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The Nuts and Bolts of Church Growth

Justin Juntunen

Justin Juntunen

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It’s Flashback Friday and we’re happy to bring you this Cutting Edge article from Winter of 2008.

Rich Nathan and Jeff Heidkamp take some time to discuss the practical Implications of growing a church.

Rich Nathan is the senior pastor of the Columbus Vineyard and an internationally known writer and speaker on a remarkably wide variety of topics. Under his leadership Columbus Vineyard has grown to over 7,000 weekly attenders, and has become a major influence for the kingdom in it’s community. They have planted 22 churches, established a massive community assistance center, seen hundreds come to Christ, founded the Vineyard Leadership Institute, and contributed deeply to the Vineyard movement as whole.

We talked to Rich about the topic of church growth, starting with the importance of growth and then getting into some of the nuts and bolts of effective church growth leadership.

Why is church growth desirable? Why do we want our churches to grow?

Because God loves people. It’s not for our ego, it’s not because we are insecure and need lots of folks to bolster our sagging self-esteem. It’s not because we are competing with other churches and just want to say “Our church is bigger than your church.” It is fundamentally because God loves people and wants to see people rescued from hell and redeemed in this world. God in the bible goes after the one lost sheep. He is the Father who seeks out the lost coin. He is the Father who welcomes back the prodigal son, so he loves people. And God commands us to go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in “so that my house will be full.” Church growth is biblical! He tells us to go into all the world preaching the Gospel.

What about the person who says, “The size we
are now is perfect. We don’t want to add any more people. We’re just going to plant churches and spin new congregations off.”

Not wanting my church to grow probably betrays a mindset that I don’t care about the lost at
 the level that I need to. I care more about the experience of community. I would begin to ask questions like, “How comfortable are you with change? Are you afraid that you cannot navigate change?” I would be asking questions about somebody’s need to control what God is wanting to do. If we believe that growth is the will of God, then it’s really a non-negotiable.  Certainly, a person could say “My passion is for church planting, and we are just going to keep spinning out churches, so we may not ever be a thousand people strong,” but even with that, the reality is that people are not like rocks that you can just move as you will. People form relationships.  How do you keep from growing is you are doing all the things that we need to do to build a church? I don’t think you can prevent churches from growing if you are doing the things that God leads you to do. I have talked with lots of pastors who say “I think the ideal size church is 500, and we are just going to give everybody away after that.” I’ve always thought to myself, “How exactly do you do that?” I’ve not been successful. There are reasons that people are going to your church. They are finding God there, they are finding community, their kids are connected. Folks are not easily uprooted.

What do you think, then, that the responsibility of the lead pastor or church planter is in regards to growth?

First, they need to actually assume responsibility for growth. The lead pastor has to put him or herself on the line and be accountable for growth. That means that you put yourself on the line to
 be embarrassed or risk failure. That’s an uncomfortable position, so people would rather say, “The Vineyard Movement is responsible to grow my church, and I’m very angry with the Vineyard because my church is not growing.” Or “God is the only one responsible to grow the church, or some other factor outside of my accountability.”  So the first thing the senior pastor has to do is assume responsibility, and by that I mean making it public.  You are not assuming responsibility for anything unless you publicize it. Any change in your life, any recovery – if you are going to say that you are going to repent of alcoholism or pornography, that change won’t occur until you publicize it.  The same is true for growth. You have to publicize it and put yourself on the line.

The second responsibility is the responsibility to work hard. Church growth is hard. I’ve never seen any growing churches where the pastors weren’t really hard workers. I think pastors have to be willing to push back against their congregations. Most people care about their own maintenance. Folks care about their own comfort.  It is hard work to get a congregation to lean toward outsiders and to lean toward outreach, even when congregations say they feel that way.
The price of readjusting fellowship groups and change and the discomfort to the kids becomes too high. A pastor needs to lead the people where the people may not really want to go naturally, and to be willing to push back against the inertia of the church. Pastors have to learn how churches grow.

Let me throw a couple of objections back at you that I’ve heard when this topic comes up. “Rich, you just don’t believe in the sovereignty of God. God determines the size to which my church grows, not me. Why are you pressuring me to do something that’s not my job; it’s God’s job.”

