When Ed was creating Breaking the 200 Barrier, he sought out stories of how God changed churches. Here’s the story from Pastor David Richmon of Greek Lake Presbyterian in Seattle on how they broke through the 200 barrier.
Green Lake Presbyterian Church is a 78-year-old congregation located just miles from Seattle’s downtown core. We have a great tradition of biblical preaching, foreign missions, and local church planting. Our current demographic is primarily young families, but we’ve experienced an increasing number of university students and singles, as well as a robust and mature group of empty nesters. Over the last decade we’ve had several seasons of growth. The first spurt led to a multi-site ministry and the eventual planting of two new congregations.
About five years ago we hit a point of stagnation. Numerically we steadily hovered around 160-180 on an average Sunday. Our lows were in the 130s and sometimes, if we had a perfect week—no vacations, no illnesses, etc.—we’d break 200.
Nothing was terribly wrong, but things weren’t great either. During this time, we recognized some unhealthy patterns both in our church’s culture, as well as in how we as a leadership team shepherded the body. We knew if we wanted to grow—numerically and spiritually—things had to change.
One of the first things we did was build an intentional and executable long term plan, or a mission plan as we’ve come to call it. Here’s what we did:
Imagine the future. Take a few minutes, close your eyes, and imagine your church in three years. If all went well and the Lord blessed, what would you see, touch, and experience across the spectrum of your church’s life?
Reverse engineer. Once our team had a collective vision for the future, we were able to build backwards from it. We identified five key areas we needed to grow in. These included reshaping our shepherding strategy, developing better discipleship objectives and processes, and identifying opportunities for outreach and evangelism.
Work the plan. I think this was our biggest point of success. Most pastors and churches have plans and goals. It’s been my experience that these plans rarely get implemented. To that end, we changed our elder’s meetings to prioritize our mission plan. It became the very first item on our agenda after prayer. This was huge. I also began dedicating an afternoon a week to working the plan. This simply meant pushing the cart down the road: sending emails, meeting with leaders, and trying to keep us thinking about where we’re going next.
All of this is pretty common sense, but making a plan and working a plan for three years was so refreshing. After this period of time we reviewed our mission plan and found we accomplished approximately 80% of what we set out to do. More than that, our church was different, from the inside out. Spiritually we’ve taken huge leaps and the numerical markers have followed. We’re consistently at 350-360 and just launched our third worship service. God is good.
Here are couple things we learned:
Culture is critical. Every church has internal, self-barriers to growth. We did. Oftentimes these are perpetuated at the deepest levels of the church’s self-established culture and identity. We learned that you can launch ministry after ministry, but if the culture of the church isn’t ready, then most things will fail. Don’t forget to start with culture.
Mission and culture creates a context for growth. Our main goal was to be a healthy church. If we were healthy and grew as a result, even better. But focus first on being healthy. Create that culture and an urgent sense of mission, then let God take care of the rest.
Thinking long term gets you out of the ministry grind. Ministry is a weekly grind. Having a long term plan gets you out of the habit of judging yourself and your church by how things go on any given week or month. In a three-year life cycle, you can have bad weeks and months. What you’re aiming for is “success” over 4-6 month chunks. This makes things feel more doable.
Engage the church and celebrate. It’s important to communicate your plan to the church and celebrate its successes along the way. They probably don’t need as much detail as your ministry leaders do, but they need to know where the church is going and how they can participate. Pretty soon you’ll notice things are working. The culture is changing, people are coming and getting plugged in, conversions are happening. Make sure to stop and celebrate. Thank God for what He’s doing. That way the work is never primarily about us; God uses us and we’re simply cooperating with his purposes.
Make a new plan. We’re currently finishing our second mission plan. Every three years we get a chance to re-evaluate and start the process all over again. It keeps things fresh and always asking, “Where’s God calling us to go?” That’s a fun place to be.
Imagine the day you as a pastor can tell the story of how your church broke through the 200 barrier. Or maybe the 35, 75, or 125 barrier. Ed Stetzer has helped hundreds of churches stuck at these barriers. Learn more about Breaking the 200 Barrier.
This is a guest post from Jeff Stott, Pastor of Genesis Church in Mexico, Missouri. We hope his story of how Genesis broke through the 200 barrier will be encouraging to you.
Our county is classified as 70% unchurched. Think about it: this means that 7 out of 10 families on my street are not connected to any church. To test this number, I walked out into my yard, looked up and down my street, and counted ten homes. Of the ten, seven were unchurched. At least on my street, that number was true. I would sit at a football game and think “700 of the 1000 people here are not connected to a church.” I would see the population sign coming into our town and think of the 8,400 people who were unchurched. To be sure, there were plenty of churches in our town and county. Some of them were doing some good work, but they were all very similar in style. But I, along with others, had a vision of a new church coming to town. One that would be outward thinking and bring a different approach to reaching and connecting with the unchurched.
