If you missed part one, just click the picture below.
Take the pulse of your congregation to determine if they want to grow and reach the lost. Most churches that aren’t growing simply don’t want to grow. Perhaps the pastor wants it to grow but the saints don’t share the vision or feel the burden. There are numerous reasons that churches don’t want to grow; laziness, complacency, fear of losing position or control, anti-social tendencies, fear of change, less access to the pastor, and more. Getting a true sense of whether or not the church is sharing in the burden to reach the lost is paramount. If the church doesn’t share in the burden all efforts will be sabotaged and in vain.
Have big events. There are built in big events that happen naturally in every church paradigm. Easter and Christmas are perfect examples, although more could certainly be identified. Let’s break it down this way, if you divide the calendar year into quarters you should be hosting at least one big event per quarter. That’s a minimum of four big church events a year. Find events that mobilize and energize your congregation. This creates a buy-in that produces the kind of excitement that propels saints to invite people to something that they are passionate about.
The key to doing this well is choosing the right kind of events that generate excitement in your local church and community. Also, if you do too many big events you will likely burn out your members (these things take lots of work) and you will choose quantity over quality. If you do too few big events, you will lose momentum (and spiritual momentum is very important).
I’m not referring to simply bringing in a guest speaker (although that certainly can play a large role in the process); I am talking about doing things on a fairly large scale that generate excitement and garner the attention of your community. It’s very difficult to tell you what that should be in your local setting. It should be something for which you can create quality mailers to help promote the event. Getting something in the hands of church members that they can easily give to people is key.
A few ideas: back to school giveaways, revivals, fall festivals, concerts, dramas, conferences, kid’s programs, banquets, lady’s events, men’s outings, youth activities, anything involving good food, church anniversary celebrations, and on and on. Creativity, understanding of your local culture, awareness of your church’s strengths and weaknesses, and strong sensitivity to the Spirit is essential to identifying what big events will be best for your church. After committing to a big event, plan, plan, plan, plan, and plan some more. Invite, invite, invite, and invite some more. If nothing else, Easter and Christmas should be seasons where you go all out.
Make the altar call a part of the service. Once again, this point is all about a shift in mindset. When a minister gives the invitation to gather around the altar this is not the end of the service but rather the beginning of the altar service. This is the culmination of everything that has taken place so far in the service. This is where the saints rededicate, sinners find salvation, and prodigals rejoice in their restoration. Yes. I realize that God can move anywhere and at any time, but the altar service is a faith charged atmosphere that must be taken seriously. Empty altars result in empty pews. Quiet altars equal a church in need of revival. Remind the church over and over again that the end of the sermon is the beginning of something powerful not just the stepping stone to grabbing a bite to eat.
Be multicultural. I have briefly written about the concerns of racial tensions here. Just let me say, Heaven will not be white, black, brown, or yellow. It will be filled with people from every nation, tribe, and tongue (Revelation 7:9). Heaven isn’t going to be one big southern gospel singing-along or even a black gospel convocation. Nope. It will be multicultural and the Church should be a natural reflection of that diversity. If your community just happens to be predominately one culture fine, but if not, your church should be welcoming and inclusive to every ethnicity. If that bothers you, you’ll really dislike Heaven (if you make it).
Respect, honor, and support the ministry (Romans 12:10, Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, 1 Corinthians 9:7-11, Matthew 10:40, Galatians 6:6). We live in a culture of dishonor and that bleeds its way into the Church. It subtly impacts the way we view, treat, and interact with ministry. Churches that refuse to properly honor, respect and provide for ministry to the best of their ability are by default dishonoring God. We know that the office of pastor is an under-shepherd (Jeremiah 3:15) to the Great Shepherd (John 10:11). Therefore, churches that refuse to give honor to that which God honors are in a precarious place, to say the least. Obviously, pastors are not called to “lord” over the flock (1 Peter 5:2-3), but they are worthy of the honor due a God-ordained office. If they lead well, they are worthy of double honor (1 Timothy 5:17-18).
It would be foolish to assume that honoring the ministry has little to do with church growth. Having a biblical view of ministry unleashes anointing, unshackles the pastorate, fosters unity, develops trust, invites the favor of the Lord, demonstrates integrity to the community, and is absolutely apostolic. Giving honor is not about stroking ego’s or flattery, it should not be perfunctory, nor should it originate from a place of pride. Rather, honor should radiate from our relationship with God to the spiritual authority that He has placed over us. Show me a church that hesitates to honor ministry and I’ll show you a dying church. Having said that, I know that all pastors are not honorable. I’ve written about that subject here. But godly ministry is always worthy of high honor.
Covet the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:39, 1 Corinthians 12:31). The Berean Study Bible says to “…eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:1)”. A quick study of Scripture makes it clear that we should genuinely desire and anticipate the operation of spiritual gifts in our church services and beyond. There is no substitute for the work of the Spirit in our churches. We can only do so much with our own ingenuity, programming, and preplanning. All our efforts are in vain without the Spirit.