I think everything in this world is cooperative. Unless you are hyper-Calvinist, you probably believe that we are called to cooperate with God regarding the things that God is doing. So it is absolutely the case that God gives the growth, according to 1 Corinthians, but we have to plant and water. God is the only one who saves people, but we have to evangelize. That is true in every area. God is the Healer, but we have to stretch our hands out and actually lay them on somebody and pray for healing. God has arranged the world in such a way that He uses us human beings to accomplish his will in the world.

One of the pictures I really like in terms of cooperating is Rick Warren’s illustration. I think it’s in The Purpose-Driven Life. He says that church growth is like riding a wave. Many of the church growth books teach you how to build a wave, but only God can build a wave. What we can learn, however, is how to ride the wave that God is building, how to surf the wave. That’s what I try to do as a pastor.  I am trying to get out in front of the wave that the Lord is building. I can’t build it. But I can cooperate with it, or I can miss it all together and stand on the beach. One of the ways to discern what God is doing in building a wave is just to ask the question, “Where is the church experiencing surprising growth?” We can’t just simply steal someone else’s program. But in your community, in respect to what God is doing with your people, where are you experiencing surprising growth? They are the strangest things, the most unplanned happenings!

Let me give you one example from Columbus Vineyard.  We have a woman in our church, now in her early fifties, single. She came to me seven or eight years ago and asked if she could do a dance class for singles, and I said “sure.” She would report on it. There were twenty-five or thirty singles that would get together on Friday nights and dance, and that was just fine. We didn’t invest much in it, and it just went along. Then all of a sudden singles from around the community started coming, and she had 350 singles coming to a singles dance. Now, even a blind squirrel can find a nut every once in awhile, and I thought, “God is doing something here”. Surprising growth. So what we did was to go into the class and started to organize the class according to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life book that was hot at the time, and we got about 200+ singles to go through the book together in these groups, experience small group life, and build a bridge to the church.

Well, in almost every church, whether it’s that larger thing or something smaller like, “Wow, the teen group seems to have more blessing on it than what they expected for a church our size” or “We seem to have open doors in this particular apartment complex” or whatever it is.  So look for places of surprising growth and then capitalize on it.

Some pastors will say, “We’re doing well in that area, we need to concentrate on some other area that’s not doing so well.”  What I’m saying is that where you are doing well, that’s where you invest. Ride the wave until it’s done. That to me is following the leading of the Spirit. God is obviously putting his hand on something, so invest there.

What are some of the main reasons, when you look around, that churches get stuck and are not growing?

I think that a lot of churches and pastors don’t want to grow. They say they want to grow, but as Peter Wagner pointed out years ago, there is a price to growth. Part of the price is pastors learning to delegate, and that means giving up control. We pastors love to control everything. Now the church has to open up leadership circles, and that means that we might have to change our role. The people who were at the core of the church plant might have to step aside and let other people in, or more gifted people advance.  So there has to be a release of control by the pastor and a release of control by the people, and that release of control is sometimes a thing that people don’t want. We have to be willing to change, and that means breaking up very comfortable groups in order to birth out small groups.  Growth means change.

We have to prioritize growth. If something else other than growth is prioritized, we almost never grow. If we say, “Well, really the priority is community” then we will probably experience ingrown community, because biblical community has to result in growth and mission.

I think that Vineyards struggle is with basic guest-friendliness. We have, in our history, wrestled over the issue of what Sunday morning is for. Is Sunday morning for only the faithful? Is Sunday morning for renewing the faith? Is Sunday morning going to be both for Christians and non-Christians? What are we going to do with our Sunday morning meeting? Churches that want to grow have to use their Sunday morning well.

Front to back, what are some of the blind spots you’ve seen?

