I’ve had the opportunity these last thirty years to be with Rick Warren as he has personally taught well over 400,000 leaders what it means to be a healthy, purpose driven church. In that time I’ve been able to observe some things about how to take the principles of being a healthy church from a philosophy into practice, from something you’d like to do to something you are doing. I’ve learned from watching these thousands of leaders that it takes four things to put principles into practice: message, method, models and mentors.
FIRST, YOU NEED THE RIGHT MESSAGE.
This one may be obvious, but it also must be stated because it is so important. There are a lot of ideas out there about how to grow a church. Many of them will work in one context but not in others or will work for a times but not for the long term. The key to picking the right idea to build on is in looking at the foundation of that idea. While we can learn much from the worlds of business or sociology about how to build a church, those learnings cannot serve as the foundation. Since we’re building Jesus’ church, the foundation is in his message. The principles of church growth that will work in every context and have the power to last are based on the Bible.
Building a church that balances the five purposes given to use by Jesus in the great commandment and the great commission is building a church on the right message. We certainly will have different ways of expressing that message, and every generation must express it in fresh ways. But whatever words, acrostics, pictures or matrixes we use, in the end the purposes of worship, evangelism, fellowship, ministry and mission cannot help but shine through – because that’s what Jesus told his church to do.
SECOND, IT TAKES THE RIGHT METHODS.
The message never changes as it’s based on the Bible, but methods have to change with every culture and generation. Methods have to do with the specific ways you help people to feel welcome when they join you for worship, the steps you use to help people to become part of a small group and the specific classes or seminars you use in your process of discipleship. Most churches have the message right, because Jesus made it so clear. It’s at this point of the methods what we can find ourselves struggling.
There are three main reasons for this struggle. One is that we’re trying to use methods that used to work but have stopped working. Your community has changed, so what worked in the past is no longer working to reach people. Two is that we’re trying to use methods that work in a different culture and not our culture. What works in South Korea won’t always work in America, and what works in America won’t always work in South Africa. But, just to keep us all humble, what works in South Korea sometimes works perfectly in South Africa! The only way to find out is by trying it and assessing.
The methods of church growth usually involve trying at least 10 things that don’t work to find one that will. A third reason for our struggle in finding the right method is honestly our own pride. We have a way that we think should work, and our pride causes us to keep trying to make it work even though it obviously is not working! I would admit that far too often my pride has caused me to try to hold on to a method that’s not working far longer than I should have.
THIRD, YOU NEED A GOOD MODEL.
Because finding the right method can be so difficult, a good model becomes crucial. There is something about us all that needs to see what we’re seeking to become, and a good model can help us to do this. As I’ve watched this over the years, it is obvious that just hearing the right message and even methods is not enough to put change into practice in your church. You also need a good model.
It is a law of human nature that you’ll be drawn to become like the example that you are looking at. I’ll never forget taking a group of leaders from a small church I was pastoring in Northern California to see a larger church in a neighboring town doing a musical production. These leaders all loved music, and took in the sets and the costumes and the powerful singing that was a part of this Christmas presentation with wide eyes and open mouths. We were in a church with eight foot ceilings, so obviously would never be able to do anything like that. But, by the very next year, that little church was doing a Christmas production in a room with high ceilings in the local mall.
All great leaders understand the power of a good model for moving your church to the next steps in its growth. What’s a good model for you? It is the church that is in a similar culture that is at the next step of growth. You can learn from churches that are much larger or smaller than your church, but your model needs to be just one or two steps of growth ahead of where you are. For a church of 500 a good model is a church that has 1000, not 10,000. Once you find that model, it only becomes good by your going to it and seeing it together as a leadership team. What you see is what you will be drawn to become, but that only works when you physically go and see it together.
Years ago, to continue to grow Saddleback needed to move to multiple sites instead of just one main campus with multiple services. So Pastor Rick took our leadership team thirty minutes south to Vista, where Larry Osborn had led North Coast Church to begin worship venues using video teaching and live music. Within a year, we had begun on-campus venues and then regional campuses using video teaching and live music. These last five years Saddleback’s growth has all been because of the twelve new campuses we’ve stated. We are grateful to North Coast Church for the model they were to us!
FINALLY, YOU’RE HELPED BY THE RIGHT MENTOR.
Even with all of the great teaching about church growth and the good methods and models that we have to choose from, many churches cannot seem to turn the corner when it comes to beginning to bring healthy growth. Some of that is of course due to the power of inertia when a church has not grown for many years, which results in frustration for the pastor so that they rarely stay (or are allowed to say) long enough to establish the leadership and trust that is needed for change. Alongside of this, there are also many churches that are planted that see great excitement on the launch pad, but never seem to really take off. Looking at these realities, I believe to the core of my being that there are many, many churches that are right on the brink of the exciting change of beginning to experience healthy growth. We must believe this, because Jesus is building his church – and that includes not just new plants, but every church that calls on the name of Jesus.
One of the keys to this healthy growth is the right mentor for the pastor of the church. We often know the right next step to take, but never seem to get to it with the deluge of ministry that hits us every week. When you’re away at a retreat or conference, taking the next step of starting a membership class for your church seems so obvious – but the busyness of ministry makes it a hard swim upstream once you get home. A mentor can help you with that! If you tell yourself you’re going to start a membership class next month, it’s easy to put that off. If you tell a mentor, it’s much more difficult – because you know they’ll ask you about it. A mentor can help you with much more than accountability, their greatest role may simply be in being a friend. Ministry can be tiring and frustrating, because it requires patience and faithfulness over the long haul. We all need someone in our lives who will say, “Just hang in there one more month, I think God still has a purpose for you there!”
Nothing that I’ve said here is new, but all of it is vital! If genuine change for the sake of growing Jesus’ church is going to happen, it will be empowered by these four things. Here is what you can do about it:
Teach your leaders the message of the biblical purposes of the church.
(Check out the Purpose Driven Church Course coming out this fall which we’ve developed to help you teach this. You can find it at SaddlebackResources.com)
Talk with your leaders about methods that might need to be recaptured or changed.
Take your leaders to see a model of your next steps of growth.
Get a mentor who can help you as a leader.