Combat carnality. I’ve outlined some snapshots of what a carnal Christian looks likehere. As my dad often says, “You won’t win the world golfing, playing video games, and watching television.” That’s not to say that golfing is wrong or inherently sinful, the larger point is that it’s about priorities. Churches that develop a top down lust for pleasure and entertainment grow stale and lukewarm. They lose their sense of urgency and grow powerless. Like Esau, they sell their birthright for immediate gratification. To be clear, I’m not against relaxing and setting aside time for fun, but when the quest for fun overwhelms the work of the Kingdom there is a fundamental problem that must be addressed.
Call people to repentance over and over and over again. This is not just for the unchurched, even the Church needs to be continually called back to a place of repentance. 2 Chronicles 7:14 is the quintessential verse quoted to call people to prayer, but many fail to notice that God is speaking directly to His people in this passage. Notice, the language “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways…”. These are commands that we usually direct towards the unchurched, but God makes it clear that repentance must begin within His own family. Churches have a way of passive-aggressively superimposing convicting sermons and calls to repentance upon unbelievers. Church growth will always be out of reach until a local congregation humbles itself through prayer and repentance.
Have good church. Every service matters. Every altar call matters. Every song matters. Every sermon matters. Every lesson matters. Every note played matters. Every iota of praise lifted towards Heaven matters. Make every service count. Make every moment count. Refuse to phone it in or go through the motions. Of course, some services will be more memorable and impacting than others, but every service matters. Pour passion, energy, and resources into every service.
The Church is not a building. Announce that loud and long. A church house is simply a gathering place for the church. The church is a collection of believers who are striving to walk with Christ and grow in spiritual maturity. View the physical building as nothing more than a resource. This simple shift in focus can mean the difference between treating people correctly or incorrectly. For example, if preserving a building is more important than treating people correctly the building has become an idol. People are the church the building is an instrument designed to help people. Sadly, we sometimes place more emphasis on our place of worship than the people who make it a place of worship.
Lead people don’t beat people. Leadership can be incredibly frustrating and exasperation leads to ministerial burnout. People will disappoint, fall down, rebel, attack, and cause incredible amounts of unnecessary pain. This can be mega taxing on the pastor and every other minister working within the church. The temptation can be to verbally beat people into submission. Although, there is a time and place for godly correction a sustained culture of negativity from pastoral leadership becomes toxic over time. In the end, people will not respond to being constantly berated regardless of how deserving of said “chewing out” they might be. Lead people with love and by example. Harsh correction should be the exception, not the rule.
Take care of your building. I know buildings are expensive and keeping them nice can be a real financial strain, but there is simply no excuse for trash and bad odors in a place of worship. It subliminally signals to visitors that a church just doesn’t care so why should they? However, beautiful buildings do not guarantee growth and growth does not guarantee beautiful buildings. And while I whole heartedly believe that you can grow anywhere with the help of the Lord, we must be good stewards of whatever place of worship the Lord has provided for us.
Refuse to be swayed by every wind of criticism but don’t dismiss criticism off hand. Every church leader from pastors to Sunday School teachers know the painful sting of criticism. Oddly, it tends to be worship leaders and soundmen who suffer the most brutal assaults and opinionated rampages. Sometimes it’s outright criticism or it might be of the passive aggressive “people have been saying” variety. No matter “how” or “who” it’s coming from criticism hurts. It’s almost paradoxical but there are two extreme responses to criticism that are counterproductive. On the one hand, some leaders are swayed and gyrated by every wind of criticism rendering them completely incapable of leadership. On the other hand, some leaders inoculate themselves from criticism so carefully that they never accept constructive criticism. There is healthy disagreement and there is unhealthy disagreement. The ability to discern the difference is a vital component of leadership and church growth.
Foster a prodigal welcoming environment. Yes. It’s biblical. When prodigals come home it should be a celebration. not a time for telling them how bad they messed up. You might be surprised by how many churches get a bad attitude towards prodigals. Don’t be like the angry brother, be like the celebrating father.
Grassroots word of mouth is still paramount. This goes hand in hand with our previously stated goal of emphasizing a lifestyle of evangelism. There is simply no substitute for personally inviting people to church. If everyone in your church would invite as many people to church on a weekly basis as possible the results would be staggering. Studies suggest that the average church member rarely invites anyone to be their guest at church. Out of all the expensive outreach pushes that we have ever done the most impactful has been simply printing up business card sized invitations and making them easily available to our church members. We ask our members to take two and invite two on a weekly basis. Invite friends, family, and co-workers because they are the most likely to accept. But don’t stop there, invite the waiter, the girl ringing up your groceries, the family in the doctor’s office, and everyone else that you possibly can. This takes intentionality and a change of mindset. Talk about it all the time. Keep the cards out front where people can pick them up on their way in and out of the church. Make it really convenient for your church members to get their hands on those invitation cards. Take away all their excuses. Talk to them about how to invite people. Give them encouragement, tips, and pointers. This sounds too simple but it is extremely powerful.
Connect with evangelists who are anointed and gifted harvesters. There’s not much commentary needed here, but I can tell you that a pastor can preach an evangelistic sermon one week with little response. The evangelist can come the next week and preach the same message and the Holy Ghost will fall like rain. It does not mean that the pastor is not anointed. It means that God anoints people in different ways for different seasons of ministry.
