The Most Overlooked Key to a Growing Church

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loveI believe the most overlooked key to growing a church is this: We must love unbelievers the way Jesus did. Without His passion for the lost, we will be unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to reach them.

Jesus loved lost people. He loved spending time with them. He went to their parties. From the Gospels it is obvious that Jesus enjoyed being with seekers far more than being with religious leaders. He was called the “friend of sinners.” (Luke 7:34) How many people would call your church that?

Jesus loved being with people and they felt it.  Even little children wanted to be around Jesus, which speaks volumes about what kind of person he was and what kind of pastor he’d be. Children instinctively seem to gravitate toward loving, accepting people.

The honest reason many churches do not have a crowd is they don’t want one! They don’t like having to relate to unbelievers. Attracting a crowd of unbelievers would disturb their comfortable routine. Selfishness keeps a lot of churches from growing.

The command to love is the most repeated command in the New Testament, appearing at least fifty-five times. If we don’t love people, nothing else matters. “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

I like to ask the new converts I baptize “What attracted you to our church family?”  Out of all the people that I’ve asked this question, I’ve never had one person say, “It is because of the Reformation theology you believe.”  No one has ever said “It was your beautiful buildings” or “It was your full calendar of activities.” Instead, the most common response was “I felt an incredible spirit of love toward me that drew me in.”

Did you catch the focus of the love in that sentence? Many churches are full of members who love each other but still the church is dying or at least not growing. In a small church, the fellowship can become so tight that newcomers are unable to break into it. They have a wonderful fellowship among the members but they don’t have a love for unbelievers.

It is simply a myth that large churches are always cold and impersonal, and small churches are automatically warm and loving. Size has nothing to do with love or friendliness. The reason some churches remain small is because they aren’t loving. People want to go where love is.

Love draws people in like a powerful magnet. A lack of love drives people away.


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Rick Warren About Rick Warren

Rick Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., one of America's largest and most influential churches. Rick is author of the New York Times bestseller The Purpose Driven Life. His book, The Purpose Driven Church, was named one of the 100 Christian books that changed the 20th century. He is also founder of Pastors.com, a global Internet community for pastors.

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  • Bobbi

    Pastor Rick,

    It seems you can’t write without people making assumptions about your ministry strategy or motives. This was a wonderful article that was clear and encouraging. I will take it for what it says…. I will not twist what you said…. because I know that you believe “loving” leads to repentance- (It’s his Kindness that leads us that way isn’t it?)…. and I’ll also believe that you are not against small churches… because nothing you said should cause people to make that kind of judgement. Today I am thankful for my little problems over the ones you must face! Thanks for your consistent strength.

  • A. Amos Love

    Was wondering…

    “church” is mentioned many times in this article and in many comments here.

    Does the Bible ever mention …
    “growing a church? – “many churches do not have a crowd?” – “your church?” – “our church family?” – “the church is dying?” – “large churches?” – “small churches?” – “Small Church pastors?” – “big church pastors?” – “church pastors?”

    In the Bible – Did anyone ever…
    Go To Chruch?”
    Join a Church?
    Plant a Church?
    Tithe to a Church?
    Give silver, gold, or money to a Church?
    Build a building with a steeple and cross and called it Church?
    Become a Paid Professional Pastor – in a Pulpit – Preaching – to People – in Pews?

    Can anyone describe, or give a definition of what “church” means – From the Bible?

  • A. Amos Love

    Was wondering…

    “The Lost” are mentioned in the article and in some comments here.

    Who are “The Lost? I mean – In the Bible, Who are “The Lost?

    What is popular is not always “Truth.”
    What is “Truth” is not always popular.

