A long time ago, a famous novelist wrote the immortal lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of time, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.”1 Charles Dickens’ inspiration perhaps came to him when he struggled to describe his homeland’s socio-economic state, at that particular period in human history. Nonetheless, Christian leaders all over the nation can borrow the same words to describe the state of their ministry. On one hand, it is the best of times due to technological breakthroughs that made it easier to travel and communicate over long distances.
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On the other hand, it is also the worst of times, as social issues and advancements in human thought made it easier for people to live in isolation, shunning the need to build communities and reaching out to those in need.
A significant decline in church membership consequently increases the number of the unchurched and the frustration of Christian leaders mandated to reach the lost. I am willing to take on a difficult ministry challenge, but I learned from past experiences, as well as from an in-depth understanding of key biblical narratives, and a personal amalgamation of the insights produced by numerous studies, that success comes if revival is the impetus for church growth, not the means to an end. When revival is the driving force for church growth, it compels a change in leadership style and overall approach, forcing the pastor to acknowledge that conventional or traditional schemes inadvertently become barriers to the accomplishment of related goals.
A Challenging Call to Ministry
A comprehensive survey of US-based church ministries yielded a disheartening revelation. Survey results revealed that on average, an American pastor is not expected to serve beyond a four year period, as a shepherd to a flock of believers.2 In other words, personal challenges and other issues force him or her to resign or exit in disgrace. Pastors are expected to behave like saints, while at the same time, they are compelled to perform well under tremendous pressure.
Corporate executives need only worry about the organization’s financial statements. In contrast, Christian leaders routinely contend against numerous adversaries. They are presumed to have the capability of demonstrating the true meaning of grace under pressure, and assumed to come out as overwhelming victors in a battle against personal and ministry issues. They are also expected to excel in different areas of leadership, such as the capacity to deploy superior communication skills and the ability to manage limited resources.
A pastor may get the boot so-to-speak if he ignores the need to improve interpersonal skills regardless of his ability to stretch a meager budget. A pastor is in danger of losing his post if he does not know how to deliver well-crafted sermons, regardless of the personal sacrifices that he had made to take care of a church in a middle of nowhere.
Jonathan Falwell expressed his respect and admiration for selfless leaders serving to protect and nurture God’s sheep and lambs, and he said that pastors are some of the hardest working people in the world.3 He went on to honor this special breed of men and women, but from a certain vantage point, Falwell’s remarks leave little doubt that those who are not called by God to serve as shepherds will eventually find it impossible to sustain a short stint as the leader of a local church.
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It is imperative to point out that even confident and gifted leaders are not assured to receive and enjoy the rewards accorded to a successful ministry. This assertion finds evidentiary support in the stagnant growth of well-funded and well-organized churches across the nation.4 It does not require a rocket scientist to figure out the high level of inefficiencies and wastage, that are exemplified in churches with large buildings, large staff, and little growth.
Although the state of church life and church growth in America leaves much to be desired, the same research findings that painted a grim reality based on a record of actual accomplishments and embarrassing deeds, the same knowledge acquisition process also revealed insights that Christian leaders may find useful in order to turn things around. These studies produced insights regarding the leadership styles, strategies, and mindsets utilized by successful pastors of thriving and growing churches. Thus, a clear understanding of underlying principles combined with sensible biblical insights may lead to the creation of an effective church growth framework.
It has to be made clear that the deployment of an integrated solution is the primary key to success. This requires the coming together of separate but interrelated elements in the context of leadership style, strategy-making, vision casting, and a deeper appreciation of the significance and value of the Great Commission.
Solution Part A: Revival as the Driving Force: Reinterpreting the Great Commission
Research findings reveal the importance of the Great Commission as a primary driver of growth, maturation, and influence. Church growth experts like Rainer and Falwell are absolutely correct in stressing out the negative impact of ignoring the need to develop and deploy programs and strategies built around the concept of making disciples. This error in judgment ultimately yields to stagnant growth and obsolescence.
It is tantamount to the removal of evangelism programs and other activities that act as catalysts to reach out the unchurched. A church without evangelistic tools or the desire to use one easily gets distracted with other pressing concerns, and after years of going around in circles, church leaders wake up to a reality characterized by inefficiency and missed targets. This is an obvious fact. However, the more critical issue is the realization that even the stringent application of evangelistic tools does not always guarantee stellar results. In fact, the mere compliance to a certain standard and the need to hit certain church growth related numbers are behaviors and attitudes that are going to produce the same lackluster results regardless of the availability of programs designed to go after the unreached.