On our first Sunday we started with a core group of 100 people. Over the next twelve months we would double in size. For many of the people this would be their first church home, and some were giving church a second chance.
In order to reach the 70% unchurched in our county we believed we needed to become outward thinking. By outward thinking, I mean thinking about what those outside the church thought about Christ and the church and how to connect with them. To be outward thinking meant we needed to consider the fears, assumptions, perceptions, and attitudes of the unchurched toward the church. In order to connect with the unchurched, there were several things that needed to be outward thinking in nature that we believed were crucial to breaking the 200 barrier.
Outward Thinking Leadership
Whether it’s a ministerial staff member, elder, or team leader, we wanted to make sure they were thinking about how their ministry connects with new people. Outward thinking starts at the top. This helped remove the barrier of only having an inward thinking vision. Having outward thinking leadership also guaranteed a strategy that would focus on connecting with new people.
Outward Thinking Ministries
This involves having events and activities that are in the community ranging from participating in a nursing home ministry, “sponsoring” an elementary school, participating in the town-wide Trunk or Treat, and providing small groups that meet at homes, offices, or restaurants throughout the week. This removed the barrier of doing everything in one location. In short, it gets us out in the community.
Outward Thinking Service
This deals with church on Sunday morning. We intentionally dress casually, use contemporary instruments and songs, decorate with modern lighting, use technology, and try to make the guest experience as comfortable and friendly as possible. This includes a breakfast bar, high tables to stand around for conversation, bulletins that are designed with the first time guest in mind, signs that clearly point to where you need to go or where things are, provide the Scripture on the screen or in the bulletin (most of the unchurched don’t bring a Bible to church). We also provide friendly greeters outside and inside.
Outward Thinking Language
Since our target group is the unchurched, we assume they don’t know a lot of church language. Without watering down the gospel, we try to stay away from churchy phrases or words that don’t make sense to them in our songs or the sermon. If we do use a churchy word, we define it for everyone.
Outward Thinking Technology
This deals with our website, online service, online Life Groups, e-newsletter, and how we use social media for advertisements and promotion. We try to make all these look as modern as possible.
Two Lessons We Learned Along the Way
It’s easier to start a church to be outward thinking than to turn an existing church from inward to outward thinking. I have pastored existing churches most of my life, and while there I worked hard at trying to help them become more outward focused. Some progress was made in each case, but the reality is starting a new church with an outward focus was easier than trying to turn an existing one around. By nature, I find that a new church plant is ultimately more outward thinking than an existing one.
The unchurched want to go to church. Those who eventually start attending don’t have a problem with Jesus or his church. They have a problem with how the Christians do church causing them to feel disconnected, uncomfortable, or unwanted. The people we have reached would not have felt connected to a more traditional style of church.
I’m in a small town in Missouri, but I found if you simply obey God and do what He is calling you to do He will bless your efforts. It was scary to make the shift to start a new church in a rural community, but unknown to us there were people who were praying for a new church and there were unchurched people willing to give God and his people a first or second chance. Whether you are starting a new church or revitalizing an existing one, go for it. God will provide!
Learn more about our Breaking the 200 Barrier resource. Dr. Stetzer will help you identify and overcome common barriers that keep churches from growing.
A church that breaks barriers needs a leader that breaks barriers.
Dealing with sin is of the utmost importance for a leader. But there is another issue that isn’t often discussed, and for those in ministry it goes hand in hand with confronting sin—the importance of a strong work ethic.
With sin, we cannot work hard enough to make God happy. Jesus did that for us. But when we experience joy in our forgiveness and salvation, God empowers us to work hard and accomplish things for His glory.
A barrier-breaking pastor is driven to do the work God has given that pastor. In the beginning of Genesis, God says a lot about our work. He has made us to do work, but sin has made it frustrating and difficult.
Sin can certainly lead us to be workaholics, and we burn ourselves or our people out. But it can also lead to the opposite, a poor work ethic.
As a church leader you often do a lot of the work outside of the view of your people, and that can be a temptation toward doing less and just trying to look busy.
Ministry is hard, but God empowers us for it. Leading churches that grow takes sacrifice, focus, and hard work. Here are a few tools you can use to stay focused on your work so that you will lead your church through growth barriers.
Work All Six
Places like America have a five-day work week with everybody working for the weekend—and there are even some trends moving toward a four-day work week. I want to encourage you to work during all six days and take one full day of rest, just like God designed it.
That doesn’t mean you work every moment of every day, ignore your marriage, and skip all of your kids’ events. But a six-day week in which you are working parts of those days engaged in your context helps keep your priorities centered on the world as God designed it to work.