  • Shane Haffey

    Hi Rick, A wise man once said that your best friends in life are the ones who tell you the most truth. Jesus did spend a lot of time loving sinners and It seems to me he loved them with truth. In many examples it was Christ’s willingness to speak truth that brought them to recognize their sinful nature which led to salvation. Not all accepted the truth and often we don’t hear of them again. I agree with you that we are to love the sinner, but doesn’t loving them have to include a proclamation of the gospel? Love and truth are inseparable. One without the other is meaningless. The gospel has divided mankind since Genesis because the very nature of truth IS that it divides. I think we have to be careful that our message does not get lost in the translation. If I run into your house in the middle of the night and pull you out of bed by your hair dumping you in the street but failed to tell you there was a fire I imagine you would be quite upset with me. Should we not yell fire while we are loving the lost? After all, what good is “love” if in the end they just get burned?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/lambert.katz Lambert Katz

    YES!!!! and…..We at Into Thy Word have been theaching this for 30+ years, jonnie come latly ….http://www.intothyword.org/pages.asp?pageid=56863

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Keith-Kraska/1110311843 Keith Kraska

    When the Pharisees asked Jesus’ disciples why He ate and drank with the lost, He answered for them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to
    repentance” (Luke 5:32).
    So Jesus’ purpose was not to hang out and have a good time, but to call unbelievers to repent. Yet I rarely see that part quoted when this story is told. If Jesus is our example, when we reach out to the lost, shouldn’t we call them to repent as He did?

  • Jimmy Rippy

    Karl, you actually made yourself a great example the point being made in this article.This article is about not becoming so focused on ourselves that we forget to love those outside of the church. Yet, here you are defining and comparing yourself by your church size – that’s evidence of inward focus. Our focus should not be on whether we’re a part of a big church or a small church, but whether we’re accomplishing the mission. Mk 16:15

    • Karl Vaters

      Hi Jimmy. I’m not quite sure I follow your point. How is acknowledging that my church is small, an inward focus? We are small. That’s just an acknowledgement of the facts. Rick’s church is big. That’s just reality, too. If I followed it by saying we’re more loving because we’re small, that would be an inward focus. But I don’t.

      The problem comes, not from identifying our church size, but from saying any size of church is right or wrong, good or bad, loving or unloving. I serve a loving, welcoming small church, Rick serves a loving, welcoming big church. We’re both part of the mission to reach the world. That’s all I was saying.

      • Sabrina

        The statement that small churches remain smal because they have an inward focus and are not welcoming to the unsaved is insulting to say the least. Tell that to the thousands of small church pastors and congregants that are extremely active in a loving outward focus in all their relationships. People who give of themselves to their unsaved friends and acquaintences in the work place and in their neighbourhoods. Such a statement is judgemental. While it MAY be true of some it is definately not true of most. I have pastored a small church for many years and i know a lot of small church pastors and this is not true of most. You are painting with too large of a brush my friend! I would hazard to guess that there are some large churches that are growing not because of any huge outward focus but simpky because they are large and visible just as I would also say there are some churches that are growing for all the right reasons.

        • Sabrina

          My response was to Rick, i am agreeing with Karl.

  • Joe

    I need advice. I love God and have accepted Jesus as my Savior and was baptized. I have a sin habit in my life and my willpower is not strong enough for me to overcome the temptation that haunts me. What do I do to overcome the power of sin? I am confused because some sin habits fell off without effort. I lovr God so much and feel I have a bad testimony. Thanks for your help Rick. God bless.

    • Jon Lange

      Joe, try prayer and fasting–it works.

    • Justin Godwin

      It would also be ideal for you to find another guy that will be honest with you with whom you will hold yourself accountable. Meet with him weekly, or so. With the prayer and fasting suggested by Jon and the new-found accountability you will not have to rely solely on your own will power, but by the guidance of a mentor/friend and the power of the Holy Spirit.

  • Karl Vaters

    Rick, I love you, but I have to comment on this paragraph. “It is simply a myth that large churches are always cold and impersonal, and small churches are automatically warm and loving. Size has nothing to do with love or friendliness. The reason some churches remain small is because they aren’t loving.”

    It’s also a myth that Small Churches are small because they are unloving. A myth you perpetuate in this post, Rick.

    In the second sentence in that paragraph you state “Size has nothing to do with love or friendliness.” I agree. Then you immediately contradict yourself in the next sentence. You say size does have something to do with love or friendliness when you say “The reason some churches remain small is because they aren’t loving.”

    Rick, I serve a loving, vibrant, outward-focused Small Church. I don’t assume your church is unloving just because it’s big. (I know it’s not. I’ve been there.) Please don’t assume mine is unloving just because it’s small.

