5 Church Growth Essentials from the Apostle Paul

When I was in seminary Church Growth 101 was a required course. I took interest in the whole field and became a student of church growth. I read a pile of books and attended most of the big church growth conferences. Some of the principles I’ve applied have worked. And some have failed royally. When we look at the early church, though, obviously they did something right. They grew exponentially. In this post I suggest 5 church growth essentials from the Apostle Paul that we see from his first missionary journey.

Large group of people in the form of the church. Flashmob, isolated, white background.

Church Growth 101 from the Apostle Paul

First, a bit of background. At this point in the early church, described in Acts 13-14, we see three significant movements: the main church leader moving to Paul from Peter, the target group for evangelism shifting from primarily Jewish to Gentile, and a move from a rural focus to an urban focus. Paul and Barnabas visited six cities on this first missionary journey.

Principle 1: Rely on the Holy Spirit.

In these two chapters we see the obvious work of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, while not dismissing good leadership, thorough strategic planning, and great outreach events, only God by His Spirit grows the church (Col. 2.19, 1 Cor. 3.7). In chapter 13 we see the work of the Holy Spirit in several ways.

  1. He was involved in the selection of Paul and Barnabas to go on this missionary journey (13.2).
  2. He planted in their hearts the desire to go (13.4).
  3. He gave Paul great courage to confront a wizard who wasn’t too happy that Paul was evangelizing his boss (13.6-12)

So, if you want to see your church grow, make sure the Holy Spirit is guiding and directing your plans and decisions.

Principle 2: Evangelize through your most natural relationships.

When Paul would enter a city, he would make a beeline to the synagogue. Why? Because he was a Jew and Jews would be there. Their common Jewishness bound them together. It was also natural for him to go there first, because the Jews were already religiously minded and Paul could easily talk about what was common between them, the Old Testament scriptures, prophecy, and the longed for Messiah.

Some of the most fruitful ways to grow the church is to find those most open to the gospel, often those already in our circle of relationships.

Principle 3: Stay flexible in your approach.

Paul tailored his evangelism to the group he was with. His method of operation with the Jews was to go to the synagogue and start with the Old Testament.

However, with the Gentiles who had no Jewish reference frame, he took a different approach. In one very pagan city they visited on this missionary journey, they healed a crippled boy (14.8-18). The word spread. A crowd gathered. And because of a Greek legend, they believed that Paul and Barnabas were the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes.

50 years prior a Latin poet had written about a local legend that Zeus and Hermes, disguised as mortals, had once visited the hill country near this city and they weren’t given hospitality. Thus, Zeus and Hermes destroyed the homes of those who refused hospitality. Now, the people thought that Zeus and Hermes had revisited them again (because of the miracle Paul and Barnabas had done) and wanted to avoid a similar fate. So they responded with wild fanaticism by offering sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas in order to appease the Greek gods.

Paul was shocked. Yet, he did not quote the Old Testament to them, as he did to the Jews. He appealed to what they knew, nature and natural law. He spoke of God being the God of creation and the general favor he shows everyone through the rain he provides that waters mankind’s crops.

Paul flexed his approach toward the particular people he was evangelizing. With the Jews he used one approach and with the Gentiles another.

It behooves church leaders to know their communities and to use flexible approaches rather than cookie cutter methods we might learn in a book or at a conference.

Principle 4: Deepen your spiritual roots.

Growing a church is not an either-or proposition, evangelism or discipleship. It is both-and. Paul certainly shared the Gospel. But in these two chapters he’s also encouraging believers to send their roots deep in the Lord. In fact, when the church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas on this trip, the church as practicing two spiritual disciplines: prayer and fasting.

Later Paul encouraged them to continue in the grace of God and encouraged them to remain true to the faith. He was challenging them toward spiritual formation.

I recently learned a great insight about spiritual formation.

Everybody IS being spiritually formed. It’s just a matter of whether or not it is intentional or haphazard. 

Intentional spiritual formation means that we intentionally seek, through spiritual disciplines, to be formed in the image of Jesus.

Unintentional spiritual formation means that we are being passively shaped by the experiences, circumstances, and people around us. Such spiritual formation yields little good fruit and potentially, bad fruit.

So, growing a church requires that leaders give attention and intention to spiritual formation.

Principle 5: Don’t bend to resistance to the Gospel.

Throughout history, when the Gospel changed lives, resistance was sure to follow. Paul repeatedly faced resistance to his work, while at the same time many responded positively to the Gospel. In chapter 13.49-50, many came to faith while at the same time those in opposition began a smear campaign against Paul. Did he and Barnabas leave town? No, they spent considerable time there.

In another city (15.1-2) the people stoned Paul and left him for dead. Fortunately, he didn’t die. Did he leave town? No. The Scriptures say that he went back into that very town.

So, when you see God bless your church with growth, don’t be surprised to experience resistance as well, sometimes even from within.

God wants the Church to grow. He wants your church to grow. And He will grow His church as we apply biblical church growth principles we see in the book of Acts.

What other biblical church growth principles should we add to this list?