Is your pursuit of rest idolizing God’s gift rather than using it to energize your God-given work? Work hard toward rest, and rest hard toward work.
Plan Your Work
It’s a lot easier to start your day focused on the task at hand when you planned your workday at the end of the previous day—or even your entire week at once. Maybe first thing Monday morning you set a general schedule of your week, then each evening you set a more detailed plan for the next day. How you use the blocks of unscheduled time will make the most difference.
It’s like a diet. If I plan the contents of my next meal, I’ll probably eat it. But if I go rummaging through the refrigerator I’ll too often end up being lazy and eating something not on my diet. Plan the productivity ahead of time, and then go for it.
Work In Segments
Think about working in segments of distraction-less environment. For example, the Pomodoro Technique uses a simple timer to break work segments into 25 minute periods. Once the 25 minutes are up, you have a five-minute break where you can do the things that typically distract you. You can read more about it here, but there are also many other tools that can help. Whatever you do, find tools that work for you to keep you focused.
Keep a Work Log
A great way to avoid distractions is to keep a work log. It can be paper or digital, whatever works for you. You may even want to share it with someone once a week to hold you accountable. But even when it’s not visible to others it’s a reminder to you, as you write down the time and a short description of what you did during that time, that you can be easily distracted and need to stay engaged.
What are the things that distract you most? Should you delete an app off your phone? Maybe your distraction is a good thing gone too far. Are you enjoying too many nights in front of the TV watching basketball? Be honest with what comes to mind first and take steps to keep it from ruling your schedule.
On the days where I have worked long, and done things of consequence, my rest is better and more sweet. My conscience is clearer. My joy in God’s grace is greater and I am more likely to trust Him with whatever comes next. If you struggle with a poor work ethic, try out some of these things and trust that God will do the same for you.
Trust God & Bear Fruit
If you are struggling with avoiding the hard work of ministry, God gives the grace to move through it toward a clear conscience and joy. But He will do so much more than that. He will prepare you from the inside out to be the kind of leader who breaks barriers and leads your church toward greater fruitfulness.
Previously, I explained why verse-by-verse expositional preaching is, in my view, best as the norm and the standard practice in your church. In this article, I want to give the other side—why it is not biblically mandated, though I think it is the best practice.
In other words, I think verse-by-verse exposition is the best form of preaching, but not a biblically required form of preaching. Here are five reasons why.
First, I don’t see verse-by-verse expositional preaching as biblically required because I don’t find the way we generally do it today to be found in Scripture.
There are three or four proof texts to which people often go to argue in favor of expository, verse-by-verse preaching. Unfortunately, they often miss the great irony in using proof texts to make the case for expositional preaching and against using proof texts.
Even so, these proof texts don’t prove what many believe they do. For example, Jesus didn’t go through verse-by-verse exposition on the road to Emmaus. When Ezra opened up the books of the law and explained them to the people of Israel, there’s very little likelihood that he would have done so in a way that resembles verse-by-verse expositional preaching today. Why? Primarily because they did not have the tools to do verse-by-verse exposition in the way that we do it today.
The Ezra passage is the closest and the best example, and the point is clear: they read the words of the text then explained it. More than one form of preaching can do that.
My friend Hershael York, who gave me some helpful feedback on this article, defines expository preaching as:
Any preaching that a) teaches the authorial intent of the passage and b) makes appropriate application. I think if you go beyond that in the definition of expository preaching, you define away a lot of faithful and biblical preaching.
I agree with him. He continues, “While it’s true that a verse-by-verse methodology is not mandated in Scripture, it is mandated that we teach the sense of Scripture.” Here is the key: preaching needs to teach and explain the Bible, and that can be (and, I think, mostly should be) verse-by-verse exposition, but is not only verse-by-verse.
Second, we don’t find evidence for this type of preaching in the New Testament or immediately after biblical times among the early church fathers.
We can find support for this in an unlikely place, the Master’s Seminary Journal from Masters Seminary (where John MacArthur serves as the Chancellor). They are vocal advocates of verse-by-verse preaching, and, my last article could have been written by a Masters seminary professor.
However, in a journal article detailing the history of expositional preaching, they bemoan the fact that expository preaching does not become the norm until long after the New Testament. Allegorical, topical and other methods dominate preaching—generally speaking—until John Chrysostom began using a method we would recognize as expository.
Chrysostom’s preaching was marked by a new skill set, including for example, the diagramming and breaking down of sentences. Such a grammatical approach was new in his time and is not present in in the majority of the world today. This type of preaching requires a literary sense and a knowledge of verbs, nouns and sentence structures.
I admire Chrysostom’s preaching; that isn’t the issue. His model should be held up as a standard. It is the model we use in my church. But I find it difficult to say something is a biblically mandated form when it is not found explicitly in the New Testament or even in the early church.
