This is the final post in a three part series interacting with Ray Evans’ book Ready, Steady, Grow. In the first post I reviewed this very helpful book looking at how to grow your church, in the second post I suggested three reasons why a church might not grow that were not the focus of his book and in this final post I ask three further questions related to the issue.
4. Is growth always desirable?
Another suggestion, woven into the structure of the book is that churches progress if they go from small through to large, and that this is the best way to grow. Evans argues ‘the wise use of scarce resources (money, time and ability) means that growing a large church may be better than developing many smaller churches, all of which need gifted speakers and leaders to take them forward.’ I don’t find the logic of the argument compelling. Further thinking needs to be given to considering the question of whether growing large churches is the way to maximise gospel effectiveness. Whilst some churches remain medium to awkward size because they can’t grow, others remain that size because they choose to give away growth. The approach our church has taken in Birmingham, along with a number of others in the city, has been to pursue growth through multiple church-planting. The result has been the multiplication of gospel witness as we minister in more communities across the city. By working closely together we also ensure ideas, resources and vision can be shared. We reach many more people, raise up many more leaders and mobilise many more members into ministry than we could as a single congregation. It is a decision to grow, but to grow through multiplication, and is a decision at the same time not to grow quite as much as a mother church.
5. Is growth achievable given our current resources?
Evans says ‘great leadership is about character and skills combined.’ True enough, but for growing a church, a third aspect of great leadership cannot be overlooked, and that is gifting. Ready, Steady, Grow does not address to what extent the reason a church does not grow is the God-given limitations of the leadership. I use the word limitation advisedly because I do not want to suggest in any way that a limitation is a failure. Do some churches grow because God not only gives gifts but the measure of a gift? We ought to expect leaders to be leading to their full potential, and yet be leading different sized churches. We ought to expect the gift-mix that God has given different leaders to enable them to serve congregations with different dynamics.
Leaders can be made to feel guilty if their churches are not growing – how many dread the question ‘how many attend your church?’ Measure of gifting can be a blind-spot in thinking. Some leaders have simply been unable to recognise that reality. It’s not an easy thing to recognise our own limitations, and that perhaps the greatest barrier to further growth might be me!
For some churches, if the desire of a congregation is growth through to large church, a leader may need to demonstrate leadership by appointing someone more gifted to pastor a larger church. Learning to lead may well mean leading through the leadership of others.
6. How important is contextualisation for church growth?
One significant factor in growing Biblical churches that is not the focus of Evans’ book is contextualisation. Many churches don’t grow because they (no longer?) are able to effectively engage their communities. The apostle Paul memorably wrote ‘I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.’ Until and unless we recognise this issue, growth will be limited.
Tim Keller has commented that ‘culture is complex, subtle, and inescapable.’ The consequence is that if we want to grow our churches, we must always be deliberately thinking about our culture. Keller concludes: ‘No church can be all things to all people. There is no culturally neutral way of doing ministry. The urban church will have to choose practices that reflect the values of some cultural group . . .nevertheless, the ever-present challenge is to work to make urban ministry as broadly appealing as possible and as inclusive of different cultures as possible.’
If our churches are to grow, sooner or later we need to help leaders engage with culture and contextualise faithfully to their ever-changing communities.
The contents of this series first appeared as a review for Foundations Journal.
In an earlier post I offered a short review of Ray Evan’s excellent book on growing churches Ready, Steady, Grow. No one book is likely to tackle every issue related to barriers to growth. In this post and one further post I offer six reflections not addressed in Ray’s book on what stops churches from growing.
Six reflections on growing churches (part 1)
Ray Evans provides us with an excellent introduction to an overlooked issue. For the simple truth is that church leaders do feel ill-equipped to lead their churches through change, and particularly the transitions involved in gospel growth.
His experience of leading a church for a long time through the stages of growth also ensures that this is no theory book but one written out of experience. His insights will open eyes to see what otherwise may have gone unseen and yet all along had been inhibiting growth.
Whilst this book suggests many good answers to some of the issues that face church pastors, there are a number of issues related to growth, that also need to occupy the mind of a leader, which remain unaddressed by the book.