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When People Compare Pastors

Many pastors secretly struggle with measuring up to very successful pastors and churches. It’s tough, but it comes with ministry. People compare pastors. In this post I suggest a few ways to deal with this “measure up mentality.” I begin with one pastor’s experience. He received this e-mail from someone in his church. The names are changed to protect the innocent (uh, I mean the guilty).

comparison

Hi Pastor Jim:

Sharon S. here. How are you? I have been meaning to send you a note for quite some time and tell you about a pastor in California that I thought you might be interested in. Yeah, I know. If I were you I’d be rolling my eyes about now. But I must say, this guy is awesome and has challenged me personally in my life over the last year.

He has pastored [God’s Favorite] Church just outside [Utopia] for about three years and has grown it from 150 people to over 3,500. I have never seen a young guy with such a passion and a heart for God, willing to go against the “appropriate” evangelical grain and just teach the scriptures.

He just started a new series a week and a half ago. I am going to attach the first message because I would love for you to listen to him.  I can’t tell you how many people I know listen now. His name is [Gabriel, the archangel]. He has some of the best teaching I have ever heard on leadership in the church, justification, and some other tough subjects. He is a lot like [another famous pastor], who is his friend and a Facebook “fan” of his. Anyway, I have felt led to connect you with [Gabriel] for a long time. I’m not really sure why. Take it for whatever it is worth. 

Sharon

Pastor Jim emailed this response back.

Dear Sharon,

Thanks for reminding me that my preaching is subpar. It’s great to know that people in my church are making sure they get podcasts from somebody who will never know their name or answer their encouraging emails.

You’ve really made my day. I was studying for this week’s message when I got your note (I’ve already spent twenty hours on my sermon). I immediately stopped to download his magnificent sermon. It’s also wonderful to know that his church has exploded in growth; as you know, our attendance declined by 3% last year because people like you stayed home to watch guys like him on TV!

Gotta go finish my shallow sermon.

God’s blessings on you,

Pastor Jim

Pastor Jim didn’t really send this e-mail. He only wished he had.

I admit that at times this ‘measure up mentality’ has sucked my joy out of ministry, especially when I served in the U.S. I serve in Canada now and find this less of an issue here.

I’ve applied some simple ideas below that have helped me keep my joy even when I felt that I didn’t measure up in the eyes of others. Perhaps they will encourage you as well.

  • God made me who I am. I may not be a world-class leader, a ‘blow you a way’ preacher, or as creative as most, but I must appreciate, embrace, and faithfully use the gifts and competencies He has given me.
  • He has placed me where He wants me to be. I must accept that and do my best with the opportunity He’s provided.
  • I must not dismiss or cutoff those with whom I don’t measure up. We will never please everyone and such people will probably stay in our churches.
  • It’s ok to take care of my valid needs. I can’t change what other people think about me, make them like me, or force them to approve of me. I can, however, take care of the body, soul, and spirit God has entrusted to me. In doing so, I then become the best pastor and leader He has created me to be.

This old King James Version verse has encouraged me as I’ve faced the ‘measure up mentality.’

Psa. 62.5 My soul, wait thou only upon God; for my expectation is from Thee. 

In my third book, People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership, I deal extensively with how to manage this ‘measure up mentality’ as it relates to the temptation to people please.

How have you handled this ‘measure up mentality?’

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6 Faith Qualities Every Leader should Embody

Hebrews 11, one of the greatest chapters in all the Bible, lists several faith heroes from the past and includes details about their lives that evidence great faith. We often refer to this chapter as the ‘faith’ chapter. It offers leaders profound insight about faith that we must believe and embody to effectively lead. I suggest these 6 faith qualities every leader should embody.

Compass with arrow pointing to the word faith. 3D render image suitable for religion or self confidence concept

6 Faith Qualities Every Leader should Embody.

  1. Faith pleases God.
    • The write of Hebrews begins the chapter by reminding us that  God commended the ancients for their faith (v 2). He emphasizes that idea with, Without faith it is impossible to please God (v 6). If we want our leadership to please God, we must exercise true faith and trust in Him.
  1. Faith does not eliminate uncertainty or discomfort.
    • Verse 7 recounts God’s command to Noah to build an ark. Up to this point Noah had probably never seen rain. Yet, he exercised faith when he built a giant boat on dry land. Verse 8 tells us that God told Abraham to go to a place he had never visited before nor even seen. Yet, he obeyed in faith. Both of these biblical characters faced great uncertainty, yet showed great faith.
    • In fact, when we exercise faith (take a step into uncertainty) we actually may feel a bit fearful or anxious because our brains don’t like uncertainty. When we face uncertainty the fear centers of our brains cause specific hormones to enter our blood stream and certain neurotransmitters to increase in our brain which creates anxiety and even fear. So, a step of faith as a leader may initially cause us emotional discomfort. It’s normal. It’s a biological process we can’t avoid. Feeling such emotions doesn’t necessarily reflect lack of faith.
  1. Faith takes the long view.
    • When God told Abraham to go to a new land he, was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God (v 10). The secret of Abraham’s patience was his hope in the ultimate fulfillment of the promise of God. His ultimate Promised Land was heaven, just as ours is.
    • Even in verse 13 the writer of Hebrews tells us that these faith heroes,  were still living by faith when they died and that, They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance (v 13). Leadership requires that we take the long view of ministry, not rating our ministry success by the inevitable short-term setbacks.
  1. Faith confronts the impossible.
    • In verse 11 we read about God’s promise to Abraham that he and Sarah would have a son, although he was 99 and she was 90. Such a pregnancy at their age seemed humanly impossible. How did Abraham reconcile that? I love what Kent Hughes says.
    • “He weighed medical probabilities of them having a child at such an old age (humanly impossible) with the divine impossibility of God being able to break his word and decided that since God is God, this would not be impossible.”

