Not every house of God seeks God first. What a person or church seeks first is a matter of priority and sequence – above all else and before all else. Church growth or survival are noble goals but only if they’re achieved through pure motives and methods. God’s foremost command to make disciples should not be sacrificed for the sake of butts, bucks or buildings. The Lord’s call for selfless unity, sacrificial love and sanctifying obedience should not be deemphasized to make visitors feel more comfortable. Jesus’ frequent insinuations that those who don’t serve the poor aren’t saved should not be ignored to reallocate budgets to facilities and amenities. Like other Christians, church leaders face temptations, which are stronger now than ever with giving and attendance projected to be 20-30% lower than their (already declining) pre-pandemic levels.
Prior to COVID-19, church growth and leadership were the primary topics at pastor conferences and denominational meetings – and the subject of most books and articles written for pastors. Despite all that advice and coaching, it quickly became apparent that few churches had prepared members to take advantage of the incredible evangelistic and compassion opportunity presented by the pandemic. Most churchgoers weren’t ready to assume their rightful responsibility as the personification of “church” in their neighborhoods when the sanctuary doors were slammed shut. Yet churches still pray fervently to return to normal so they can resume the same pastor-centric, building-oriented model that failed to equip members in 2020 to share the Gospel, answer tough questions, and shun self-preservation.
Whether a church seeks God first, above all else and before all else, may be measured by the same standard applied to Christians – faith over fear. Uncertainty about the post-COVID future may keep many church leaders from addressing the discipleship gap revealed by the pandemic. Disciple-making is long, slow, arduous, time-consuming and often painful. How can we ask members to do more when we already expect lower attendance, engagement and giving going forward? Discipleship is costly, including the risk of precipitating an already precipitous decline in the metrics churches use to measure “success”. However, the past year called those metrics into question and begs a transition to indicators more closely correlated with seeking God first…
- What kind of growth? Our new reality should change the question “how large is your church?” to “how big is your footprint?”. Whether the auditorium is full is less important than counting all those attending in any form (e.g. micro-gatherings) and all those impacted by the church (e.g. being reached with the Gospel by members).
- How is growth occurring? Is “success” a result of addition (transfers from other churches or invitations to hear from a “professional”) or multiplication (equipping members to invite people to Jesus rather than just to a church service)? How a church grows dictates what it does when new people show up, either challenging them to fully surrender to Christ or to be a dutiful church citizen.
- Why does the church want to grow? A growing church that is not made up of growing Christians is seeking self-sustainability, not God, first. The size of a gathering does not determine the percentage who are disciples – in fact, those are typically inversely related. If disciple-making and deployment is the objective, then expectations will flip from enjoying benign sermons to holding churchgoers accountable for reproducing Christ-followers.
Churches that seek God first see numerical growth as a result of obedience, regardless of the risks, and not as the goal. Even if they do not experience growth, they refuse to compromise their priorities (seeking God above all else) or their sequence (seeking God before all else).
Above All Else…
Like entrepreneurs, church planters have little to lose at first and are highly focused on the mission. Their emphasis on building deeply into a few folks and connecting with the community spurs growth, which soon needs to be managed. The pressures and bureaucracy of running an organization can distract from the original vision God gave leadership, and other priorities may begin to take precedence…
- Attendance – The stakes get higher as more people show up on Sunday mornings, and weekend services become the main emphasis of pastors and staff. In the early church “the Lord added to their number daily” but most churches today hope to “add to their number weekly”.
- Engagement – Attendance spikes drive the need for volunteers to perform “church chores” geared to produce more growth. Yet despite friendly greeters and child care workers, statistics show alarmingly few people are coming to Christ annually in most U.S. churches.
- Expansion – If you plant churches you may not get disciples, but if you make disciples then you will plant more churches. Business consultants joke that the way to increase profits of products with no margin is through more volume. Likewise, Kingdom “profits” don’t increase by planting more churches that don’t make disciples.
- Viability – The high costs of a model that entrusts pastors with sole responsibility for leading people to Jesus also puts undo pressure on them to raise funds. We pay landscaping companies when we don’t feel like doing your own yard, and compensate churches when we don’t want to endure the discomfort of talking about Jesus.
- Influence – New churches launch with flat hierarchies and expectations that everyone will carry their share of the Great Commission load. Ironically, that role centralizes rather than disperses with growth. Layers of authority and structure are established and deference to the “preacher” escalates (as the audience to whom he is speaking increases in size).
Churches are seeking growth (and not God) first if that growth isn’t intended to or effective in making sold-out, fully-surrendered disciples who multiply more disciples.
Before All Else…
God-honoring church growth is the byproduct of following the biblical sequence of seeking God first and then watching Him produce fruit from our labor…
- Prayer & Worship – A church’s first order of business is humility, thankfulness and trust. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing. Equipping and empowering churchgoers begins here – not listening and watching while pastors and bands pray and worship, but engaging personally in both.
- Outreach – Evangelism doesn’t typically precede compassion, at least not for Jesus. Following His model means “healing” and feeding first, then telling them who He is. Churches whose goal is growth for the sake of growth “check the box” through transactional, not transformational, assistance at the holidays that actually perpetuates poverty (#ReimagineCompassion).
- Evangelism – This final step of Prayer-Care-Share calls churches to seek God first by educating and urging members not to withhold their knowledge of the cure for cancer from the terminally ill, a distributed model for evangelism and discipleship.
- Disciple-making – A church committed to making disciples and not converts must define new volunteer roles to delegate responsibilities for establishing mentoring relationships, running accountability groups, and leading micro-gatherings.
- Growth – Lastly comes growth, but not only the kind measured by counting heads on Sunday morning. The first four steps in this sequence expand the church’s reach well beyond the pastor’s imagination or control. Personal growth fueled by repentance for “doing” church rather than being the church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, can spark revival throughout a community or city.
Implementing this biblical process within a church brings additional benefits not experienced by “Church as We Know It” in America today. Churches that seek God first need far fewer dollars to operate, distribute the workload, alleviate pastor/staff burnout, improve stewardship of underutilized physical facilities throughout the week, and breed a culture of generosity.
It’s Your Turn…
When someone tells you they go to a great church, ask them what happens there from Monday through Saturday. Are members actively sharing the Good News, serving the poor and experiencing personal transformation that radically alters the lives of those around them?