I’ve observed some key growth elements within churches that are poised and primed for exponential growth both spiritually and numerically. In actuality, these elements can be seen in church growth at any level.
1. Your leaders know your vision and purpose
Your purpose is what keeps you going when parents call you and complain about their child eating a worm in last night’s ice breaker in youth group. Your vision is what motivates you when you spend months planning a young adult retreat that you know is going to be way over budget. So what keeps your people coming back to their time and money? What it is the underlying current that causes your leaders to keep giving their talents to the success of the bigger picture? It’s vision and purpose.
Having your purpose statement written on the wall is great. Preaching your vision once a year is awesome. But more than seeing it in print and hearing it preached, they need to see it lived and have it infused into their heart. This takes time and strategic planning but when that transference is accomplished, it changes everything! For them, the weekend service is no longer an event but an opportunity. It’s no longer an obligation to fulfill or chore to perform, but it becomes a choice to joyfully invest in a process that leads to leaving a legacy.
2. The pastor isn’t doing the majority of the work
I think we’ve all met pastors who love being in the limelight and live to be the life of the party. That’s a wonderful quality and that charisma is needed to spark energy in the room. However, we do need to remember that the Pastor is NOT the center of the Church. With that in mind we must also remember that the pastor and his staff was not hired to do all the work of the ministry. The pastor’s role is to equip the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:12).
To me, the greatest pastors aren’t the ones leading worship from their guitar, rocking it out with the newest song from United. Nor is it the one who can preach the paint off the walls, or the one who creates the most elaborate illustrations. The greatest pastors are the ones you never hear of because they’re too busy giving others the opportunity to shine and succeed. When the 80/20 paradigm (80% of the work is done by 20% of the people) is replaced by an 80/80 system, your church will explode! The key is to empower and release your leaders and volunteers to live abundantly in their sweet spot (experiences+passions+gifts).
3. The focus is on discipleship not events
Quality, clean and exciting progress and events play a huge role in today’s church. If you’re spending more time, energy and money on having elaborate videos, sermon illustrations ,or events for the weekends than you are at creating an effective means of discipleship, then you’re missing the mark.
Let me remind you of a few of the last words of Christ before before his ascension. It wasn’t “Go and make the most creative, exciting and fun weekend service that you can.” He said “Go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19).” Now hold your tongue before you start thinking that I’m questioning your ministry methodology or motives. I totally understand and agree with having cool videos, elaborate illustrations, and exciting events as a means of “baiting the hook” to be “fishers of men.” Please don’t stop doing those things. In fact, those of you who do it well need to spread the wealth and helps those of us who don’t.
My point is that we need to have periodic assessments and evaluations to not only see if we are doing things well, but to see if they are accomplishing our purpose and vision. (Go back and see point #1.) I understand that the culture and environment of Jesus time was so different than ours today, but the methodology of relational discipleship should still be our fundamental and primary objective. I have yet to see a church ministries budget top heavy on discipleship. Rather they are predominately focused on events and activities. Look at your own right now. Where is your money being spent? (PS – I have NO idea of my church’s budgetary expenses on discipleship but I know that is by far the most balanced I have ever been a part of.)
Again, I understand the role of those events and activities to build relationship, but I challenge you to look in Scripture and discover what expanded and built the church. Look into all the great spiritual movements and significant growth periods of the church and tell me what caused it’s expansion? Imagine for a moment the possibilities of a resurgence of relational discipleship in your church or ministry.
4. The community knows your name (and with good reason)
I once new a youth pastor that bragged about how he and his church were known as the trouble makers in his local high school because they forced the principle to allow them to have a Bible club at the school. I have my own opinion about his methods and pride, but lets suffice it to say that it would be best to not have that kind of reputation. I also know of another group that adopted a local elementary school but neglected to reach out and do anything for the school, teachers, or students. How do you think that school views their church now?
If the only time we go to our community is to invite them to participate in our program or event, we will be nothing more than a religious peddler trying to push our product. Christ came to serve and give of himself and our objective should be the same. What are you doing for your community that requires nothing in return?
Here are some suggestions for you to get involved in your giving back to your community. Find an elderly person that needs some yard work or home repairs. Do a project for Habitat for Humanity. Organize a team to help with a local fund raiser like an Cancer Walk or School supply drive. Be a mentor in a local school.
This is what it boils down to. If you have a passion for your community, then you will search for a project that fits your team and meets a felt need. If you’re doing nothing, then you may need to ask yourself “why not”. When you are obedient to God in reaching your community, you gain His favor. When you partner with a community to help accomplish it’s goals, you will gain man’s favor. The combination of the two brings unlimited potential for Kingdom impact.
5. Members/Attenders are bringing their friends
Obviously there are different types of growth, but probably the easiest to measure would be numeric growth. It’s what most senior pastors and church boards are looking for. To be honest, it’s what most pastors look at as well for their own validation. So we focus time and money in baiting hooks through marketing our events to boost moral and attendance records, which sometimes may be more selfishly motivated than we are willing to admit.
Here’s the thing. When people know and understand the vision and purpose of what you do as a ministry, AND they are actively growing through relational discipleship, they will not only quickly move forward in their ownership and function in that ministry, but they will also become passionate in their partnership with the community to address felt needs. The end result? People will bring their friends from school and work to see and hear first hand what all the fuss is about.
The truth be told, if you’re creating the hype, doing all the work, not investing in people relationally or spiritually, and not engaging the felt needs of the community; why would you ever expect your people to invite anyone to YOUR church or give a rip about YOUR events? It would be like asking random kids off the street to come and listen to your Bing Crosby record collection while picking the weeds out of the cracks in the concrete of the church parking lot.
Churches that are primed for growth sell themselves. They are discipling others who are participating in the momentum of the vision and purpose of their church and community. They are gaining favor from God and they are gaining influence with man. They don’t just show up for church, they become the church. They brings their friends and make them part of the family. They live life together and change the world around them.