Don’t major in minor doctrines. I’m amazed by pastors who spend large amounts of time teaching and preaching candy stick doctrines that have almost no practical application or spiritual benefit. I’m not necessarily talking about false doctrine, but who really cares if the final trumpet will be one long blast or an upbeat medley. I’m sort of joking, but you get my drift. People won’t work all day, rush home to freshen up, and drag the kids to church over and over for midweek Bible study if they aren’t receiving teaching that is applicable to their lives. Right or wrong, they just won’t. I know of a church that ran a month long series discussing whether or not there are female angels. Not only is that kind of thing totally irrelevant, but it takes valuable time away from legitimate subjects that desperately need to be preached. Warning, this is going to sound harsh so if you’re really sensitive just skip down to the next point; preachers who regularly major in minor doctrines are either totally out of touch with the needs of their church, self-absorbed, or spiritually tone deaf. I know for myself, it’s often tempting to preach about obscure and unimportant things simply because it interests me. But that’s not my purpose or calling as a preacher, and it’s not yours either. If you really need to get it out of your system; write a book, or a blog, or talk it out with a peer but please don’t waste the church’s time.
Stop doing embarrassing things! Just stop it. I know embarrassing things are going to happen occasionally and that’s okay. But chronic public spectacles of awkwardness and blush-inducing moments are a sure growth killer. Some examples, it’s not really necessary to read out loud the prayer request for so and so’s bowel congestion, don’t make the congregation suffer through long rebukes couched as a testimony, and if the church isn’t equipped to play a video clip smoothly just don’t try to play a video clip (it goes back to a previous point that it’s better to do a few things well than to do a ton of things poorly). Some of you are reading this and it sounds petty or even elitist to your sensibilities, but I assure you that these types of things heaped together become a profound problem. A culture of embarrassing awkwardness will weigh heavily upon a congregation and repulse guests. It rests fully on the ministries shoulders to eliminate as many of these situations as possible. Once again, embarrassing things are going to happen from time to time, I am referring to frequent issues that are left unrestricted or even exacerbated by the leadership culture of a church.
Bonus thought: your church is not called to be an extension of a political party. Many years ago a pastor friend of mine endorsed and helped campaign for a local politician. He even had the official speak at his church. A few weeks later the news broke that the politician had been accepting bribes, visiting prostitutes, and selling drugs out of his campaign office. Bottom line, politicians are not the remedy for societies woes; Jesus is the answer to our local and national problems. When communities have apostolic revival they will naturally elect solid leaders. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t vote or have strong opinions, but don’t intentionally turn your church into a political battleground.
Let me make a few disclaimers right from the beginning. First, not all big churches are healthy and not all small churches are unhealthy. Big churches are not necessarily better than small churches and the reverse is also true. However, if the body is not growing it is dying. This is true spiritually and physically. That’s not to say setbacks, sicknesses, and dry seasons won’t temporarily stunt growth, but the key word there is “temporarily”. Long-term stagnation or decline is a sure sign of an impending downward spiral if something drastic doesn’t take place to fix the problem.
I grew up in a small church plant that my father started in 1983 (the year of my birth), and I grew up alongside the growth of that church. Churches must grow into maturity just as a child grows into maturity. If a mother church grows strong she will give birth to daughter churches that will repeat the process over and over again.
The number one reason small churches stay small is that they want to stay small. This reality is often hidden stealthily beneath the surface making it difficult to spot. But if you watch carefully you’ll see it manifested in dozens of little ways. They literally have no desire to grow. Again, I love small churches, but small churches are in direct violation of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) if they have no desire to see new souls added to the church. And if a church doesn’t want to grow it will not grow.
One final clarification, 99.9% of the time the pastor desperately wants the church he oversees to grow. The lack of desire for growth typically comes from the congregation, not the clergy. In best case scenarios, the church (or an influential portion of the church) is simply complacent towards the churches growth. In worst case scenarios, the church (or an influential portion of the church) actively tries to hinder the churches growth. Regardless, this is a problem that must be addressed head on or it will choke the life out of a small congregation. Here are nine contributing reasons that small churches often don’t want to grow.
The church simply doesn’t want to suffer through a building program. This usually stems from either a faith problem or a stinginess problem. Sometimes well-meaning church members confuse good stewardship with stagnation. A small building that’s been paid off for 20 years is a wonderful thing, but if you can’t continue to grow in that building (or the location hinders growth), it’s time to take the necessary leap of faith. For other less sincere saints, they simply don’t want to commit financially to the vision of revival (think Ananias & Sapphira).
The church has lost sight of its purpose. Many churches gradually forget the urgency of the hour. They become content with their own salvation and forget that Hell is still a reality for their community. They forget that God has placed them within that community to reach the lost. It doesn’t matter how many missionary plaques you hang on the wall if you aren’t being a missionary to your own region. I often hear people say, “some give by going, and some go by giving.” I know what they mean, but it gives the impression that only certain elite people are called to reach the lost. Wherever you are right now, that’s your mission field. Far too often we allow our giving to replace going into our own harvest field.
The church has lost its love for people. Many times, it is that simple. Bitterness, pride, harshness, and unresolved anger can rip the love of Christ right out of the hearts of a congregation. At its peak, it results in a harshness so severe that it rejoices rather than weeps at the lost condition of “reprobates” and “sinners”. Hell, is a reality that should move us to tears, not cheers.