    • http://pastors.com/ Rick Warren

      Karl, thanks for sharing your heart. I assure you I don’t assume your church is unloving because it’s small. Notice that I purpose chose the word “some” churches remain small because they aren’t loving. Others remain small for many other reasons and small isn’t bad.

      Keep leading your loving, vibrant church well, Karl!

      • Karl Vaters

        Rick, thanks for your response. I believe you. We’ve never met, but I’m an OC minister myself, so we have a lot of ministry friends in common. I’ve seen your generous heart for ministers and churches of all sizes.

        The problem with your article is that it doesn’t say what you just said in your reply to me – that small isn’t bad, and that there are many loving, Small Churches out there. The assumption the article leaves, when read on its own, is that Small Churches are small because they’re unloving and selfish.

        Take a quick look through it again, and you’ll see what I mean. Every reference to a Small Church has a negative idea attached to it (we don’t want a crowd, we don’t love unbelievers, don’t want our comfortable routine disturbed, newcomers can’t break in, selfishness…). I know you say that’s only some of us, and I believe you mean that – after all, you dedicated The Purpose Driven Church to your bi-vocational heroes. But your point would be reinforced if you also acknowledged the thousands of loving, welcoming Small Churches.

        I work with a lot of Small Church pastors. Many of them think big church pastors look down on them. I’m always trying to tell them this isn’t the case, but articles like this make it harder.

        Thanks for listening. We’re in this together.

        • http://twitter.com/Tina37520 Tina Lot

          It may make things harder for you, but majority of your congregation is saved, backed by bible teachings with less outreach potential given your situation (nothing wrong with that, Body of Christ working all over). I would assume from the way you stand up for the fact you are a loving community, even though it’s small, it’s an Awesome place for the Lord to work. What Rick is saying will appeal to the non-believers who have more of a notion against some smaller churches that tend to focus more on picking apart others than teaching Love. It’s a form of necessary persecution that will bless you, especially if you see the greater good is playing out for a harvest at hand! Though you speaking your perspective is important in this setting to remind all of us on the same team that yes small churches are full of love too!

        • Bobbi

          Karl, I’ll have to respectfully disagree. I believe Rick’s words came across clear. In the last few paragraphs words like “some” and statements like “In a small church the fellowship can become” leave us with a good reminder of what things can become. I think he was clear. He answered your previous response and reaffirmed that he isn’t saying what you are claiming.

          • Karl Vaters

            Hi Bobbi. It looks like we may have to agree to disagree on this – in an agreeable manner (which you have done, and I appreciate).

            I don’t believe Rick was talking about ALL small or non-numerically-growing churches in this post, either. But the impression it leaves is that he thinks it applies to most of them. After all, the title says it’s “The MOST Overlooked Reason…”.

            Maybe this will help. Do the flip-test on this. What if someone wrote a piece entitled “The Most Overlooked Problem in Megachurch Growth”, then went on to say it was lack of love. Would it be enough that they used the word “some” in the post, or wouldn’t the word “most” in the title leave readers with the impression that the writer meant MOST megachurches are unloving?

            Or what if you flipped the phrase you referenced. Change the phrase “In a small church, the fellowship can become so tight that newcomers are unable to break into it.” to this: “In a megachurch the fellowship can become so corporate that newcomers are unable to break into it.”

            Technically, both phrases are true, but wouldn’t the second phrase leave the impression that the writer had an ax to grind against megachurches? I’ve read such pieces, and that is the impression they leave. And they’re wrong.

            I don’t believe most megachurches are unloving, even though I’ve been in some that are. I don’t believe most small or non-numerically-growing churches are unloving, even though I’ve been in some that are. In either case, how much they love has nothing to do with their size – or their growth.

            Some churches are unloving and don’t grow. Some are unloving and do grow. We need to guard against lack of love in every church. But, like Rick says, size has nothing to do with it.

      • http://www.facebook.com/ipa.shelterhouse.3 Ipa Shelterhouse

        Thanks pastor rick..You made a right point, Christ was the friend of sinners and He lived without sin. Imagine if we have a scenario , many of us will fall-instead of prostitutes turning to Christ, we will join them(atleast many of us). Souls are important and God adds them to the UNIVERSAL CHURCH-I believe we should be very careful with our conversation with unbelievers and sinners after all “We should be careful that we don’t fall

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