1. How do we address the reality that many churches don’t desire the changes necessary to bring about growth?
The book is written for leaders already committed to growing a church, and it presumes at least some level of commitment on the part of church to the need to embrace change in order to grow. As a result, the focus is on strategies for growth. However, many leaders need wisdom to know how, when, and in what ways to challenge a prevailing culture of a church, through the gospel, so that change becomes the desired prerequisite facilitating growth. Evans does touch on this issue but, for example, just three pages are given to considering how preaching grows a church. Church growth begins in the heart of every individual member and growing a church begins with preaching to change hearts that begin to change and grow churches.
So, one might imagine resistance to church growth coming from the obvious costs involved. Breaking through barriers of growth can be costly in terms of relationships as new structures necessitate new teams, and costly in terms of financial stability as staff are appointed in advance of any growth to help facilitate it. How do we motivate members? How and when does growth become a de-motivator for individuals? These questions are as significant as any others in managing growth.
2. Might church growth be a barrier to church growth?
It would also be of interest to many to consider one dynamic at work in larger churches that might actually acts against and inhibits growth in the life of the individual Christian, and that is the opportunity for discovering and developing gifting. In larger churches, certain opportunities are rarely available to members who otherwise would be offered them in other sized churches. As a young man I was preaching within two months of attending a church of 60 people; in the church I now pastor it is more likely to be 5 years before a young man with an embryonic preaching gift could expect a pulpit opportunity. Later, when planting a church from scratch it was a privilege to witness individuals stepping up to take opportunities and responsibilities that they would never have dreamed of in a larger church. How then do we recognise and raise up gifted leaders in our larger churches?
All this demonstrates that growth can inhibit growth. Growing in numbers makes growth in young leaders a much greater challenge. Our response in Birmingham has been to prefer planting new congregations to growing a larger single church.
3. Is church growth inevitable?
A danger inherent in any church growth book is the implicit (and often unintentional) suggestion that churches ought to grow and will grow if we can only get our leadership right. Whilst Evans is clear in his closing chapter that God alone gives the growth, some consideration needs to be given to the dynamics at work on the church, as well as in the church, that make growth difficult in many contexts.
Twenty years of gospel ministry teaches me that there are certain forces at work in our culture that makes growth uneven. Some ministry contexts are a much greater challenge than others. Many minsters in rural contexts cannot expect to keep young men and women who, priced out of the market, cannot afford to live in the community once, say, children come along. Some churches have witnessed significant changes in the ethnic make-up of their communities and struggle to meet the challenges of what is almost a mission context, and so on.
(The material contained in this post first appeared in my review of Ready, Steady, Grow for Foundations Journal.)
I was invited by Ralph Cunnington, the editor of Foundations to review and interact with Ray Evans’ book Ready, Steady, Grow for the autumn 2014 edition. Do take a look at the journal which can be downloaded for free here but I’m also setting out the content of my article in 3 posts on the blog.
This first post will offer a summary of the book’s content and then in the next couple of posts I will address a number of issues that impact growth that Evans did not directly address.
Many gospel churches are not growing, yet, they could be, and they should be. That’s the argument of Ray Evans’ book Ready, Steady, Grow, written out of a conviction that ‘too many churches stagnate in their growth, or even derail in their gospel proclamation, because of problems that could be overcome if they just knew how.’ Whilst this is decidedly not a book on church-growth techniques, Evans shares what has worked in his own thirty years of ministry whilst always guided by biblical principles and practice.
The unique selling point of the book is its focus on the challenges involved in understanding the changing dynamics at work in our churches as they grow through different sizes. Quite simply, leaders underestimate and often fail to grasp altogether how the size of a church impacts the very way they must lead in order for the church to fulfil its purpose. Acts 6 is presented as a case study of ‘diversionary confusion’ in which leaders battle the challenges thrown up by church growth. Organizational complexity requires careful consideration if a church is not to be unsettled or even undone by the problems of growth.