Making such claims is unhelpful and ultimately can undermine the development of preaching in the majority of the world. To be totally rigid and unyielding on an issue not clearly commanded in scripture can become a legalism bordering on idolatry.
Instead, I think we have to find ways to make expository preaching more accessible to people without the education of a John Chrysostom or a John MacArthur. Thus I would say that a tribesman among the Pokot in Kenya can be encouraged to open the Bible, read the text, and explain what it says in a way that Western Christians might not find to be traditional verse-by-verse exposition. And when such a tribesman rightly divides the Word of truth, we should recognize it as a good, God-honoring, biblical example of teaching the Scriptures.
Furthermore, I think it’s essential we recognize the examples of preaching we have in the Bible—particularly in the book of Acts—are evangelistic preaching. In other words, it is topical preaching. Thus, there has to be a place and a space for this in the lives of our churches.
A topical series that is still textual and expository can give a congregation the 40,000 foot view of the Bible, reminding them that it’s really one story of redemption, not 66 unrelated books that say something nice about God. We can only understand the parts of the Bible in light of the whole, so we need to change lenses often enough to help us hone in on meaning because the part informs the whole even as the whole reveals the meaning of the parts.
And, let me add, I think a church that primarily teaches the Bible topically can also be faithfully teaching the word. It’s not my approach, for the reasons I’ve listed, but I’m thankful for churches that are faithfully explaining the meaning of the text through topically-driven sermons as well.
In a recent dialogue I had with three preachers—two of whom are predominantly expository, one of whom is predominantly topical—there was a clear agreement on an acceptable place for biblically-responsible topical preaching.
The world is changing—that’s always a true statement—but perhaps never as fast as it has been changing the last few decades, and never more evident when it comes to issues of morality and sexuality.
The reality is, we as parents have an obligation to teach our children, in the midst of a culture that is confused, to have confident values that are based on both a Christian worldview and the teachings of the scriptures. So the obvious question is: how do we, living in the new morality, express the teachings of scripture and a God-honoring lifestyle rooted in a biblical morality? In this brief article I will suggest four things.
First, we need to remember that our identity is rooted in Christ.
Children and teens who see their Christian identity as a list of rules and regulations that they need to follow in order to keep God or their parents happy, will ultimately rebel against those rules, or will take pride in those rules and become haughty and judgmental of others. Instead, if their identity is rooted in who Jesus is and who they are in Christ, they can both value the teachings of scripture and love others who may have different views in the midst of cultural changes around us.
Second, we need to be unashamed and unembarrassed to teach what the scriptures teach, but to do so in a way that acknowledges that this is different than what the world teaches.
I think we are in a key moment in our culture where appealing to commonly held values to help our children to make better decisions makes less sense today than perhaps ever before. I am not saying that things have always been right or correct, and I don’t think there was ever a perfect era in the past, but when it comes to issues of morality in our culture, particularly around sexual values, there have been certain standards influenced by our Judeo-Christian worldview that have been perceived as the “right” thing to do and that “good” people would do. That consensus no longer exists.
And if that consensus no longer exists, we can no longer can appeal to “this is the right thing to do, as everyone knows” and “this is what good kids do” because good kids in our culture’s worldview are now increasingly doing things that Christians don’t believe and increasingly valuing things that Christians don’t value.
Therefore, in this new reality, we need a few key things, such as:
greater grounding in worldview of what Christians believe and why,
an understanding of the scriptures and what the scriptures teach and why, and
a worldview that says to children and teens “you do these things not because they are the things that the ‘good’ kids do but because we are followers of Jesus and we live differently than the world in some ways”.
Third, they need to be unapologetic about speaking about the brokenness of the world, our culture and ourselves.
The reality is, if we hold up a standard of moral superiority, we will either drive our kids to despair or to pride—despair in that they can’t live up to it, or pride in that they have. Both are sins, though different expressions of sin.
Instead, a better approach is to help our children to realize that we are all sinners and that we all struggle with sin; that brokenness impacts who we are and that it impacts our morality. But perhaps, and maybe even most importantly even for this moment, it impacts them and because it impacts them a humble approach recognizing the brokenness of the world and individuals will cause us to rely, by grace, on the work of Christ in the midst of this broken world.
Fourth, we need to break the tyranny of conformity that is so prevalent in the lives of our children.
When I was young, the most terrifying thing was to be different than everyone else. Of course as you age, the reality of this shifts and you’re much more open to being different. But, too many children and teens often function like the well known Japanese proverb “a nail that stands out gets hammered down,” therefore they work exceedingly hard to fit in. However, that does not work for the Christian.
Thus, let’s look to scriptural teachings that speak about how we shine like lights in the world and how we stand out in the midst of a darkened culture by reflecting the light of Christ (Philippians 2:16).