    • He goes on to make this insightful point. “We are not to indulge in fideism—faith without reason—or rationalism—reason without faith. We are to rationally assess all of life. We are to live reasonably. When we are aware that God’s Word says thus-and-so, we are to rationally assess it, [believe God at his Word, and obey] my notation.”[1]

    • Sometimes ministry challenges seem impossible to hurdle. Faith gives us the courage, however, to confront those impossible challenges.

  1. Faith requires sacrifice.
    • In verses 17-19 God asks Abraham to do the incredible, to sacrifice his promised son. Abraham had never seen a resurrection but reasoned that God must be able to raise him from the dead. Unknown to Abraham, God had other plans all along (He had prepared another sacrifice). But his faith prompted him to act sacrificially. Healthy leaders recognize that leadership often requires great sacrifice.
  1. Faith enables perseverance.
    • In verses 32-35 Hebrews lists the incredible successes of several biblical heroes who exercised faith. By human standards the heroes in this list were true winners.
    • Fortunately the writer doesn’t end this chapter there. He pivots to a new list, a list of those who also exercised great faith but experienced horrible difficulties. Yet, These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised (v 39).
    • Sometimes we lead at our best yet see little or no progress, experience great heartache, and feel like giving up. During those times, perhaps the supreme mark of genuine faith is our courage in the face of such difficulties.

Every leader must lead with great faith. Those who have gone before us model what it means to lead with such faith.

What have you learned about faith and leadership?

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[1] Hughes, R. K. (1993). Hebrews: an anchor for the soul (Vol. 2, p. 100). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

 

12 Powerful Questions Pastors should ask about Effective Leadership

In the book First, Break all the Rules, by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, they list 12 core questions the Gallup organization discovered that when asked, give organizations the information they need to attract, focus on, and keep the most talented employees. I’ve included them here as a helpful set of questions about effective leadership pastors should ask themselves and ask about those who serve on their staff.

Speech bubble with the word questions on white background.

12 core questions about effective leadership

  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my church make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

Questions have a way of making us think deeply.

What questions would you add to this list?

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Is Skipping Church Good for your Soul?

I’m a pastor. Pastors are supposed to go to church. So I go to church, several times each week. I’ve done that for decades. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve missed church by choice. But one weekend I added to that handful of misses. I skipped church. Was skipping church that day helpful or hurtful? Read on and you decide.

truant

My daughter had come to visit us over the Labor Day weekend and I scheduled one of our other pastors to preach at the weekend services. We took a long weekend at a lake house about 50 miles from our home.

The last time we took a long weekend we all went to church, a very boring one. This time however, I simply decided I wouldn’t go. To be frank, I felt a tinge of guilt because my wife will tell you I’m always the one pushing us to go to church while on vacation.

But for some odd reason, I didn’t push us this time.

So what did I do that Sunday morning? I sat in a swing and read my bible. I cut some dead limbs off a tree. I chatted with a neighbor. I exercised on my treadmill. I practiced the art of ‘slowing.’ And I really liked it.

Although I’m deeply committed to the local church and won’t make skipping a habit, I leaned a few valuable lessons.

  1. Skipping church reminded me that pastors’ schedules keep us from normal weekends that most families experience. Sundays (and Saturdays if you hold services) are our biggest work days. But, it’s not all about me and I will gladly stay faithful to God’s calling.
  2. Those not in pastoral leadership roles will never understand this sacrificial part of our profession because when they want to skip church, they easily do with no repercussions. And when they do, most don’t even think twice about skipping.
  3. An occasional ‘break from the Sunday routine’ can refresh a soul and help avoid pastoral burnout.
  4. I now truly understand how hard it would be for someone who has seldom attended church to give up his or her Sunday mornings and start attending. I really enjoyed having that Sunday free.
  5. Number 4 above reminded me that we pastors must craft compelling, Spirit-led services if we are to entice the unchurched to attend and keep attending. What they experience at church must be worth the price of giving up their relaxing mornings at home, at the lake, or at the ballpark. We may only get one shot.
  6. Pastors need  a sabbath too. Since Sundays aren’t ours, we must prioritize another day for rest. I now take Saturdays off and I was reminded that I must truly rest on that day.

If you’ve ever played hookey from church, I’d love to hear what you learned.

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