Central to the argument of the book is that it is a failure to grasp the dynamics of growth that leads churches and their leaders to get stuck at a certain size of church. It’s not easy for churches to transition from small to medium, and medium to large, and they certainly won’t unless growth is understood and church structures adapted. Of particular help to my own thinking is the description of a stage between medium and large sized church, described as ‘awkward’ size. Whilst not a description unique to Evans, his analysis of the stage of church life where a church is too large to be pastored by a single pastor, or for everyone to be relationally connected, yet not large enough to adopt the structures inherent in a large church, will prove helpful for many. Evans also gives some consideration to responding to a resistance to growth sometimes found in congregations as a result of a church culture that is inherently too cautious and risk-averse, or simply a congregation unwilling to change.
Ray Evans confesses to be an ‘everyday leader’ in an ‘ordinary town’ who has nevertheless overseen a growing church and taken that church from small to large. That experience shows in the wisdom offered to help leaders and churches overcome ‘spiritual and practical blockages’ that arise from ‘confusion, numbers, complexity and complaints.’ The combination of insights from Scripture alongside common-sense wisdom is a winning one.
Having set out his thesis and offered some general reflections on leading through change, Evans goes on in the second half to show how for a church to grow, and grow through barriers, leaders need to be able to ‘work on areas of the Christian life simultaneously.’ He sums up those areas that require our attention under the heading of three ‘M’s’: maturity, ministry and mission.
For churches to grow, all three must be constantly in view, church members must share that commitment to growth in each but ‘it also needs a ‘top-down’ lead and practical organization, which leaders must facilitate.’
In this short review I will highlight just one insight from each area in turn.
Growing to maturity
The impact of organisational complexity in a growing church can be felt in Evans’ observation ‘if you grow large, you have to grow small at the same time’ because ‘if large attracts, small keeps.’ Any large church must, at the same time, be a church of small groups if individuals are to grow. What is lost on a Sunday must be celebrated through the week as small groups become the place where relationships flourish and where individuals are given the time and opportunity to contribute, something not easy to do in the dynamic of large church.
Serve in ministry: getting teams mobilized
When it comes to serving in the local church meeting the challenge of growth requires a recognition that people have to be trained to serve in a new way. A culture-shift needs to take place across a congregation from generalisation to specialisation, from individual relationships to formalised teams and from wisdom caught to teams trained. Again the issue of complexity arises: how do you recruit a team, train a team, motivate a team and keep a team now that relationships are not the glue to service?
Reach out in mission
I’m grateful that Evans donates three whole chapters to growing in mission. These chapters are further enhanced in that the end of each application is directed to the different categories of size of church. So, Evans’ insights of the danger facing growing churches that they will turn in on themselves, once they are financially viable and ministry needs are all being met. He also recognises that growing churches tend to develop new ministries, new ministries call for a greater time commitment from members. So much so that over time a growing church with ‘an overcrowded schedule may be slowly cutting off a key outreach strategy.’
This book is an important addition to a leader’s library. It is a particular encouragement to me that a good resource on growing churches has been written by a British church leader. That has been long overdue. There are few, if any, books written for UK churches by experienced leaders who have grown their congregations through the challenges and transitions.
Looking for help in buying the best commentary? Here’s an excellent resource to guide you to the best commentaries to buy on each book of the Bible. Whether you’re looking for an introductory or more technical commentary all levels are covered and each is well introduced.
(HT: Justin Taylor)
Here’s a summary of Brad Lomenick’s take on the next generation of leaders in the church and his reasons for optimism.
- Passion for God
- Willing to work together
- Don’t care who gets the credit
- Generosity and sharing are the new currencies
- They understand the holistic responsibility of influence
- Authenticity wins
- Not willing to wait
- See social justice as the norm
- Seeking wisdom and mentors
- A change the world mentality
(HT: Matt Perman)
When it comes to gospel ministry, and particularly a pioneering, church-planting, ministry, Paul asks the kind of question that everyone is thinking; who is equal to such a task? (2 Cor. 2:16). It’s the perfect question for any new congregation starting out together. We know that Paul preached the gospel with great boldness and confidence, a confidence that seems to motivate him, enable him and sustain him. And his second letter to the Corinthians is a letter all about the right and wrong kinds of confidence in ministry. Consider how often the word ‘confident’ or ‘confidence’ occurs. Ten times in the book as a whole e.g. 5:6, we are always confident and 5:8, we are confident.