Embrace early, and embrace often, the idea that conformity is not a value. Embrace we will be confirmed to the image of Jesus.
Fifth and finally, we have to share with our children our own struggles, brokenness, and failures so that they might see that we are imperfect creatures seeking to follow a perfect God and His standards.
The reality is, you and I have done things or made mistakes that maybe our children don’t know—that we have been tempted or that we have even succumbed to that temptation. So when appropriate, we want to share. When the opportunity arises, we want to be fellow strugglers. Yes, we are struggling at different times and in different ways, but we are fellow strugglers in the midst of the world’s brokenness.
Where From Here?
So in conclusion, the advice of this article can be summed up in one thing—teach your children to embrace that we are a peculiar people “so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light,” (1 Peter 2:9, CSB). As a peculiar people we have to embrace the difference to find a better way—a way that is rooted in the identity of who we are in Christ—that is made secure in who God is and as our Creator who wants to shape us for a better way.
He has created us, therefore He knows us, and because He knows us He gives us guidelines and directions to guide us. Those guidelines and directions are worthy of living a life different from the world.
In the midst of this new morality, we go back to the morality that is rooted, not even in history, but ultimately in the nature of God himself. Who we are in Christ shapes how we live, and how we live is different than the world around us.
Is leadership something we’re born with, or is it something we learn?
Some people seem to be born with leadership skills. These people may be more charismatic, sometimes more extraverted, more affirming. Maybe he or she was president of their class and captain of their teams in high school. Their voice holds the room’s attention, and their ideas catch on throughout an organization.
You Have to Learn Leadership
But, in my experience, natural leaders often rely on instincts. Instincts work for a while, but eventually they fail. They do not scale up to tackling new or more complex leadership challenges—to creating plans for strategic leadership or for effecting system-wide change. That takes processes, strategies, and tools that don’t always come with instinct or experience.
Other people are dropped into leadership positions without natural leadership gifting. Maybe it’s the wise, compassionate woman who is asked to lead her Bible study. Maybe it’s the pastor who loves theology or Biblical counseling but who feels overwhelmed when faced with leading a congregation.
That’s the situation I was in during my second year of a church plant years ago. We successfully launched the church, counting 234 people in attendance for the first Sunday. But then we moved past the frenetic energy of the launch, saw our numbers settle around a hundred, and slid towards rhythms of regular church life. And I realized I did not know what to do next. I was stuck, and leadership was the lever I needed to get through.
I am not a natural leader. I am a nerd, thank you very much. While some of my good friends were leading student government in school, I was reading the encyclopedia for fun.
This love of learning became a powerful tool when I got stuck after our church’s launch. I was in the middle of a DMin program during the launch, and I focused my dissertation on leadership and influence. Through that process, I learned tools of leadership. I learned how to ethically apply principles of persuasion to lead our church to where God wanted us to be.
You Can Learn
Let me repeat that: I learned leadership. Studying leadership principles provided the tools I needed to get unstuck and lead my church well.
That experience showed me that we can learn leadership skills. If you are placed in a position of leadership and you don’t have a natural gift for leadership, you may need to express leadership that’s not in your natural gift set. You will need to fall back on tools and processes to do that—tools and processes that can be learned.
You do not have to be a natural-born leader to become a strong leader. You can learn how to lead, to move towards strategic goals, and to change your church for God’s glory.
Furthermore, leadership is different depending on who you are. Some of the best leaders I know are introverted. I’ve seen great leaders who are men and I’ve seen great leaders who are women. I’ve seen them young and old. But, they all know, you have to find the way of leadership that works for you.
Leaders are Learners
There is an old phrase, “Leaders are learners.” I think that is true, but would add you can learn your way into leadership.
Most pastors I know have had the same experience over and over. They’ve not learning, but just repeating the experience of the last year or years.
So, get some books. Do some reading. Get a mentor.
Jesus did not come to be your leadership guru. He came to die on the cross, for your sin, and in your place.
Yet, he did lead. And we can learn from how he led. If we look closely, we see that his leadership was wrapped in humility and servanthood. Even for those in high leadership positions, we all ultimately submit to one Person, and that is the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus also led perfectly. Now of course we are not perfect, but nonetheless Jesus’ model guides us toward Spirit-led leadership that honors all those under our care. The more we follow Jesus, the more ‘perfect’ we can be in emulating and taking on the characteristics of a good leader. And when we lead like Jesus, we leave a legacy that is shaped around Jesus.