Spiritual lethargy, exhaustion, and laziness. I understand that revival and evangelism are just plain hard work; emotionally, spiritually, and physically. People who have participated for many years in the process can easily grow weary in well doing (check out my writings on this subject here and here). Some folks are just lazy by nature and this bleeds into their spiritual life as well. Revival and laziness are like oil and water; they just don’t mix.
Institutional racism or a clique mentality. I’m truly afraid that the church is still one of the most segregated places in America (click here for a related article). But God has called the church to be multicultural and accepting of all races, ethnicities, backgrounds, and cultures. Some congregations want revival only if all the new people look and sound just like them. Yikes, that’s a big problem. I’m just glad the apostle Peter allowed God to change his heart so a Gentile like me could be a part of the Body of Christ.
Rampant carnality and materialism. When a church grows carnal they just don’t have room for spiritual concerns. They’re too busy with sports and movies to care if their neighbor is going to Heaven or Hell. Financial blessings are a wonderful gift from God, but we should never squander that gift on trivial things that constantly distract us from the Kingdom of God. Churches fraught with carnality and materialism would rather talk about anything other than spiritual things. They don’t have time to be inconvenienced with revival, and they do the absolute minimum they can do for God (check out this article entitled You Might Be a Carnal Christian If…).
The church doesn’t want to lose constant or immediate access to the pastor. This one is very common and even understandable to a certain degree. Saints instinctively know that as a church grows it will become harder and harder to gain immediate access to the pastor for counseling or anything else for that matter. In many ways, it’s like an only child who resents the idea of a baby brother or a baby sister. They grow jealous of the attention that their parents must devote to their new sibling. This is understandable but only to a point, if it turns into outright aggression towards new babies in the Lord it must be dealt with lovingly but firmly.
A certain element within the church desperately wants to maintain power, position, and influence. Ah, this is a big one. It’s very insidious, extremely dangerous, and usually carefully disguised. It can be anything from worship leaders and singers who feel threatened by new people who are talented or lay ministers who feel threatened by young babes in the Lord who feel called to preach. It can be anyone who feels like their position might be threatened by an influx of new people. It can be a wealthy saint who enjoys being perceived as the wealthiest saint in the church, or a talented musician who enjoys being perceived as the most talented person in the church, or board members that want to keep their authority consolidated. It can even extend to the entire congregation and their desire to keep a strong influence over every aspect of the church, therefore, they perceive new people as a threat to that power. This is almost never articulated out loud but the signs are there if you are paying attention.
The congregation has an institutional bias against the culture of growing churches. Some people are just conditioned either by their upbringing or their preconceived ideas of how a church should be to dislike large churches. In extreme cases, people like this consider big churches evil, but they’ll usually use code words like “full of compromise” or something of that nature. The reality is that small churches and big churches alike can fall into the trap of compromise. Some people fear that large churches are incapable of being friendly or warm. The reality is that small churches and large churches can fall into the trap of being unfriendly and cold. A church shouldn’t desire to grow just to be large, but it should want to be large because it wants everyone to be saved.
Final caveats: I realize there are other reasons small churches stay small. Local economies, transient locals, spiritual onslaughts, poor leadership, tragedy, rapid leadership turnover, seasons of sowing, difficult locations, and more can all be relevant factors. Also, churches go through seasons and holding patterns that are temporary conditions. I am talking about chronic conditions. However, it would be unwise to casually ignore these points without at least considering the very real possibility that one or more of these problems could be at work.
If you’re anything like me, you’re leery of church growth books and articles. I’ve read them by the dozens and most of them are either completely irrelevant for apostolic churches, full of platitudes, totally unrealistic, or so technical that you need a college degree just to wade through the formulas. It can be more discouraging than encouraging by the time you’re through. I’m writing this with that in mind.
I’ve hesitated to broach this topic for some time now because just writing about church growth can sound smug and braggadocios. I for one, do not claim to have all the answers or a magic formula that will fill every pew overnight. In fact, I don’t even think filling every empty seat overnight is truly healthy in most circumstances. If your leadership structure is too small to handle a sudden influx of hundreds of brand new spiritual babies you’ll see a lot of premature deaths. In my opinion, consistent gradual growth is the healthiest form of church growth. It gives the leadership and the congregation time to adjust when and where needed.
For the record, I don’t serve a mega church. But by the grace of God, Apostolic Tabernacle has grown in attendance by over 150% in 5 years. Our church has benefitted from a wonderful legacy and stellar stewardship from our Bishop. There was a tremendous small core of godly saints when we arrived. We’re also in a highly populated, although economically struggling, metropolitan county. In spite of those blessings, we’ve had plenty of setbacks and failures. We’ve tried things that flopped and we’ve made mistakes. We still have lots of room for improvement. That’s all part of the messiness of revival. I’m telling you this because there is no one size fits all path to church growth. Every city is different, every church is different, and every situation has nuances that must be identified before sustainable growth will take place.
Keep in mind, the average church loses about 10% of its membership on a yearly basis. Some of these are healthy losses like job transitions or college student move-aways, and some are due to spiritual backsliding and the church hoppers that we all know so well. This means that for a church to grow annually by 10% it actually needs to grow by 20%. As I’ve written in the past, Gideon had to lose some losers before the victory could be obtained. Not all losses are a bad thing, and not all gains are godly. So this article is about healthy church growth, not just temporary crowd generating activities.