Where does confidence for church planting come from?
In our culture – we talk of a self-confidence. Here’s Tracey Emin in her own words: I’m not your average woman, and I’m not going to live your average woman’s lifestyle. I set up the rules for me. I set up the perimeters. I have nobody telling me what to do. Former world champion boxer Chris Eubank exuded a self-confidence when he famously said: I have no vices. I am a hero. Go and look it up in the dictionary and you will find a picture of me.
I don’t doubt that in a group starting a church there are some very capable people. Gifted, skilled, equipped, trained, motivated but the danger will be a reliable on our own abilities, a self-confidence that breeds a self-reliance. A wrong confidence.
For the Apostle Paul confidence is found elsewhere. Paul answers his own question (2:16) in 3:4 Such confidence we have through Christ before God.
In this post I want to reflect a little on what a gospel-confidence is and then in my next post what a gospel confidence looks like in the life and ministry of a new church.
1) Gospel confidence
There are only two fuels you can put in the engine to fuel ministry, ourselves and our own talents and abilities or Christ and his gospel that saves. I’m sure you noticed how, for Paul, confidence is through Christ and before God. A better translation there is ‘toward God’. In other words Paul looks to God for his confidence rather than in himself for his confidence. So here’s the principle in planting; our confidence is entirely God-given. It comes from the gospel.
What does a gospel confidence look like? It’s recognising that our competence in ministry is entirely God-given. Paul says, 3:5, Not that we are competent to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from GOD.
Gospel ministry is beyond our resources or abilities. No wonder Paul asks, 2:16, who is equal to such a task. You and I cannot open the eyes of the blind. We cannot give life to the dead. Our confidence can’t therefore be located in is not in our website, or our music, or our small groups, or our community, even our coffee – it comes from the fact that the life-giving Spirit works through the gospel to bring life and salvation and godliness.
When we recognise that our confidence comes through Christ and from God it is wonderfully liberating because our confidence isn’t affected by our performance, results, circumstance or situation! Andy Murray has just crashed out of the US Open in the quarter-finals in a pretty humiliating straight sets defeat. And no doubt His confidence will have taken a big knock. David Moyes hasn’t had the best start at Man Utd and it can’t be easy replicating the results of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Ask any celebrity and they will tell you of how self-confidence comes and goes, we are up and down people. As gospel servants, our confidence is strong because our confidence comes from God.
That’s great news this morning whether we are naturally over-confident or under-confident people.
Who is equal to such a task? Well the answer is there in v.6, God has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant. Paul knows that new covenant ministry is a life-giving ministry. A ministry in which God seeks to bless and we ought to expect to see people saved. The Old Covenant, as Paul goes on to explain in verses 7-18, could not bring life because it was an external covenant of obedience to the law. It was a ministry of death, not because the covenant was not good but because of the spiritual incapacity of the people. But Jesus fulfilled it for us in his life, and he bore our penalty for our failure to keep it in his death and so released us from it. The ministry of the Old Testament prophets was a hard one – who would want to plant a congregation in OT Israel or be a Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah? But the ministry of the New Covenant is a glorious one because through it the Spirit is able to bring new life and to turn rebellious hearts back to him.
It is God, and no other, who qualified Paul and equipped him to become a minister of the new covenant, he claimed nothing for himself. So too for any of us given the privilege and opportunity to be gospel ministers. Gospel confidence is a humble confidence and that, as we’ll see in the next post, is all we need to, in the words of William Carey, attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.
You might not think that Steve Jobs would have had much advice to offer on whether or not we should encourage people to attend Bible College. But Daniel Finkelstein, writing in Wednesday’s Times (£), would disagree. I should make clear that Finkelstein’s piece is on something altogether unrelated to theological education. His is a piece on why the proposed high speed rail link between London and the north is worth the cost despite growing estimates (worth a read for his take on this alone by the way). However, it got me thinking. In his defence of HS2, Finkelstein establishes a principle that can be rightly applied to all sorts of questions including our one on the merits of a Bible college training. Finkelstein argues for what he calls ‘the priority of proximity.’ Put simply, we need to maximise face-time if we are to maximise a learning opportunity.
