You may have been caught off guard last week by our contention that The Salvation Army is the “model” church. However, the good news is that following the example of Jesus, His disciples and the early church of leading with compassion and then telling people who He is doesn’t require your church to open a homeless shelter or an addiction recovery center on campus.
In fact, as you’ll see today, morphing into a church that adopts Jesus’ growth model is as easy as 1, 2, 3. The Lord wouldn’t make something that important very complicated.
Jesus did build a church – but a small one. He resisted becoming the leader of a megachurch, reserving his most challenging messages for when His congregation was growing the largest. Jesus mistrusted the authenticity of the masses, knowing most were only there for a “show” (e.g. His next miracle), to receive something from Him (e.g. healing), or because their friends were there too. Does that sound familiar today? Jesus didn’t let the unfaithful loiter for long or try to retain them by tickling their ears or setting up programs and buildings. Instead, He scared most off with commands to “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood”. He “preached it down” to a faithful few, those willing to stand by His side no matter how hard the road or the message. How many pastors do you know who approach building a church that way?
Yes, the best church growth plan was Jesus’ and the early Church’s growth plan. In fact, it’s the growth model that works best for any successful organization:
- Train and invest in those most loyal and committed
- Maximize leverage by sending those few trained individuals out into the field to train others
- Build community as those new trainees eagerly join and become advocates for the organization
…and the cycle repeats.
Compare that to the most common church growth model in America of “Invite, Invest and Involve”:
- Attract and retain as many attendees as possible by requiring limited training or commitment
- Ask untrained people to join the organization and to invite others to come to a big event
- Request that all who show up at the building contribute to the organization by giving money or by volunteering to serve
….and the cycle repeats.
Which approach is more effective in making disciples? The first method was not only what Jesus commanded us to do, but also what He did.
Ironically, if you grow disciples you’ll also grow the institution. Disciples will get involved actively in church because disciples obey Jesus and that’s what He says to do. But church growth shouldn’t be a pastor’s objective. Donating, volunteering and joining are byproducts of disciples being properly trained to be productive in the “marketplace”.
The Great Commission was not a novel concept Jesus suddenly unveiled right before His ascension. It was the summary of what He had been doing all along – His formula for establishing a firm foundation for explosive growth of His Church – laid out in three simple steps:
“And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.” (John 15:27)
How? A Case Study
Attendance at this mid-sized church has doubled in just a few short years since recommitting to making and sending disciples. Previously, growth and impact had stagnated for over a decade when the focus was on church activities and international missions. Honing in on events that took place inside of a building and on what was taking place in far-away lands left an enormous gap – the fields ripe for harvest in the community and neighborhoods surrounding the church. With so little focus on local missions and so few going on international trips, there was no impetus to assess and equip the entire congregation with skills for external ministry. With so much focus on inviting people to church and letting pastors handle conversions, there was little impetus to prepare all members for effective evangelism.
That changed in the summer of 2016 as the senior pastor realized his church’s culture lacked a spirit of generosity, compassion and ministry. He knew deeper, personalized and intensive discipleship was the only answer. Therefore, church leaders designed and implemented a new on-boarding model for all congregants that included one-on-one and triad discipleship, evangelism training and spiritual gifts assessments – in additional to regular attendance at services and (optional) small groups.
From that point on, three questions drove every strategy and decision for that church:
- What is the next step for each person to grow in Christ?
- Are people changing, looking and living more like Jesus?
- How are they impacting the world around them?
“Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” (Matthew 10:1)
How? A Case Study
Rather than stop at gifts assessments, the church pointed members to “glocal” opportunities – internal teams, local ministries and overseas missions. Leadership knew that many in the congregation didn’t know how to find places to leverage their newfound willingness, training and direction for serving to maximize Kingdom impact. Therefore, they viewed “Go” as deployment, knowing a push beyond a gentle nudge was necessary to get people to step out of their comfort zones into specific areas that fit their gifts. As Jesus demonstrated, sometimes His disciples had to be sent before they thought they were ready. And Jesus sent them out to heal and help, not just preach. His instructions to His missionaries always included both actions and words. This church followed suit, setting up several avenues to live out prayer, care and share lifestyles:
- Formed teams to work with local ministry partners
- Encouraged financial giving to external ministries
- Established a “Care Network” consisting almost entirely of church members but under staff guidance, including the following:
- “Benevolence Committee” – Serve and continually reach out to families who request support (financial and non-financial) from the church
- Counseling and Care Visits – Led by pastors but involving trained congregants, surround those within the church and in the community with love, mentoring and direction
- Serve Our City – Using Meet The Need, work through selected partner organizations around specific causes (e.g. homeless, hunger, schools, women) to volunteer and meet other needs year-round, not just during the holidays
- In the wake of natural disasters, empowered neighborhood groups through Meet The Need with tools to communicate and respond quickly as needs arise
- Allocated part of the church budget to supporting these local missions and training efforts
3. Make More Disciples
“Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” (Matthew 9:37)
How? A Case Study
The senior pastor’s mindset changed, no longer seeing the need for him to carry such a heavy load. He was burned out from being called upon to bear responsibility for bringing visitors and the community to Christ. Realizing that Jesus left behind disciples to carry his ministry forward, not just pastors, he redefined “church” as intended – the “called-out ones” or “those belonging to the Lord”. In the pastor’s discipleship of other leaders and from the pulpit, he shifted emphasis to the role each believer plays in leading their circle of influence to Christ. He began to teach that the church building is a house of worship and worship services should not be designed to make non-believers comfortable. The purpose of corporate worship is to equip and refresh the Saints for the week ahead. The pastor became bolder in sharing hard messages as Jesus did, willing to risk losing fence-sitters and those not in attendance for the right reasons.
He realized that even if he preached it down to a few disciples, the church would experience explosive growth from there. And guess what – it did!
It’s Your Turn…
Can the prevailing Invest-Invite-Involve model for growing churches be tweaked to fit Jesus’ model or is an overhaul required to reverse the decline in the Church’s growth, impact, influence and perception in America?