Not all church growth is healthy growth. Unhealthy growth attracts people from other churches by catering more to them and expecting less of them. Healthy, exponential growth involves sending those who’ve experienced genuine life change out into the community to demonstrate and share the love of Jesus Christ with those hopeless and hurting. The growth potential from discipleship is about leverage and empowerment, fueled by the Holy Spirit. There is so much latent potential sitting idle in America’s church pews. The job now is to disrupt their comfort and complacency in order to mobilize that manpower.
Intensive discipleship gives churchgoers the courage to seek the lost, the compassion to serve them, and the knowledge to speak words that bring them life. It transforms your church into a fully trained and equipped army of ministers. When a pastor asks the proverbial trick question “Raise your hand if you’re a minister”, for the first time all hands can go up with confidence. Disciples know that their responsibilities amount to being the church personified, not simply inviting people to an event next Sunday.
However, the growth that comes from challenging members to live out the Great Commission, given all of the time and effort that entails, also comes with ups and downs. Healthy growth is a roller coaster. You may “preach it down” at first, but you’re in good company – that’s what Jesus did. At possibly the height of His popularity during His time on earth, Jesus preached His most challenging sermon – and many left His side. Myopic scale wasn’t the goal for Jesus. He was looking to build a rebel band of Spirit-filled followers fully committed to changing the world. And they did.
Like people, churches often need to lose some weight to get healthy. If someone is looking to get in better shape, that typically means dropping a few pounds. Maybe to become healthy, churches have to lose some church “consumers”. However, they won’t leave (or repent) until they experience the “sticker shock” over the price they’ll have to pay to BE the church. Presenting congregations with the Great Commission price tag is scary in this day and age with so many church buildings and aspiring pastors yet fewer frequent attenders, particularly when some of those leaving may be key contributors. But the trajectory of a thriving church is typically and necessarily down before it follows the “hockey stick” back up. Those remaining will create a firm foundation for rapid growth, while also breathing life back into the church’s culture.
Unfortunately, many pastors aren’t willing to take the risk of enduring the short, downward slope and therefore miss the rapid ascension in growth and health up the “hockey stick”. Many therefore lose their passion and burn out, never recapturing the excitement they once felt back when their church first started.
Who you’ll lose…
It takes faith to boldly preach the whole truth of the gospel – including sin, repentance and the costs of discipleship. On the surface, it would seem few want to hear that sermon. Many in the congregation may not come back for a second dose of that medicine. It also takes courage to ask churchgoers to muster the level of compassion and sacrifice demanded in the Bible of those who choose to follow Jesus Christ. Many will find another church more willing to spoon feed them. Others won’t step back into another church again and risk being confronted with such unreasonable expectations.
But let’s look more closely at who is most likely to leave your church when you begin to challenge them to become disciples:
- those obsessed with their own personal identity (who we discussed last week):
- want to associate themselves with Christians as part of their (self-conceived) identity or (public) social standing, as often occurs in smaller towns where church attendance is expected
- more interested in religion than a relationship (with Jesus)
- pursuing God for what He can do for them to improve their situation in life
- long-time complacent members and attenders who aren’t ready for changes or challenges
- “consumers” who complain when some aspect of church is no longer to their liking
- those in it for “cheap grace”, belief without confession, surrender, discipleship or material life change
- luke-warm fence-sitters undecided for years whether to stop dipping their toes in the water
- people intent on being “fed”, unwilling to serve or give sacrificially
- those who when they do serve, do it to “check the box” and feel better about themselves
Do you want a church full of those? Jesus and His disciples didn’t try to appease them either. They confronted sin and never tempered or qualified the gospel message regardless of whether listeners were ready to accept it or not. Of course, keep in mind that Jesus and His disciples had already “primed the pump” by performing awe-inspiring miracles and jaw-dropping acts of kindness prior to sharing the gospel – a model most churches rarely imitate today. Maybe that’s why churches have had to resort to softer, more palatable messages to attract and retain – because ears are not as ready to hear nor hearts to accept words not preceded by action. (2 Timothy 4:1-5)
What you’ll gain…
Pressing forward in the face of the risk that your attendance will shrink if members are challenged to BE the church between Sundays and relentlessly pursue the real “customer” (the lost in the community) is not optional – it’s Biblical. Pastors should have the faith to follow the Lord’s leading, whatever the outcome.
While there’s risk, there’s also tremendous upside. The congregants who do stick around will be those who are:
- hungry for truth
- eager to grow deeper in their relationship with the Lord
- possibly poor in material wealth but are rich in faith
- disciples, or willing to become one
- ready to make an impact within their circles of influence
- committed to growing the Kingdom
- all in!
Imagine what your church could do with pews full of those folks! Twelve disciples changed the course of history. However, the only way to weed out the “who you’ll lose”, leaving you only with the “what you’ll gain”, is to spell out what it REALLY means to live out the Great Commission. And you haven’t yet rooted out the “who you’ll lose” at your church – because they’re still there! Without trimming the excess and training the remaining “insiders” to be unabashed Christ followers bent on pursuing the lost in the community, your church will never morph into a beacon of light in your otherwise darkening city.
What about infrequent attenders, visitors and non-believers?
I know what many of you are thinking. What about these folks? Launching straight into the costs and effort involved in discipleship next Sunday would send most window shoppers and CEOs (Christmas and Easter Only) running for the doors, right? There are several schools of thought on that topic in the church today:
- Most Common – The prevailing theory is that “seekers” need to be brought along slowly – from Connection, to Conversion, to Cultivation. While nearly all churches try to attract seekers and work toward Connection and Conversion, few offer Cultivation beyond Small Groups, which aren’t building many disciples.
- Most Concerning – Too many churches short-change those wandering into a church who are looking for truth, instead providing thinly-veiled counseling. Rather than hearing a saving gospel and credible plan for life change from their meager existence, they get relationship and parenting advice. Rather than getting answers to their tough questions and hard evidence to quell their doubts, they get promises of a better life and hope to help get them through difficult situations (the theme of most Christian songs today). In their reluctant to call seekers to repentance, pastors miss the opportunity to offer genuine forgiveness and amazing grace. It’s interesting that Jesus’ first message at the inception of His ministry, when there were no Christians on earth, began with a call to repentance.
- Most Controversial – Should non-believers even be invited to worship services? Or should disciples be the “church” between Sundays, leading non-believers to faith, at which time they should join the body of believers in collective worship? We’ll start with that most controversial question first next week and see how attempts to attract and engage non-believers are impacting today’s churches.
It’s your turn…
Have you watched a pastor do what Jesus did and “preach it (church/followers) down” to a smaller number of committed disciples, only to see that church explode in growth?