Pastors with successful turnaround strategies are wise in avoiding church growth frameworks that tend to encourage or induce the members to evangelize on the basis of a reward system or the threat of punishment. This type of mindset is best understood through the discussion of a popular motivation paradigm called the carrot and stick method. In this particular worldview, leaders view subordinates as unmotivated workers that are not going to move forward in the absence of a threat of punishment or the promise of a reward. This belief system is often caricatured with a mule struggling to carry a heavy burden. In most cases, the animal is carrying the task master holding a stick that looks like a fish pole, and tied to it a carrot that is dangling is dangling in front of a mule. The taskmaster’s left hand carries a wooden implement ready to punish the animal at the slightest display of disobedience.
It does not require a behavioral scientist to realize the short-term impact of the carrot and stick method. Nevertheless, church leaders inadvertently employ the same method when they attempt to inspire people by talking about the rewards of fulfilling the Great Commission or the promise of damnation for ignoring the same. It is not prudent to utilize the same approach as the absence of a sustainable impact prevents the establishment of a certain lifestyle or a way of life that perpetuates the deployment of evangelistic strategies.
Mothers are zealous in guarding and nurturing their loved ones without any external motivation. Therefore, the continuous and fervent application of evangelistic tools is made possible through a community that loves God and loves people with a certain degree of passion and focused zeal5. Church growth experts label this kind of spiritual environment or interaction as a spiritual revival.
The simplest way to describe a state of revival is to imagine a group of people saturated with the presence of God. This is the reason for using terms like “revival flood” or “revival fire” as a way to explain the phenomenon. For example, a flood is a natural occurrence characterized by a sudden rise in water levels. Without warning, a flood affects the lives of a large number of people. The unexpected impact of rushing water brings with it a cleansing force. The same thing can be said about revival’s spiritual fire that cleanses the soul’s of men. Aside from igniting a fire that burns towards a greater intimacy with God, revival fires tend to have the same effect when it comes to interpersonal relationships.
In his book entitled Revival Flood, Gregory Frizzell highlighted the fact that revival is not only an explosion of intimacy with God, it also means God-glorifying relationships.6 Frizzell made known the reason to fervently pray for revival, and he wrote: “Patterns of serious family breakup improve dramatically. By the millions, broken lives and relationships see glorious healing. Social improvements and missions explode manifold. In a great flood of revival, evangelism and global harvests explode through the roof!”7 Pastors must view evangelism through this prism. It is not mandatory to seek out a national revival that affects the lives of millions of people. However, it is possible to experience the same level of intimacy and power within a community setting.8
Solution Part B: Leadership Style
The title of Thom Rainer’s book said it all. He made a bold claim and supported it with a well-designed data acquisition framework based on a qualitative research approach. Thus, when Rainer made the following assertion through the book’s title: “Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them” he was not just plucking ideas out of the blue. He supported his arguments with facts.
The lessons he learned are useful in the implementation of a turnaround strategy that are supported by biblical principles, common sense and the insights gleaned from the day-to-day experience of a Christian leader. Suffice it to say, Christian leaders eager to discover the proven methods for reaching out the unchurched should consider reading Rainer’s book, especially the sections that detailed the impact of leadership in the quest to reach out the unchurched.
Rainer said that leaders of unchurched-reaching churches are theologically conservative in their approach. This means that pastors of successful congregations have a deep understanding of how sin separates humanity from a holy God.9 He added that these pastors value personal holiness, integrity, prayer, personal Bible study, the ability to institute change, and the need to lead by example.10 If this information comes across as abstract, then, try reading between the lines as the author described the leaders’ habits and personal preferences. For example, Rainer listed the most influential books in the lives of these leaders and it is possible to create a leadership profile based on insights gleaned from this piece of information. Consider for instance the type of leadership produced after meditating on the contents of the following books:
- Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church.
- Oswald Chamber’s My Utmost for His Highest.
- J. I. Packer’s Knowing God.
- Jim Cymbala’s Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire.
- Robert Coleman’s The Master Plan.
- John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
- Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps.
- C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.
At the top of the list is a tome that talks about purpose. It seemed to reveal the correct mindset in order to implement church growth strategies. However, Rick Warren’s book is not an endorsement on the wonderful benefits of strategy-making, because it talks more about intentionality rather than the need to develop tactics or measurement frameworks for the purpose of goading people towards a specific goal. This assertion is supported by a key discovery in the aftermath of Rainer’s research endeavor. He said that successful leaders in the context of reaching the unchurched ascribe to a leadership style best described as intentional.11
The intentionality factor explains the proactive approach to self-improvement and to rectify problems related to church growth. One can argue that in order to emulate the examples of the leaders at the helm of unchurched-reaching churches, pastors must be willing to adopt a leadership style that is not much different from the results-oriented secular leadership exemplified by the corporate world. In other words, an intentional leadership style does not only inspire confidence, it also sheds a powerful light into church activities that are inefficient or irrelevant.