The length of the service – almost nobody who
is a seeker is going to be able to sustain more than an hour and a half. The length of worship – a person who is not a mature Christian will not be able to stand in worship for forty-five minutes. The pastor’s message – does it connect and relate to the visitor or the seeker? Is the pastor doing the basic task of 2 Timothy 4 – to preach the Word and to do the work of an evangelist? Sunday morning is not to share a dream that the pastor had last week. Pastors need to stick with really main and plain themes with lots of life application, and an awareness that there are people in the midst who are seekers. I try to salt and pepper my messages with what I call “gospel sound bytes”, brief explanations of what God has done for us in Christ and brief apologetic sidebars.

Talk about the relationship between evangelism and church growth.

Evangelism should lead to church growth. Church growth is people being made into responsible church members, and there is more to church growth than evangelism. There are so many things that pastors need to think about to grow the church – delegating, assimilation, hiring, Sunday mornings. But there are several things I think about in the category of evangelism.

I wonder how many Vineyard pastors are pulling the trigger on Sunday morning and inviting people to come to Christ. I was at a meeting recently in the UK, and one of the pastors said to me, “You Americans come over and you talk about growth, but you need to understand our situation is different. We don’t get seekers coming to church on Sunday morning. In America, people are used to a church culture and they come out for church. That doesn’t happen in the UK.” So we chatted about that, and other folks responded to it who were seeing guests come to their church, and I just thought, “Here we are; we’re at this conference with quite a lot of folks at the conference from churches,” and I felt a leading from the Holy Spirit to invite people to come to Christ at this Christian conference. Now, this would be one of the last places you would expect to have lots of non-Christians. But we had between 25 and 30 people receive Christ. I had them stand publicly at the conference. There was a fellow from a Muslim background who received the Lord. Lots of folks came up and told me that it was absolutely the case that they had never received Christ before. There are people in our churches, in whatever culture we are in, with whom we are not being clear enough about the Gospel, nor have we invited them to pass from darkness to light.  So the pastor needs to pull the trigger, and he needs to model evangelism and take risks, and keep inviting people to come to know Jesus.

What would you say to the person who says, “I know all 30-50 people in my church, and I know that they are all saved, so why should I call them to Christ on a Sunday morning?”

Because you are modeling for folks what you are going to do, which will encourage them to bring people. Tri Robinson, pastor of the Boise Vineyard, shared with me some years ago that when his church was really small and he thought he knew everyone, he felt led to say to the church, “Look, I know all of you, but I’m going to do this anyway, because I need the practice.” What actually happened as a byproduct is that people said to themselves, “Well, Tri is going to be sharing the Gospel; I’m going to invite my friend because it’s done in such a powerful, positive way that they might hear it.” So he actually created an appetite in the church to be bringers and includers.

We communicate that at our Newcomers Class. We say, “Look; evangelism can be a real cooperative thing between the pastor and the people. I commit to you that I am regularly going to be inviting people to come to Christ. It is difficult sometimes in the workplace to get into a full-blown, soup- to-nuts discussion about the Gospel because you actually are paid to work. But if you will commit to invite people, I will commit to try to be as welcome and gracious and inviting as possible, and to explain what God has done for us.

Evangelism does involve more than pulling the trigger on Sunday morning. It means equipping the church to be inviters. It also means having an outward focus and to me it really comes down to the nature of the church. What do you believe the church fundamentally is? I believe Bonhoeffer’s definition that the church fundamentally exists for Christ and for the world. It does not fundamentally exist for itself. So that mindset that we are not primarily here to meet our own needs; rather, we are here to be available to Christ and to be servants to this world. That changes the way we do church. That drives a whole set of decisions, about what you pay for, what you build, how you build, how you structure Sunday, how you do children’s ministry, etc. etc.

In churches that I watch that are especially good at evangelism, they do lots of programs that are evangelistic. You say it’s more than programs; it’s a culture and a ‘feel’ to the church. How do planning programs and events fit with developing an outward-focused church culture?

The programs spring from the inner conviction that “this is what the church is supposed to be about”, and the programs then reinforce and give expression to that inner conviction. Without the program there is no real-world expression.

I can say all day long, “This is what I believe”, but unless it’s worked out in program, it doesn’t have the tangible expression. So for us, the way that this idea the church exists for Christ and for others works out in expressions like the building of a community center, putting our money behind these kinds of activities. It’s by opening a free medical clinic. It’s by constantly doing battle with many of our small group leaders who say “I want a closed group”, saying, “Let’s go back. We don’t exist for ourselves. We exist for Christ and for others. So we are not going to close off our groups.” We’ve had to fight that battle for twenty years.

