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Temptations of a Growing Church

Temptations of a Growing Church

With the blessing and support of church leadership, Daniel felt empowered and excited about launching the new campus.  All were aware of the risks of Daniel’s radical vision, principles, and plan, which were heavily influenced by his experiences growing up in a missionary family.  The concern wasn’t whether a strong emphasis on discipleship, compassion, and evangelism was biblical but whether adopting Jesus’ prayer/care/share lifestyle was too demanding for contemporary American churchgoers.

Daniel knew success hinged on convincing members that they were Kingdom employees and not church consumers.  Those accustomed to “church as we know it”, shopping for a church with the most engaging pastors, comfortable facilities, and applicable programs wouldn’t have an appetite for all that Daniel planned to ask of them.

The other question on the minds of leaders at the main campus was whether Daniel would stick to his guns or abandon his ambitions when he had something to lose.  It was easy to take chances and be externally focused when there were few members, a small staff, and no building.  They thought back to the early days of their ministries when they were more like Daniel, courageous but naïve about the inevitable pressures that awaited pastors when the church grew.  Most church planters can devote themselves to equipping and mobilizing Christ-followers to embody “church” between Sundays until the mounting obligations of organizing weekend services, managing staff, and catering to the demands of members pull them away from those primary, biblical responsibilities.

The Launch: Commitment

Determined to ensure that growing disciples, not a congregation, was the barometer of “success”, Daniel and his core team laid out a specific, detailed 10 step roadmap to foster life and community transformation through their church by the power of the Holy Spirit:

  1. Pray – as a leadership team and congregation for the Lord to move through our church and in our city because He controls the outcome of all our efforts
  2. Network – with community leaders and neighbors, showing hospitality, first inviting non-believers into our homes, not to a church service
  3. Listen – intently and document conversations to understand how to address the most critical spiritual, material, and emotional needs in our community and world
  4. Train – members for disciple-making and evangelism in preparation for the countless opportunities sure to arise when we minister to the broken and hopeless
  5. Respond – to real problems like Jesus did each time he encountered those hurting and lost, serving them with dignity, not through arms-length handouts but a loving hand up
  6. Engage – people in the true work of church (GC3Great CommandmentGreat CommissionGreat Calling), not just typical “chores” like greeters and ushers
  7. Welcome – those who sincerely want to know and worship Jesus, including the families our church serves, even though they may not look or sound like “us”
  8. Steward – by keeping fixed costs at bay, not falling into the trap of consumerism, which locks churches into vicious cycles of borrowing, building, and fundraising
  9. Accountability – to keep our church holy and never slip into consumer-driven, self-centered ways of conducting ourselves as a church or as individual believers
  10. Learn – through watching to see what the Lord does within our body and our city, making adjustments yet never veering from our God-given vision and principles

Many pastors and plants initially follow a similar path.  However, Daniel’s commitment was to persist in these practices indefinitely, no matter how large the congregation grew, how busy leaders got, or how risky it became to challenge families (when losing them could jeopardize the church’s financial stability in the face of rising costs).  It would take years of unwavering prayer, care, and share to restore confidence in an institution that was once the lifeblood of communities across America – our nation’s cultural and spiritual heartbeat – but is now widely regarded as a weekly gathering for those with the time and interest.

The Byproduct: Growth

Over the next year, Daniel’s church grew tremendously, not because it was the goal but because it wasn’t a goal.  Entrepreneurs succeed when they’re not focused on revenue growth but on providing great value and service.  Marriages thrive when both spouses prioritize the other’s happiness above their own.  Daniel refused to let himself or his leadership think about church growth, confident it would come as a result of reflecting the sacrificial, unconditional love of Jesus through countercultural, jaw-dropping acts of kindness.  So Daniel’s church…

  • Mentored and tutored students at two public schools in lower income areas
  • Commissioned members to serve as “pastors” of their neighborhoods, first responders in any crisis
  • Trained executives to instill Christ-centered values and chaplains in workplaces
  • Took a stand and spoke out on behalf of marginalized groups facing injustice
  • Volunteered and supported pregnancy centers and trafficking ministries
  • Conducted prayer vigils for law enforcement and victims of violent crimes
  • Rallied other churches and pastors to join them in these transformation efforts
  • Represented the demographics of the city, diverse racially and socioeconomically
  • Was recognized by media and government leaders for its compassion and impact
  • Had greater visibility than much larger churches, without advertising or mailers

Daniel was careful to ensure all local missions activities were built on a foundation of intensive, personal discipleship – not “outreach” that doubles as church marketing.  In other words, he wanted his congregation to act in a spirit of love, obedience, and desire to imitate Jesus.  Daniel knew people would see through any insincere “attractional” or seasonal “check the box” motives.  Nor did he permit a repeat of the failed “social gospel” movement, expecting actions to speak for themselves.  Daniel often said, “When our love opens ears to hear the truth, we need to speak it.”

The Red Flags: Temptations

However, after three years, cracks began to appear in the foundation of Daniel’s church.  His leadership team and the pastors at the main campus hadn’t anticipated and weren’t prepared to manage such explosive growth.  Nor were they ready to confront the following temptations to shift their focus away from discipleship, compassion, and evangelism – the catalysts which had sparked that growth:

  • More demands for the senior pastor’s time for visitations, weddings, and funerals
  • Structure and hierarchies needed to establish boundaries and divvy up responsibilities
  • Investment in systems required to improve efficiency of internal processes like membership, communications, volunteering, and giving
  • Splits and factions due to differing views and worship preferences between generations and amongst the church’s “old guard”
  • New staff hires with critical skills but indoctrinated in prevailing Invite/Involve/Invest church growth models
  • Young families, a target audience, with little time for discipleship or compassion
  • Churches down the road with state-of-the-art children’s ministries to lure parents
  • Community engagement activities that conflicted with scheduled church events
  • Rented facilities too cramped to accommodate all attendees and programs
  • Expenses rising too fast to keep pouring 30% of the budget into local missions
  • Conservatives and progressives differing over what was “sin”, pressuring Daniel to gloss over those topics from the pulpit
  • More non-Christians at services, shifting sermons toward “milk” rather than “meat”
  • Notoriety and public recognition raising external and internal expectations for Daniel’s “performance”

Business executives serving as deacons and elders at Daniel’s church were well aware of these challenges and offered advice.  Daniel began to invest much of his time (outside of sermon prep) consulting experts in leadership, technology, real estate, and human resources.  He read books by well-known pastors and attended conferences to learn how to navigate high growth periods.  Daniel delegated new responsibilities to his leadership team and reorganized around keeping the machine running.  Church priorities, attention, and resources gradually diverted from personal discipleship, compassion, and evangelism to managing operations.

The transition seemed eerily similar to young companies who panic when their laser focus on meeting customer needs spurs demand that soon outstrips infrastructure.  They turn inward, take their eyes off the ball, and lose touch with the market.  Consequently, growth slows.  The only difference for churches is that members are not supposed to be its “customers”.  In this case, the ones paying the bills are actually (Kingdom) employees who should be trained to reach the real, biblical “customer” – those who don’t know Jesus.

It’s Your Turn…

What other temptations (i.e. to see church as a place and members as customers) does church growth (regardless of whether that’s the goal) bring with it?  How has succumbing to those temptations been responsible for the declining growth, impact, influence, and public perception of America’s churches?

 

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