After evangelizing for five years all over the US in churches of every shape and size; I’ve had the privilege of seeing almost every church paradigm imaginable. I’ve observed first-hand what to do and what not to do. Both have been instructive and helpful. I’ve tried to whittle these church growth insights down to universal truths that transcend into every apostolic church setting. Let’s get started.
You get what you preach. I love deep sermons that explore the rarely mined gems of Scripture, there’s definitely a time and place for that kind of preaching, but I’m amazed at how many churches think preaching the basics is boring. If you rarely preach the plan of salvation, you’ll rarely see people obey the plan of salvation. That goes for holiness too. If you want people to evangelize, talk about it. Talk about it a lot. I would suggest taking inventory of how often you are preaching core doctrinal subjects. Most are surprised at how rarely they actually tackle doctrinal fundamentals. Furthermore, I know the trend is to have less church, but less church means less opportunities to preach into different situations. I realize it varies from church to church, but for us, Sunday mornings tend to be evangelistic, Sunday nights are the best opportunity to preach specifically to the church, and midweek Bible Study is the time for digging deep and mining for those Scriptural gems. If the Bible tells us that people are saved by the “foolishness of preaching” (1 Corinthians 1:21) then shouldn’t we be preaching more not less? As churches have less and less church they also have less and less preaching, and sometimes almost zero teaching. Laying Scriptural admonishments aside, we live in a culture that demands options and opportunities. Shouldn’t we be giving people more service options and opportunities not less? Can you imagine a hospital only opening its doors once a week? If you rarely have church, you rarely have preaching, and for those who are trapped in the 24/7 work culture, missing their one-weekend service option can be spiritually devastating. On the opposite end of the spectrum are churches that never preach beyond the platitudes and always preach down to the lowest common denominator. They render all preaching down to spiritually anemic bullet points that leave people spiritually malnourished. There is a time for meat and a time for milk.
And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching (Hebrews 10:24-25).
One man cannot do it all. Churches that think a lone pastor can and should do everything are destined for failure and pastors who think they can do it all are crazy. One person cannot be on call 24/7, preach and teach great new sermons, visit everyone, attend every event, be a financial guru, be a janitor, plan ahead, keep his family healthy (physically, spiritually, and emotionally), teach home Bible studies, cultivate relationships, manage day to day building operations, win souls, pray for the sick, maintain a personal prayer life, study, counsel with people (sometimes for hours on end), and mentor other leaders. It’s just not humanly possible or healthy. Even Jesus didn’t do all those things. Even Jesus had a leadership team of twelve. Even Jesus went away for days to pray and fast. So what’s the solution? Delegation.
Some things must be delegated to volunteers, and as soon as possible additional pastoral (and administrative) staff should be brought onto the team. Jesus demonstrated this process when he began sending his disciples out in pairs to preach and pray for the sick (Matthew 10:1-5). Quick thought, no matter how large the church, there’s never quite enough money in the budget for new ministerial assistants or support staff. Taking that leap of faith is vital. Most churches peak out because they max out their leadership’s capabilities. Ironically, one of the surest signs that a pastor is a great leader is if he can be gone for a week and everything still operates smoothly. Again, churches that refuse to add additional staff and train qualified volunteers always plateau. Period.
Many years ago Pastor Paul Mooney said something about church structure that shapes my thinking even to this day. He likened the average church leadership structure to a small table. He poured a bucket of sand onto the table and compared the sand to saints and church growth. The table easily contained the majority of the sand with only a few specks trickling off the edges. But as he continued to pour sand over the table eventually the majority of the sand began dramatically sliding off the sides onto the floor. His point was clear, the only way to sustain more growth is to build a bigger leadership table. None of this should be interpreted to mean that you should use sub-par leaders out of desperation. No. The only thing worse than maxed out leadership is toxic leadership on your ministerial or administrative team. Delegation is only effective when it is delegated to the right kind of leaders (read more on that subject here).
Be consistent. I’ve outlined the importance of consistency in leadership here. But beyond that, churches must be consistent as well. Remain consistent in the mission, purpose, culture, plan, and apostolic identity.
Insist on excellence. I’ll never understand why some churches develop the mindset that doing your best is carnal. You can’t just show up and wing it and expect God to bless your halfhearted efforts. Insist that your singers and musicians do their very best. Insist that your ministers give their very best in preparation and dedication. Insist that your teachers, greeters, and volunteers give their very best. Call people out of mediocrity. If you don’t take church seriously no one else will either. Practice, plan, prepare, and lovingly pressure people to be the best that they can be for the sake of the Kingdom. People who have grown complacent and comfortable with mediocrity will dislike you for a season until they see their own personal growth. Eventually, they will be glad that you insisted on excellence. No matter how small your congregation is you can call them to do their absolute best for the Lord.
This also means that not everyone who wants to do something should be allowed to do exactly what they want to do. For example, not everyone is musically gifted, which means that not everyone should be allowed in the music program. This can be awkward but it’s less awkward than having visitors flee from your off-key church services. Not everyone has the gift of teaching. Not everyone who wants to preach is called to preach. Not everyone who wants to decorate is gifted in decorating. The same goes for media, design, kid’s ministries, hospitality, and general leadership. Insisting on excellence means that sometimes you have to say no and redirect people towards their area of gifting. I know. I know. This is easier said than done. But it must be done or you will wallow in a sea of mediocrity that repels visitors and discourages your saints.