A frustrated pastor can say “We’re doing friendship evangelism; we aren’t doing a lot of programs and stuff.” But you would argue that if the nature of the church is for the world, it will work out into programs.

It has to. People have to see it modeled, and they have to catch it in the culture of the church
in order to engage in friendship evangelism. Friendship evangelism springs out of the soil of an outward-focused church.

Let’s think about developing leaders. How does a pastor who wants to grow a church lean toward leadership development? What does that look like?
Everything is going to show up in a pastor’s diary and a pastor’s budget. What is a pastor doing to raise up new leaders? Is at least a part of your week given to mentoring some other young leaders? Are you taking at least a couple of hours weekly or bi-weekly to actually train them? If it’s not showing up there, it’s not showing up. I’m constantly asking the question, “How can I give away what God has given to me? Or am I just responding to crises and fires?”  At some point, I need to step away from running the machine and start developing a group of leaders. The Holy Spirit spoke to me fourteen years ago when I was complaining before the Lord and saying, “God, the church is growing quickly and you told us in Matthew 9 that we should pray to the Lord of the Harvest to send out workers into the harvest field. We don’t have enough workers, so I’m praying to you, Lord,” and the Spirit of God spoke to my heart and said, “Rich, you will not be able to reap where you haven’t sown.” I came away reeling from that prayer, and I meditated on that, and realized that most of our leaders had been stolen from other systems and re-tooled as Vineyard leaders. We stole them from InterVarsity, we took them from different seminaries, from Navigators, from other churches, and just sort of readjusted their DNA and made them Vineyard. But that just wasn’t going to work long-term, and that’s why we started VLI. We said, “We’ve got to raise up our own.”

I know that for younger leaders or those on the front end of church planting, the question is “Am
I developing leaders or am I just hanging out with friends?” If I’m spending a bunch of time with four people that I’ve got on a list, how do I know if what I’m doing is developing leaders?  There is some level of intentionality in the meeting. Am I trying to press into some skill acquisition, talking about that? Am I trying to press into some character development? Hanging out is hanging out, but is there some intentionality to the meeting? And does the other person realize that I might have an agenda? I’m pretty up front about those kinds of things. Obviously, you don’t come to everyone announcing the agenda if you think the person is not ready for it. But even when my church was small, in our meetings I would say, “Here’s my agenda; I want to develop three new small groups, and
I want to help us really learn what it means to be a small group leader.” We met on Saturday mornings for five or six years, meeting with dozens and dozens and dozens of guys in the church for a few hours, really getting to know each other’s hearts, growing in trust relationships. We read through some books together and just chatted about how you care for people and who are we as a church and what are we trying to sow by way of values.

So you weren’t afraid, even at that small size, to be a leader, not just a buddy.

Which comes to a very fundamental issues regarding church growth, and that is being secure in your calling – that you are called to this work and this place. I think there are lots of pastors who are insecure at a very basic level regarding calling. You are called to leading, and you either are or your not.

What do they do with that insecurity?

I think that the only one who can heal us ultimately is Christ. So we have to go to Him and do whatever we need to do to get whatever level of healing we need. It’s different for different people. Some people need very little to be assured that they are called to pastor and called to this place. Others need a massive amount. I did. I was so stuck in my life. I had this whole life going, teaching at Ohio State, in the flow of life. I needed a lot to convince me that that wasn’t the life course God had for me. But whatever you need, you’ve got to get it. It’s not just a matter of weighing pros and cons; you can’t go beyond your level of faith. It’s something internal in a man or woman’s spirit, something that says “I know that I know that God has called me.” Until you get that, I think you are always operating on thin ice, because you don’t know that there is “money in the bank” that you can lay hold of when you need it, that sense that when push comes to shove, God is going to back up your act. You need to spend enough time with God, doing whatever you do – biting the carpet, crying, begging, walking, journaling – until you are convinced that God really is going to come through for you.