Gene Wilkes has helpfully categorized seven principles that we can take to heart to inspire our leadership. I have personally found these helpful in different leadership positions I have been in. None of us is perfect, but we strive to be leaders who at the end of each day may hear the voice of our God saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
1. Jesus humbled himself and allowed God to exalt him.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)
2. Jesus followed his father’s will rather than sought a position.
For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. (John 6:38)
Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” (John 4:34)
3. Jesus defined greatness as being a servant.
And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:33-37)
4. Jesus took risks to serve others because he trusted he was God’s son.
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. (John 13:3)
5. Jesus left his place at the head table to serve the needs of others.
He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:4-5)
6. Jesus shared responsibility and authority with those he called to lead.
And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. (Luke 9:1-2)
7. Jesus built a team to carry out a vision worldwide.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
How many of us would admit that we have experienced more failures than we’d have liked in leading our churches? It’s never easy to reflect honestly on our leadership mistakes; however, measurable outcomes and practical goalposts are critical if our churches are to thrive as we grow. Ultimately, in order to break barriers, our measurements and goals must change.
From a Shepherd to a Rancher
This includes simple things like how we measure the community we’re planning on having together. One of the major shifts when a church grows from 125 to 200 attendees and beyond, for example, is that there is a loss of intimacy with the pastors and key leaders. This happens primarily because we must move from a shepherding role to a rancher situation. The congregation must understand that access to the pastor will change due to the growth in attendance and the inability of one person to be available to such numbers. But this change also gives others the opportunity to be used by God to meet congregational needs.
We must always remember that there’s a reason for the change. We want our churches to make known the goodness of the gospel to an increasingly greater number of people and for those people to be integrated into the household of God, to be discipled and to grow spiritually.
Let me be as clear as I can: Our measurements and goals must reflect a community of making disciples and exerting cultural influence. We have to be engaging culture. This is more than simply saying we will be influential in our community. It means we are influential for Christ in our community.
The Systems Connection
The typical church in the United States has fewer than 100 people in weekly attendance. One of the reasons is that in order to go beyond that number, we must move from relational connection to systems connection. When we are under 100, discipleship influence is exerted through direct relationships. When we pass the 100 mark, if we don’t transition to a discipleship system that can be successful without a direct relationship to the senior leader, it’ll ultimately fail.
The unfortunate reality is that most pastors don’t know how to construct congregational systems and effective structures because they lead only relationally. Sure, this is a wonderful way to lead, but it’s simply not sustainable as the church grows. As we make the transition from leading relationally to leading systemically, there is a loss of control and a loss of intimacy, which can be tremendously challenging for pastors. However, it is one of the most valuable lessons leaders of growing churches can learn.
When one of the churches I pastored made this change, we did some ongoing messaging to persuade people to participate in the process with us as leaders. But remember: not everyone who has been a part of the church will continue to stay as the church grows numerically. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
After our congregation made this all-important transition, it almost doubled in size in a year. Of the people who stayed, every one of them had gone through our process of assimilation into congregational life and every one of them was now serving in some capacity. The pastor was no longer seen as the sole provider, but as occupying an important function within the church where the body of Christ ministered.
This transition became key in the life of our church. If we hadn’t made that change, we would have shrunk back to 75 in attendance because that would have been all that the relationally oriented leadership could absorb.
If you take a table and start pouring sand on it, the table’s capacity is limited. Eventually, the sand will get so high that it will start pouring over the edges. What do you do? Either you can keep pouring sand, unconcerned that much of it is flowing off the table; you can stop pouring sand and stop caring about adding more; or you build a bigger and broader table that can handle more sand.
In this analogy, the leadership table has its limitations, especially when placed on the base of one person or family. In order to handle a greater capacity, we must build the bigger leadership table—a system that empowers more people along with their capacities and gifts. And really, isn’t this what the body of Christ is supposed to be about—the gifts of the church working together for the good of the kingdom?
Have you reached your personal capacity to handle current growth? Who do you need to include in expanding leadership capacity in order to grow beyond the goalposts set out by the leadership team? What relationships need to be cultivated and what needs to be culled or cooled down in order for you to be more effective in your leadership role?
Previously, we talked about the three steps needed to develop a missional culture. But that is not all you need. Culture can be a motivating factor, but if the structure you have in place doesn’t affirm and encourage your culture, you may be stuck trying to restart the culture again down the road.
I’ve written before about how church planting movements benefit from a simple structure that encourages reproducibility. This follows in the structural model Paul set up for the churches he planted. The goal and culture of church planting is one of reproducing the next generation of churches, pastors and planters. To accomplish this, churches and organizations must be intentional to establish structures that mesh with the culture.
The structure you have in place should be an aid to the culture you are trying to produce, not a hindrance. So, how can that happen in your church? How can you implement a structure that affirms the missional culture you want to establish? Look to provide a simple way for people to progress to the next step of service.
The Simple Structure of the Purpose Driven Church
At one point in American history, one out of every 10 churches identified themselves as Purpose Driven by participating as part of that network.