Finkelstein illustrates his point from Steve Jobs’ demand that the Pixar Animation headquarters should not be a series of small studios but ’one big building with a central atrium.’ Why? Jobs wanted, through architecture, ‘to maximise the number of random encounters’ between employees.
Finkelstein quotes Jobs who says ‘there’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by e-mail and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.’
Something of this dynamic was at work today in two meetings I have been a part of in the last couple of days in which the proximity principle worked itself out. Both involved considerable travel, commitment, time and energy to attend, but crucially, they provided the only context for a quick-fire exchange of ideas and perspectives that combined to produce exciting results. It simply could not have come about through Skype or an e-mail exchange. It was free-flowing interchange between multiple people that produced the desired and necessary results.
So back to Bible College. Why should you learn in community rather than study through books from a distance or through courses that bring you together on just an occasional basis? Quite simply, because of the priority of proximity. The more learning that is done together, the more you benefit. The cumulative impact of numerous, daily, spontaneous conversations (sometimes in the classroom and sometimes through random encounter) provide the perfect forum for learning. If you want to equip people for ministry build an atrium.
Paul Tripp’s Dangerous Calling is proving to be a highlight of my summer reading.
Here’s a man who knows my heart and understands the unique challenges and dangers of pastoral ministry. The book is written by a man who has failed in ministry,so writes with compassion and care. He has also, through countless conversations with church leaders, ministered the gospel to leaders.
In the introduction he describes Dangerous Calling as a diagnostic book. His aim is to reveal to leaders, often blinded by their sin to their sin, the idols that drive too much of what we do and why we do it. Perhaps the most disturbing sentence of the book is this one: it is right to say that the greatest danger in my life exists inside of me and not outside of me. This is because a pastor’s ministry depends, finally, not on whether he can preach, set out a clear vision for a church or deliver good pastoral care but on what is motivating his ministry. The condition of a pastor’s heart shapes everything.
Through the second half of the book Tripp shows just how devastating it is for a pastor to look for the wrong thing in the wrong place. To want and to seek from ministry what is ours in Christ. When you forget the gospel, you begin to seek from the situations, locations, and relationships of ministry for identity, security, hope, well-being, meaning, and purpose.
Why do ministers fall and fail? Why do so many leave ministry? For most, behind the many presenting reasons, underlying them all, is a failure to apply the gospel to ourselves as well as our congregations.
In the concluding chapter of the book Tripp summarises his ‘big-idea':
This is the bottom line. This is the great internal war of ministry. You are called to be a public and influential ambassador of a glorious King, but you must resist the desire to be a king. You are called to trumpet God’s glory, but you must never take that glory for yourself. You are called to a position of leadership, influence, and prominence, but in that position you are called to ”humble yourself under the mighty hand of God” (v.6). Perhaps there is nothing more important in ministry than knowing your place. Perhaps all the fear of man, the pride of knowing, the seduction of acclaim, the quest for control, the depression in the face of hardship, the envy of the ministry of others, the bitterness against detractors, and the anxiety of failure are all about the same thing. Each of these struggles is about the temptation to make your ministry about you. From that first dark moment in the garden, this has been the struggle–to make it all about us.
It is so easy to confuse your kingdom with the Lord’s. It is so easy to tell yourself that you are fighting for the gospel when what you’re really fighting for is your place. It is so easy to tell yourself that you’re simply trying to be a good leader when what you really want is control. It is so easy to tell yourself that you want to build healthy ministry relationships when what you really want is for people to like you. It is so easy to tell yourself that you’re trying to help people understand the details of their theology when what you’re actually working to do is impress them with how much you know. It is so easy to tell yourself that you’re fighting for what is right when what is really going in s that you’re threatened by someone’s rising influence. It’s so easy to tell yourself that you just want what is best when what you really want is a comfortable and predictable ministry life. It is so easy to tell yourself that you want God to get glory when really you enjoy ministry celebrity more than you are willing to admit. It is hard to be in a position of ministry prominence and influence and to know your place, It is very tempting in subtle ways to want God’s place. It is vital to realize that the temptation of the garden still lives in the pulpit, the study, the counseling office, and the ministry boardroom.
