By: Jeff Wreyford, Senior Pastor
I’m not sure I know all the church growth terms being used these days, whether this post is early, late, or rightly timed. I just thought it important to communicate what we as a church are trying to accomplish to help properly set expectations, attract folks with like vision, and prevent conflict with those who would ask differently of us.
The Reigning Model of Success
It seems for many, the consistent “model of success” has been to become a mega-church. I’ll define that as a church with 800-1000+ visitors and members who associate themselves with a particular church brand, often through word, bumper stickers, shirts, ministry events, and somewhat regular attendance to a campus of buildings. These churches typically operate with large budgets that drive multiple community programs, staff teams, and ministry initiatives.
The Old Standard
It seems like forever that towns all over the U.S. have had local, constituent-focused churches that had a few standard programs (Sunday a.m., Sunday p.m., Wednesday p.m.) and a standard way of operating (worship style, annual traditions, and member type). I grew up in churches like this. Let me say, in case you think I have a problem with this model, Christ found me in a church like this. I was discipled in a church like this, but not as part of the church's direct vision. It's this last statement that creates both a problem in local communities and drives my passion for a new model of church growth.
Old Way, New Day
What was great about the churches I grew up in was the fact that I felt known by others. Sure the programs were a little rigid and stale, but the people seemed genuinely invested in bettering the church and its people. You felt supported by the local church. The church seemed focused on the simplicity of people connecting with people. Fishing rodeos, camp outs, men’s breakfasts, ladies’ times, church picnics, revivals, prayer services, etc. Through the eyes of a child, right? What only became apparent as I grew older was the fact that I grew up in a family that fit squarely within these churches' narrow clientele. It was only later that I began to see these churches desire to protect our “way of life.” I was also introduced to this life-transforming thing called life-on-life discipleship. It made ever other “Sunday School” type of model for educating seem light, shallow, and impersonal.
After years of being discipled and discipling others in high school, college, and now adults and families, my view has broadened. I see now how others in the churches I grew up in “discipled” me as best they could, but lacked the tools and institutional backing of the church. I believe these old structures have significant value for several reasons.
1. They are already there. Now that I’ve been a part of two “scratch plants,” I can personally testify to the amount of energy and resources that it takes to get an idea off the ground and sustainable. I’m not advocating the end of church “planting,” but I am advocating the harder work of church “revitalization.” Praying for existing churches to have their eyes and hearts open to the narrow clientele they seek and serve, as well as their fixed feet towards the great commission, is a hard work. Working with existing leadership who would like to move in the right direction within their existing ministries by helping them begin to disciple within their communities should be a focus for churches in years to come.
2. They are in need. For the reasons I’ve listed above, these churches are fast becoming extinct. Like small, family-owned businesses that were once thriving hubs serving the community, but were later swallowed up by the Walmarts of the world offering lower cost, more customer-friendly options, these smaller churches are losing the battle to well-organized, well-branded, business-savvy giants. You might argue these old churches deserve to die for spending years supporting the wrong sides of important issues and refusing to pursue the great commission, but my argument is that the “mega” alternative isn’t sustainable.
For all their strengths, the megachurch takes a lot of money to remain effective, and the once rich, fertile grounds may not be sustainable long term. Many of these churches actually aren’t doing any better pursuing the great commission, they just do things with more relevancy and a cooler feel.
Keep in mind, I define a commitment to pursuing the great commission, as a commitment to discipling your people. With that said, here are a few takeaways.
1. We need to disciple our membership. Not just in small groups of men and women meeting weekly, but giving our people a taste of what it feels like to be spiritually pursued by an actual person, not just digitally by an organization (that’s another article for another time). We want to train our ministry leaders to pursue the people they are connected to in every area of service within the church. We hope that this grows them spiritually and deepens their commitment to seek out further discipleship in small groups as the seasons allow. Discipleship may look different for every church, but there are models out there and people to help coach you in how to do it better. I would be happy to offer resources and point you in the right direction—firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. We need a commitment to the existing local church. Through friendships and partnerships we must not give up on all the existing local churches. First, by praying for their eyes to be opened to the needs around them and the true kingdom purpose for which they exist. Secondly, this is a commitment to be ready to train leaders in how to disciple others within the church.
3. We need a sustainable “rural” plant model. Breaking from the “mega model” in part is a commitment to planting new sustainable churches to serve their local communities instead of asking people to commute to other communities to find healthy churches. These areas need pastors who will love the people longterm and aren’t merely passing through. They need sources of income that help sustain their families while doing the hard work of ministry. They need mother churches and a network of support to help coach, encourage, and train them through the hard work of starting new ground.
As our small church plant prayerfully moves forward and grows by God's grace, I hope to see our church embrace the call of the Great Commission—to make disciples—and to love our local churches with a deep and genuine affection that would show our community not a brand, or a business, but Jesus.