Despite there being fewer “Purpose Driven churches,” they provided us with a brilliant, but simple idea. They created the baseball diamond to show there are four things that every Christian should know: evangelism, fellowship, discipleship and ministry. It was an easy and effective way to demonstrate the sequential process of discipleship. At Grace Church, where I formerly pastored, we talked about Begin, Connect, Thrive, and Engage. The names have changed and perhaps the way it is applied, but the need for a structure that encourages a culture of making disciples has not.
Establishing the Next Step
Victory Metro is a multicampus megachurch headquartered in Manila, Philippines with 65,000 attendees each Sunday. Two of their leaders have written fantastic books that deal, in part, with how structure can help culture.
When I interviewed him, Steve said that a WikiChurch, like Wikipedia, does not require professional oversight of the work being done. By the way they operate, the intentional structure of the church, the leadership encourages all of the members to be involved in service. Their culture is strengthened by a structure that equips and empowers every believer to be on mission.
Joey Bonifacio, formerly of Victory Church, wrote The Lego Principle about how people were designed to be in relationships. They were made to connect on the top and the bottom, with God and others. No matter the color or when the Lego piece was made, they fit together and can make something amazing.
These ideas of empowering believers and building relationships are served by the structure established in Victory. Joey compared it to the process immediately after arriving you land from an international flight.
You have several steps that you always take. No one gets through the airport without going through those. You go through and have your passport checked. You pick up your luggage. You go through customs. It is all a clear path for everyone involved. There is no question as to what is next. Their church has created a simple process for everyone to go through. Part of what makes it fascinating is that they actually have an app to take people through their discipleship process. I had never thought about using that, but it is brilliant in their context.
Here’s the thing that I think is key for Victory. They have a very intentional pathway that reinforces the culture they have developed in their church since the beginning. But what if your church hasn’t always had a missional culture? Maybe, you are working to grow that type of mindset. Can that be done? Can a structural change help in the process of creating a new culture? Absolutely.
I’ve written before about how the church I planted in Pennsylvania had grew from a 25-person core team to 125, but the 100 that came in didn’t do anything. With a new culture we encouraged them to change, but was also empowered them to change with practical structural shifts, one of which was requiring all members to go through a training course.
We didn’t just say, “We need you to serve here.” We said, “We need you to serve here, but first we are going to train and equip you for that service with a three-class course.” Two families left in the next year because they just did not want to participate in the new approach, but everyone else got on board with what we were doing—and the church doubled in size in the same time period.
Missional in Your Context
The right structure provides a very clear, intentional pathway for your people to progress. The culture is what pushes everybody towards that pathway. At Victory, they have 50,000 people who are turning to their neighbors consistently asking, “Have you gone through One-to-One? Have you been to a Victory Weekend?” Their structure and their culture work together to affirm their values.
This is a process for your church. At Grace, our plan was to get the whole church walking through our pathway, but it’s going to take two years. We had our clear path established and the desired culture expressed. For you and your church, it may look differently in terms of the specifics.
Joey was clear that he doesn’t believe American churches can come over and copy Victory’s method step-by-step. They have to be contextualized to the setting of your church. Victory’s plan works in their Asian context.
If you want your church to be missional, you need to implement a structure that encourages the culture you are trying to develop. When your culture and structure are in sync, they will move your church, regardless of its size, toward being missional.
Some people may not support it. They may even get angry and leave. But if you set your face like flint toward your goal, with your culture and structure in support, you can move to missional.
Why is it that churches often get stuck and turn inward, and what can be done to reverse this inwardly-focused approach?
Often times, as a church grows larger (or even just older) it tends to focus on maintaining and servicing what is already there. Internal ministries overwhelm outward mission. Any church can be overwhelmed by this temptation.
Yet, many places in Scripture point to the church as a body of servants—being used by God to minister to one another and to a hurting world. For example, 1 Peter 4:10 says, “Based on the gift each one has received, use it to serve others, as good managers of the varied grace of God” (CSB).
The key phrase here is “each one.” Each and every church member is to serve others. Most of the time we see verses like this it is to serve one another inside the body, but there are so many verses about the poor and hurting that we know many are called to serve beyond the body. (I like to say that we can serve “in, through, or beyond” our local church.)
But unfortunately, there is a huge chasm between this passage and our practice.
According to the research from the book I co-authored with Thom Rainer, Transformational Church, the majority of people in the majority of churches are unengaged in meaningful ministry and mission. They come for the show—and that might be a contemporary church, traditional, liturgical, etc. since the numbers did not show a difference—but they don’t stay for the service.
So, how can we avoid having a church full of customers rather than a church full of co-laborers in the Gospel? We develop a culture and implement a structure.
Churches need a culture that encourages and a structure that enables people to move from passivity to activity, from being passive spectators to active participants in the mission of God.