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Before going any further, it is of crucial importance to point out that although an intentional leadership style mimics certain qualities of successful CEOs and managers of secular organizations, successful pastors are not all about hitting target goals at all costs. This idea comes from insights into the core values and aspirations of unchurched-reaching pastors, after considering the implications of the books that profoundly shaped their lives.
Rick Warren’s books talks about intentionality and the importance of practical leadership skills. However, the books written by Chambers and Packer underscored the critical value of pursuing greater intimacy with God. On the other hand, Coleman and Bunyan’s masterpiece accentuated the importance of seeking the lost. Sheldon and Lewis’ book stressed the impact of personal holiness. Finally, the pastor’s reading Cymbala’s book hungered for a spiritual revival to awaken their respective churches from the crippling impact of apathy and bland devotion.
Taking everything into consideration, everything rises and fall on the actions of leaders.12 However, it is not enough to adopt a pragmatic and intentional style of leading the flock. Successful leaders of unchurched-reaching organizations develop strategies based on revival principles, and they inspire obedience through a pursuit of greater levels of intimacy with God and heightened desire for personal holiness.
Solution Part C: A Strategy of Offense: Plowing, Planting, Harvesting
An intentional approach leads to a proactive stance regarding ministry challenges and ministry issues. It is enough to point the pastor to follow a certain path. Nevertheless, a few steps into the journey reveals a circular pattern caused by unmotivated movements. It is not enough to have a vision of an unchurched-reaching organization seeking the lost and embodying the lifestyle of a revival-oriented community.
A strategy is less abstract. It is far from a tangible framework that leads to guidelines and goal posts. However, it is enough to help the group envision the kind of organization that they are going to build in order to accomplish specific goals. In this case, the strategy-making process must begin with a “back-to-basics” mindset in the context of the first century church.13 This approach encourages leaders to study how first century Christians established a community of believers while maintaining a healthy evangelistic lifestyle that paved the way for the evangelization of the known world during ancient times.14
It is a wise decision to follow this model, because of two primary reasons. First, it is a biblical model of growing and sustaining a thriving community of believers. Second, it is a proven effective method as evidenced by the multiplication of believers during the first one hundred years of Christianity.15
The first thing that grips your heart when you look into the ancient model of church ministry is the absence of formal organizations. Most of the meetings were done in secret due to the persecutions that they experienced from the authorities. Moreover, meetings were made in people’s residences. At the same time, food was central to the meetings. This kind of lifestyle was evident even before the Christians were dispersed throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, because this was exemplified by Jesus as he informally conducted teaching sessions outside the temple walls.
In many instances, the Bible recorded the evangelistic activities of Jesus and his apostles in the homes of eager followers and potential disciples. Peter’s mother-in-law was healed presumably in her residence. Nicodemus, the despised tax collector secured an audience with Jesus at his residence. Jesus frequently visited Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in their home located in a village called Bethany.
The first century church did not develop and deploy a rigid church program that was expected to give rise to expensive mass evangelistic efforts. They did not operate as strangers reaching out to other strangers. In fact, the early church was characterized as a “covenanted community of God’s people” as the source of all evangelism and mission.16 It was described in the most beautiful of terms “as a community of support of families and individuals, relating to one another.”17 Church people during biblical times were not only thinking about the church as a family of believers, they also think about the church as a group of people related by blood or by some form of social affinity.
The ancient church was populated by relatives, siblings, members of the same village or tribe. It was an organic expansion that produced a distinct type of community that is different from a modern day urban church filled with church-hopping members. There is nothing wrong in opening church doors in order to welcome church-hopping members moving from one church building to the next. However, in order to reach the unchurched, it is imperative to develop an organic growth process that encourages members to build relationships with family members, relatives, friends, co-workers, and neighbors.
The multiplication of members using an organic approach is a biblical model exemplified in the first few pages of the New Testament. When Mary understood the ramifications of her supernatural pregnancy, she went straight to her cousin Elizabeth. This is a natural reaction for people grappling with life-changing events.
From a practical standpoint, it is easier to share the gospel to family members, friends, and relatives as compared to total strangers. It also makes a lot of sense, because it is hard to trust someone without sharing something in common with them. Thus, in the biblical narratives, the spread of Christianity was sustained within family circles and jumps from one person to the next using the shortest connection between two individuals. In other words, a successful transmission of the gospel occurs in close proximity when a prior relationship already existed. Defenses are lowered when people are talking to someone they know or love.