I’m not talking about absolute perfection. I’m talking about common sense policies. In the corporate world, they call this personnel placement. Meaning, you place people where they are best suited to be productive based on their talents. Knowing where you and others fit in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:19-25) is a biblical imperative. Paul made it clear that the hand is not better than the foot, but the body will not function correctly if the foot is trying to operate in the same capacity as the hand.
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might… (Ecclesiastes 9:10).
And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, [do] all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him. And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; (Colossians 3:17,23).
Love, equip, encourage, and care for people. People can tell if you genuinely love and care about them. There’s no replacement for this quality. Spiritual leaders who love the lost and the saints will equip them to withstand spiritual onslaughts, hardships, and teach them how to thrive spiritually. Love means more than smiling and having a good time. Real love tells the truth and confronts painful realities. If you’re struggling to truly love people, ask God to give you a new heart.
Expect a mess. In case you didn’t know, America is a post-Christian nation. Meaning that now more than ever, people are going to bring baggage with them into the church. Multiple broken marriages, addictions that you’ve never even heard of, tons of false doctrines, strange philosophies, and on and on and on. If that makes you wildly uncomfortable it’s time to reshape your perception of ministry. Imagine a hospital full of doctors and nurses that can’t stand the sight of blood; it definitely wouldn’t be a very effective environment. Churches that get all dizzy and faint-hearted at the sight of sinners have forgotten where they came from and their commission. They alienate the very people that Jesus has called them to reach. Squeamish churches will not grow. Churches that are condescending towards sinners will not grow. Churches that only welcome pristine people will never grow, nor are they godly. If it hadn’t been for a righteous man who was willing to pray for a hateful, messy, murderous, blind sinner named Saul there would be no Apostle Paul (Acts 9).
Additionally, conversion does not make all the baggage magically disappear. We reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7-8). Yes. God forgives. Yes. God removes eternal damnation after repentance, water baptism in Jesus’ name, and the infilling of the Holy Ghost (Acts 2:38). But a lifetime of sowing sinful seeds will produce a painful earthly harvest for some time. Thankfully, the Fruit of the Spirit and the sowing of spiritual seed will eventually replace bad harvests with good harvests. For example, God can deliver an alcoholic from addiction in a single instant, but that doesn’t mean the broken relationships the addiction caused will be mended overnight. New seeds will slowly be planted, growth will begin, and the Fruit of the Spirit will bring about the healing. Taking this hodgepodge of analogies one step further, Jesus referred to salvation as being born again (John 3:1-8). Peter continued the metaphor by referring to new Christians as infants (1 Peter 2:2). Birth is messy. Babies are messy. Even toddlers are messy. My mother would be quick to tell you (based on my teenage years) that teenagers can be the messiest of all. Growing churches love spiritual children enough to keep cleaning the mess and raising new believers into full maturity in Christ.
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
Protect the platform and the pulpit. The people on your platform and in your pulpit are a reflection of the values and culture of your church. Just because someone wants to preach doesn’t mean they should be allowed to preach. Just because they want to sing and can sing doesn’t mean they should sing if they don’t reflect the biblical values and culture of an apostolic church. Earlier we were talking about standards of excellence but now we are referring to spiritual protection. You can avoid a lot of spiritual heartaches and perceived inconsistencies by keeping your platform and your pulpit carefully guarded. This is easier said than done; do it anyway. Scripture repeatedly warns us that wolves will try to invade the church and cause division (Matthew 7:16, Matthew 10:16, Acts 20:29). Be careful and use discernment. Don’t give influence to people who could be spiritually harmful to the church.
Pray. Fast. Study. Rinse. Repeat. Make prayer a priority. Maintain corporate times of prayer and fasting. Equip and engage people to maintain personal Bible study habits. All leaders are readers. Study, study, study (2 Timothy 2:15).