Today, I want to focus on developing the culture. Here are three steps to develop a service mindset culture: instill it, repeat it, and celebrate it.
A pastor I know put it in a way I thought was really helpful. He said they see four categories of people that come to their church—three categories that they want and one they do not.
Category one: The visitor or seeker
Category two: The growing disciple beginning to take steps
Category three: The mature disciple serving others
Category four: The person who thinks they’re mature but is unengaged and serving no one.
And here’s what he said to those in the last category: “We need your seat for some of the other three categories.”
With a few exceptions (someone in transition, some personal issues, etc), I think that mentality is helpful. The sooner you place such an approach into the DNA of your church the better, because as you reach new individuals you want to bring them into a place where service is the norm. A person will become what the majority of your people already are.
You can help develop this within your church. As Mike Dodson and I found in our book Comeback Churches, the primary factor for the revitalization of a church is the leadership. The same is true of developing a serving culture. The leaders, including, but not limited to the pastor and staff, must work to intentionally engraft the right mindset in the body. How can they do that? By repeating the values of the culture you want to instill.
Preach them regularly. Explain why they matter. Call out the idea that you can be mature and not serve others. Teach service.
The pulpit will always be a key place to shape the values and culture of a church. When the pastor repeatedly inserts the idea of serving others into messages, writings, and conversations, it has an impact on the hearers and can work to correct a misguided focus.
For example, at Grace Church where I used to serve in Tennessee, I would talk about the culture we want to have. Our church used the concepts Begin, Connect, Thrive, and Engage. Those were our four values. We’ve got a lot of people at Begin and Connect. But then, how do we move people into the last two: Thrive and Engage, creating a culture that our passion is disciple making? How do you do that?
We had to hammer it relentlessly.
As churches grow, most often you find that a higher percentage of people get the desired culture of the church at the beginning, while fewer people take hold of it later. You have to help those who come later (whether the church is 200 years old or two years old) to have the level of service they had at the beginning.
It’s that consistent repeating of the culture and its values that helps us to create a mindset of discipleship.
To perpetuate this cultural value (or bring about a cultural shift) you must continually reiterate it with key leaders and get them engaged first. Then, you encourage them to repeat it in their small groups and within their circle of influence. You work with the various ministries in your church. Have them all consistently focus on developing a serving culture.
This is not a six-month process—this is a multi-year one. You will echo the values of your culture over and over again. Those who are not on board from the beginning will either allow the repetition to sink in and they’ll follow the new culture or they will become annoyed at repeatedly hearing about serving and they’ll leave. Sometimes, that’s a good thing.
I’ve repeatedly said, “What you celebrate you become.” The International Pentecostal Holiness Church celebrates church planting by giving pastors pins for planting or sponsoring church plants. Not surprisingly, their last two decades have been their best in a long time.
When I preached at Progressive Primitive Baptist Church, they clearly celebrated the educational achievements of their members including one young man who had a list of academic achievements from high school through his master’s degree.
Denominations and churches should affirm positives at least as much as you reject negatives. The people in the church should know that you stand against what is unbiblical, but there should be no doubt about the type of church culture you support.
You celebrate what you want to become.
If you want your church to keep its serving culture, you should celebrate it at every opportunity. Have recognition services for volunteers in your children’s department. (Medals may be appropriate there!) Create a monthly feature on your website to highlight a member who served others in an extraordinary way. Announce a church-wide celebration of every member who was involved in a mission trip during the past year. Whatever ideas you can come up with to continually remind your church what it is you value—do it!
We used to give away a volunteer award at our nights of worship. I’ve had everyone applaud for the set up crew at the movie theater we met in. We had appreciation dinners for volunteers. The list could go on and on.
Those who visit your church should leave with a clear picture of what it is you value through what you celebrate. Members and attendees alike will see that servanthood is appreciated, which will encourage them to adopt the serving culture you have instilled and repeated throughout the body.
Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast
Here’s the thing, culture eats strategy for breakfast every day. That’s not from me. The quote, attributed to the late business guru Peter Drucker, reminds us that our plans are pointless if the environment in our church undermines them. Your strategy becomes sort of an add-on in which few people are engaged.
In John 20:21 Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” So that tells us that all of God’s people are sent on mission. 1 Peter 4:10 reminds us that all of God’s people are called to the ministry.
So, don’t miss it—all of God’s people are sent on mission and all of God’s people are called to ministry. The only questions: Where?, Among whom?, and Doing what?
Having a serving culture established through instilling it, repeating it, and celebrating it will provoke members to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24). With that culture in place, they won’t be asking if they should serve. The questions will be where should I serve, among whom should I serve, and in what way can I serve.
That creates a serving culture—part of a missional focus—in your church.
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