How does the area of Holy Spirit ministry relate to church growth?

It’s the area where we are in least control. The other kinds of things technology and human dynamics can produce. But I can’t fake a healing. I can’t make a prophetic word happen; that just drops to the floor. The Spirit’s ministry constantly needs to be stirred up. That’s why I talk in terms of ‘leans’. I think that compared to the church, the senior pastor ought to look like he or she is pushing too hard. You ought to occasionally get somebody coming up to you saying, “You know, you are pressing just a little hard on evangelism.” You ought to occasionally get complaints! If everybody is always really comfortable, you probably aren’t leaning far enough. It means that you’ve accommodated yourself to the comfort level of
the church. A common theme when I ask pastors of growing churches about this is to be ready for and expecting some opposition from people, over and over, from tons of people.  Growth means change, and change is uncomfortable.

So at Columbus Vineyard, with 7,000 people, you have people complaining because you want to grow the church too hard?

Too much change, racial diversity, why can’t
we just have closed groups…I had dear friends who by the grace of God I had led to Christ many, many years ago, and discipled, who came to me and said, “You need to understand that this press you have about racial diversity that just keeps coming up is not even on our radar screens, and we are going to go to one of the church plants that is much more comfortable for us.” So there is constant change, and
 huge pushback.

Some pastor has this in his or her heart, they’ve tried really hard but their church is just stuck, and they are really discouraged. How would you encourage them?

I would get with some really encouraging pastors. There are times when we just have to steal somebody else’s faith. If you can’t create a fire, steal somebody else’s! There are lots of times when we are just riding on other people’s faith. I respect this person enough to believe that they’ve heard from God about me, so I’m going to trust them and what they are doing.

The other thing is that people need to pay attention to the whole of their lives. Folks who are experiencing burn-out probably have gotten mono- focused and are not paying attention to their friendships, their emotional batteries and their physical lives. Many years ago, I was experiencing chronic depression but didn’t know it because I just put my head down and kept working. I could not remember the last time I’d experienced any joy. I was just a flat as a pancake. One of the things the Lord led me to do was to put together a list of things I enjoy doing. I looked down the list and there was nothing on it that I could say I was without a doubt doing. Reading for pleasure rather than reading for a purpose. Hanging out with friends where at the end of the evening I didn’t have to do a deliverance. Every time we had people over for dinner, it turned into a ministry time. There was no balance. Marlene and I weren’t taking walks together. So I would want to make sure I was doing some self-care.

I think a lot of young guys get discouraged because they aren’t working very hard and they are not seeing any success, and it’s depressing not to see anything happen. I see some of them go to the well of recreation over and over. Can you speak to the other side of that?

The flip side is that there are not a lot of “quit” verses in the bible. People keep feeling these leadings from the Holy Spirit to cut back or to quit, and there just aren’t that many verses like that. Most of them are about perseverance, about “he who endures to the end will be saved” and “through many tribulations we will inherit the Kingdom”. So there is absolutely a call to persevere and to lean in.

What are your favorite resources as far as growth is concerned, and what’s your grid for picking resources?

One principle I use is that I want to connect with practitioners as opposed to consultants. We’ve had a dreadful experience over the years with consultants that we’ve hired, spent thousand of dollars, basically having reflected back to us what we told the consultants. I would want to sit down with men and women who had actually done it, who I feel
 a kindred spirit to. I would go to their churches. There is something about catching the momentum. For a lot of men and women who are pastoring churches that aren’t growing, part of the problem is that they’ve never been in a growth situation. So they might have been raised in a small church. They only know the ethos of a small church, so they don’t know how to think a different way. I’d want to go to some of the seminars by churches that are growing. We’re going to do another “The Church That Works” seminar here in Columbus this year. Rick Warren has done some similar stuff. Obviously you’ve got to find something with which you are philosophically compatible.

I would try to develop some friendships, and hit people up: “Would you be willing to answer my emails? Would you take a phone call from me? If I traveled out your way could we talk? Could my team come out?” The best resource is a real live human being who is a practitioner. I would not read anyone who does not have a profound love for local churches.

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