Preach and teach with clarity and conviction. I’m noticing as I write these thoughts that much of my focus revolves around preaching. I make no apologies for that, preaching has always been central to apostolic revival. The New Testament Church was birthed around Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost where the Holy Ghost was poured out (Acts 2). Using Peter’s sermon from Acts chapter two as an example, you’ll notice that he was completely confident in his delivery, he spoke from the head and the heart, and he spoke with clarity. In other words, he was clear and understandable. He didn’t leave any wiggle room for the hearers to squeeze in their own interpretation of what they needed to do to be saved. I hear far too much ambiguous preaching these days. Fuzzy preaching that sounds brilliant (or sometimes just incoherent) but makes it hard to pin the particulars down. This isn’t always intentional. Sometimes it comes from a desire to sound intellectual, or maybe it’s just poor communication skills, sometimes lack of preparation is the culprit, or possibly it stems from a subconscious fear of offending the hearers. In worst cases, it comes from internal doubts and disbelief. You don’t have to be a great orator. Passion, conviction, confidence, anointing, and clarity are far more valuable qualities than just being a wordsmith. Bottom line, clear preaching isn’t always the prettiest preaching but it produces apostolic results. Study thoroughly, know what you believe, say what you believe, believe what you say, and let God do the rest. Secondly, a clear distinction must be maintained between teaching and preaching. Many churches are seriously off balance in one direction or the other. They have tons of preaching and very little teaching or vice versa (this goes back to the problem of having less and less church). There really must be a balance between the two for healthy spiritual conversions and spiritual maturation to take place. Interestingly, most pastors struggle to accurately define the biblical differences between preaching and teaching. I’ve often heard people make the tongue-in-cheek statement that teaching is just preaching with less screaming. That’s funny but horribly inaccurate. Teaching should never be used as an excuse to be boring, uninspiring, or less anointed. Robert L. Waggoner gives one of the best differentiation between teaching and preaching that I have read. Waggoner writes:
“The primary meaning associated with the nature of preaching in the New Testament comes from the fact that the Greek word most frequently used to describe a preacher was that of a herald. A herald was one who announced a message, generally from the king or some other ruling authority, to those who had not heard it before. Preaching in New Testament times, therefore related primarily to announcing good news. In the New Testament, the content of that good news centered around the themes of Jesus Christ, the Word, the Gospel, and the Kingdom. On the other hand, the nature of teaching in New Testament times was primarily to explain ideas and their implications, and to exhort people to live by declared values. Whereas the message preached was the message announced, the message taught was the message explained, clarified, and applied, with exhortation to live by it. Whereas the message preached (announced) was primarily for the purpose of conversion, the message taught (explained, clarified, applied, with exhortation) was primarily for the purpose of building faith, Christian conviction and character. Essentially, preaching lays the foundation for teaching, just as an announcement lays the foundation for further comments. Both have the same message. Their points of emphasis differ. Whereas the content of preaching may be narrowly defined, the content of teaching is in broad terms.”
With this definition in mind, many churches lay a lot of good foundation with preaching but never adequately build upon it with solid teaching. This creates tons of spiritual babies that never survive into maturity. On the other hand, churches that are imbalanced on the teaching side of the equation are constantly trying to build structures on weak foundations.
Volunteers are valuable. As I mentioned earlier, there’s never going to be a big enough budget to hire the staff needed to fulfill all the needs of the church. Even large churches rely heavily on volunteers. Sunday school teachers, ushers, greeters, behind the scenes tech engineers, cleaning crews, board members, youth workers, bus drivers, outreach teams, hospitality teams, altar workers, and more are usually volunteers. They are the backbone of your church. Love, respect, appreciate, honor, lead, train, and equip them. Do not take them for granted.
Refuse to compromise on matters of biblical doctrine. Let me say that again for impact, refuse to compromise on matters of biblical doctrine. The idea that compromise always results in church growth is a huge myth that many have swallowed hook line and sinker. This often makes watering down the Word seem attractive even to preachers who actually believe in sound doctrine simply because they feel a desperation to grow. I’ve made this point in a previous article but it bears repeating, the average church (across all denominational lines) runs about 75. The vast majority of those churches consistently compromise (or likely never preached apostolic doctrine in the first place) without any numeric growth at all. Clearly, compromise and abandoning biblical foundations does not produce automatic numeric growth (even if it did it would not justify watering down the Gospel). When apostolic ministers accept that lie, whether publicly or secretly, they lead from a fixed position of insecurity. If you’re an apostolic church and you’re not growing it’s not because of your doctrine. There are probably many reasons you’re not growing, but standing for apostolic truth is not one of them.
Consider this, recent studiesare showing that liberal mainline churches are in sharp decline while Pentecostal churches are still experiencing dramatic growth worldwide. This leaves researchers scratching their heads because we Pentecostals tend to be doctrinally dogmatic which is terribly politically incorrect. Biblically correct churches are outgrowing politically correct churches because they stand out as a beacon of light in a philosophically and doctrinally hazy world. To be clear, it would be better to preach the truth and stay small than to preach a lie and be damned. I would rather lead a small church to Heaven than lead a megachurch to Hell.
Know your limits. Even super-duper mega churches with deep pockets can’t do everything well. Find the things that your church is really good at (probably through a process of trial and error) and do them really well. It would be better to do a few things passionately and excellently than to do a hundred things badly. If your church isn’t exceptionally gifted in music don’t try to put on a music conference or a concert. That’s counterproductive. Find what you’re good at (and your church is good at something) and double down on it. Doing more stuff for the sake of doing more stuff is a terrible idea. Busyness for the sake of busyness is a recipe for burnout and church-wide depression. Oftentimes, less is more. Just because other churches are doing it doesn’t mean that you have to do it too. In fact, your focused efforts and unique abilities will set you apart in your community in a good way. By the way, the reason many church growth books are grossly unhelpful is because they want you to imitate every move of another numerically (although not necessarily spiritual) successful church. Unfortunately, your church may not be gifted or motivated in the same ways by the same things. You must identify your localized abilities and focus on them with laser-like intensity.
Trim the fat. Once you’ve found what your church is really good at and what it’s really bad at its time to trim the fat off the “sacred cows”. You’re going to be met with a lot of resistance at this point. You’re going to hear a lot of things like, “But that other Church does this and we should too” or “But we’ve always had this program” or “But everyone else is doing it this way or that way.” Stand firm, once you start doing things just to do things you will lose purpose, passion, and perspective. Cut out time-consuming, cumbersome, unproductive, expensive, and counterproductive programs as quickly as possible. To review, it’s better to be known for doing a few things really well than for doing tons of stuff really poorly.