It was no accident or the product of random occurrence for Jesus to be able to minister to Peter and the fisherman’s mother-in-law. It has to be made clear that Jesus had a prior encounter with Andrew, Peter’s brother. The Bible also revealed that James and John were siblings. In addition, James and John had an established relationship with Peter because they were in some sort of a business partnership within the context of Galilee’s fishing industry.
Intentional leaders are not going to settle with generalizations. They are going to sift through current research findings related to church growth and insights on how successful Christian leaders utilize information and knowledge acquisition tools. As a result, intentional leaders are not going to rest easy and issue a general order to share the gospel to family members, friends and co-workers.
Intentional leaders are going to develop a strategy based on the revelation that a married man is more likely to visit a church because of the influence of his wife.18 It is important to follow this up with statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor affirming that women are more likely to volunteer than men.19 It is also imperative to connect a related pieces of information revealing the high number of families choosing a specific church because of a Sunday School Program that provides a safe and clean environment for the delivery of sermons and information dissemination platforms.
Solution Part D: A Strategy of Defense: Post-Harvest, Protection, and Nurture
A strategy based on an organic expansion that deliberately utilizes family and other personal connections must never view the harvest stage as the end-point of the journey. Leaders must never rest on their laurels after potential disciples made the commitment to serve and worship in a particular local church. A post-harvest program is also in order. Intentional leaders are aware of Christians leaving through the backdoor. It is of critical importance to also develop a defense strategy. It begins with the pastor and ends with the application of cost-efficient strategies that ensure the spiritual well being of all the members of the church.
Intentional leadership protects and nurtures the flock. However, everything is for naught if the pastor is unable to deal with frustrations, conflicts, and stress. A pastor must establish an appropriate and effective support system all throughout his ministry years. This is made possible by continuous learning and the establishment of a mentor-mentoree relationship with someone that the pastor can trust with his or her life. The pastor may use the same principles to develop a similar framework to encourage, protect, and nurture the members of the flock.
An integrated solution calls for the coming together of separate but related elements in terms of establishing the vision, assuming a certain leadership style, and the implementation of an offensive and defensive strategy based on the principles of revival. However, it begins with a clear appreciation and understanding of the “revival flood” or “revival fire” that elevates the congregation to a higher level of intimacy towards God and a greater degree of love and compassion for the unchurched. Once the motivations to reach out to the lost has been clarified, an intentional leadership style creates strategies based on biblical models of church growth. It is an evangelistic model that underscores the value of personal relationships. However, it is not enough to implement strategies that ensures a great harvest of souls. Intentional leaders plan ahead for the requirements of the post-harvest season, especially the need to protect and nurture the members of the flock.20
Adeney, Frances. Graceful Evangelism. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.
Bloom, Harold. Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007.
Falwell, Jonathan. “Overcoming Discouragement in order to Lead.” In Innovatechurch, edited by Jonathan Falwell, 11-19. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2008.
Frizzell, Gregory. Releasing the Revival Flood. Union City: The Master Design, 2005.
Hemphill, Ken and Paula Hemphill. Splash: Show People Love and Share Him. Traveler’s Rest: Auxano Press, 2007.
Rainer, Thom. Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Robinson, Darrell. Total Church Life: How to be a First Century Christian. Nashville, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997.
Wheeler, David. “Outreach: Back to Basics in Strategic Planning.” In Innovatechurch, edited by Jonathan Falwell, 117-130. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2008.
Willmington, Matt. “Leading the Volunteer Family,” In Innovatechurch, edited by, Jonathan Falwell, 45-62. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2008.
- Harold Bloom, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007), 1.
- Jonathan Falwell, “Overcoming Discouragement in order to Lead,” in Innovate Church, ed. Jonathan Falwell (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2008), 11-19.
- Falwell, Overcoming Discouragement, 11.
- Thom Rainer, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to ReachThem (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 33.
- Ken Hemphill and Paula Hemphill, Splash: Show People Love and Share Him (Traveler’s Rest: Auxano Press, 2007), 3.
- Gregory Frizzell, Releasing the Revival Flood (Union City: The Master Design, 2005), 2.
- Frizzell, Releasing the Revival, 10
- Rainer, Surprising Insights, 150.
- Ibid., 153.
- Ibid., 152.
- Darrell Robinson, Total Church Life: How to be a First Century Christian (Nashville, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 56.
- David Wheeler, “Outreach: Back to Basics in Strategic Planning,” in Innovate Church, ed. Jonathan Falwell (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group), 117-130.
- Ibid., 118.
- Frances Adeney, Graceful Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 18.
- Rainer, Surprising Insights, 49.
- Matt Willmington, “Leading the Volunteer Family,” in Innovatechurch, ed. Jonathan Falwell (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2008), 45-62.
- Hemphill and Hemphill, Splash, 3.