Here is the bottom line: wherever you are in ministry, whatever your position is, no matter how many people look up to you, whatever influence your ministry has collected, and no matter how long and successful your ministry has been, your ministry will never be about you because it is about him. God will not abandon his kingdom for yours. He will not offer up his throne to you, He will not give to you the glory that is his due. His kingdom and his glory are the hope of your ministry and the church. And when I forget my place and quest in some way for God’s position, I place my ministry and the church that I have been called to serve in danger.
It is here that I need to be rescued from me.
In your ministry, in the location where God has positioned you, is there evidence that you have forgotten your place, or is your ministry shaped and protected by a daily commitment to “humble yourself under the mighty hand of God”? Would the people who serve with you thing that you are too orientated toward power and control? Would the people you serve assess that you care too much about what people think about you? Would they say that you care too much about attention and influence? Would they see you as being tempted to take too much credit, or would they say that you clearly demonstrate that you know the ministry God has called you to is not about you? Would they conclude that you really do know your place?
“I have no secret. You haven’t learned life’s lesson very well if you haven’t noticed that you can decide the reaction you want of people in advance. It’s unbelievably simple.
If you want them to smile, smile first.
If you want them to take an interest in you, take an interest in them first.
If you want to make them nervous, become nervous yourself.
If you want them to shout and raise their voices, raise yours and shout.
If you want them to strike you, strike first.
It’s as simple as that.
People will treat you like you treat them.
It’s no secret. Look about you. You can prove it with the next person you meet.”
On the day of the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s longest serving Prime Minister of the last 150 years, tributes continue to be been paid from all-sides of the political debate. Love her or loathe her no one denies that, through her leadership, she changed the face of a nation and her influence continues to be felt across the world to this day.
Looking back over her time in office, what made her the leader she was? Here’s a personal take on seven qualities identified by Thatcher and those who knew her that shaped her leadership. Seven qualities that all leaders can learn from starting in this post with 1) conviction and 2) clear vision.
Margaret Thatcher famously said above all I am not a consensus politician but a conviction politician. Her leadership was borne out of a strong moral conviction that what she believed in was what could make Britain great again. And Thatcher was to attribute her success to this unswerving conviction in the rightness of her cause. After nearly ten years in office she still maintained if you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time and you would achieve nothing.
Leadership not borne of strong conviction is leadership that will fail. Even when at her lowest political ebb, in 1981, she argued pragmatism is not enough, nor is the fashionable word consensus. To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects.’
Lord Saatchi, in an interview on the BBC the morning after Margaret Thatcher’s death, paid tribute to this quality. He summarised her outlook in the following way:
The aim in that period when she was leader of the opposition was to present an ism, called conservatism, which in her mind was a philosophy and the object of the exercise was to explain that philosophy and see if people would support it and now we have a situation all these years later where you can tap anyone on the shoulder any where in the world and ask them ‘what did Mrs Thatcher believe in?’ and you will get a straight answer in a second.
Applying this principle of leadership to churches we might well ask whether it is obvious what we, as a church, stand for? We also have to ask are our principles matters of conviction,derived from God’s word and God’s purpose for the church in the world, rather than our own ideas? Do we lead from conviction or consensus?
2. Clarity of vision
Thatcher had not only strong convictions which guided her actions but a clear vision of where she wanted to take the nation. Henry Kissinger comments on why he thought Thatcher was a breathe of fresh air as a leader in her generation: The appearance of a leader that confidently asserted a vision of the future and, was wiling to tackle the economic problems of the day based on an alternative theory, had both a practical impact and also a psychological and moral impact on the period in which she lived.
He concludes her view was that leaders should define themselves by clearly articulating for their public their vision of their future.
What can we learn? It couldn’t harm if we as Christian leaders were to ask ourselves just how clearly are we articulating a vision for our particular churches? Are we able to assert not just guiding values that under-pin our ministries but a compelling vision as to where such principles might take us? For example, it is surely a good thing for a church to affirm the spread of the gospel as a necessary core value, it is another thing to set out a vision for how the church will seek to see the gospel go out over the next, say, 5 to 10 years.
In our next post we consider what it meant for Thatcher to be a leader defined by courage, clear communication and commitment to her cause.
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