Don’t be a seeker-friendly church. Be a God friendly church. Remember, God is the Lord of the harvest (Matthew 9:38), and He alone gives the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be friendly to seekers (you absolutely must be friendly), but the term “seeker friendly” has become synonymous with churches that try to create a generic and culturally acceptable worship environment. Again, if we use the book of Acts as our model, we find that the Church was anything but generic. The apostles spoke boldly into hostile and conflicting cultures with their primary concern being to please the Lord, not people. If God gives the true harvest than being a God-pleasing church should be our main concern. Churches that are more interested in pleasing people than God attract crowds and nothing more. Churches that are more concerned with crowds than the Gospel throw Super Bowl parties and churches that love the Gospel throw Holy Ghost parties. That’s a generalization, but the point is valid. A crowd does not make a church, but a book of Acts church will attract a crowd. When God starts moving, people in a cold world will be attracted to the warmth of the fire.
Promote praise and worship. I have explained the often overlooked differences between praise and worship here. God dwells among the praises of his people (Psalms 22:3). Praise sets the tone and the right atmosphere of faith for preaching to be most impactful. Praise drives away dark spirits (1 Samuel 16:23) and turns mourning into dancing (Psalms 30:11). Praise gets our flesh out of the way making room for the moving of the Holy Spirit. If you want revival you must promote and cultivate a worshipful church environment. Like it or not, you can gauge the spiritual temperature of a church by its praise and worship. Outward praise is not a replacement for spiritual depth, but you cannot claim to have spiritual depth without outward manifestations of praise. A church that refuses to be demonstrative in praise is in direct violation of countless passages of Scripture (Romans 15:11, Psalms 22:23, Psalms 33:1, Psalms 66:8, Psalms 67:3, Psalms 98:4, Psalms 100:4, Psalms 102:18).
Define revival. As Rev. Wayne Huntley often explains, many churches confuse revival with evangelism. The root word of revival is “revive” meaning to bring back to life or to infuse with fresh strength. You can’t revive something that has never been alive. Revival is for the saints and evangelism is for the world. A church that is not constantly being revived will not grow. A dead church cannot give birth. Having said that, evangelism is something altogether different. Evangelism reaches beyond the walls of the church house into the lives of those who are lost. The distinction between revival and evangelism is important because what revives the church does not always produce evangelism. Evangelism does little to no good without a revived (alive) church.
Revival and evangelism must be approached as two distinct processes that are connected but unique. Otherwise, a church will fall into the trap of having revival without evangelism or vice versa. I’ve preached in many churches over the years that settled for having terrific revival but never evangelizing. They needed to learn that being revived over and over again is not the same as reaching out to the lost.
Let me address an elephant in the room that is seldom mentioned; many churches love revival but they dislike evangelism. Sadly, many congregations grow very comfortable with their crowd of friends and they become content to just have good church and leave their community unchanged. This is a direct violation of the Church’s mandate to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19). Every church needs to be taught that revival must overflow from our church services into spontaneous bursts of community evangelism, which leads nicely to the next point.
Live evangelism. Often, churches relegate evangelism to group events like door knocking. Don’t get me wrong, I’m 110% for door knocking and passing out flyers and water bottles at the park on a hot summer day. All great stuff, but if that’s the extent of your church’s outreach efforts your church is either dead or dying. Evangelism is a daily lifestyle, not a weekly or monthly program. Every growing church has one thing in common, saints who organically invite and encourage others to visit their church on a regular basis. This organic church-wide evangelism is not limited to friends and family members but includes strangers and acquaintances. Growing churches live evangelism as a constant lifestyle everywhere they go.
Have a long-term vision and short-term goals. I’ve laid out the case for yearly preaching plans here. My thinking has drastically evolved concerning church planning over the last several years. I used to disdain the idea of being overly planned because I felt that it hindered spontaneity and the flow of the Spirit. Nothing could be further from the truth. God honors planning. God knows the future and He can give us direction a year in advance just as easily as He can give us direction ten minutes in advance. Every church regardless of size should have an annual planning session mapping out a schedule for the upcoming year. That calendar should be neatly printed and made readily available to the entire church. This keeps ministries and activities from overlapping. It gives each ministry an opportunity to suggest strategies and develop a game plan. It promotes unity and creates general awareness. Obviously, there must be a level of flexibility throughout the year in scheduling and things will be tweaked and changed as needed, but every ministry and department will operate best within the structure of yearly preplanning.
Do not quench the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). That word quench in the Greek literally means to “extinguish” or “to go out”. In its normal context, the word was used to describe putting out sparks, fires, or flames. Many churches either intentionally or unintentionally quench the moving of the Spirit. If you read the context of the passage you will notice the next verse admonishes the church to “despise not prophesyings (1 Thessalonians 5:20)”. Spite towards spiritual things automatically hinders the Spirit. Churches that develop a top-down aversion to preaching, prophecy, the gifts of the Spirit, praise, prayer, and holiness are perverted vessels that put out revival fires. Some churches love prophecy but they despise praise. Some churches love preaching but they disdain the operation of the gifts of the Spirit. Some churches love outward holiness but they dislike the very sinners that the Church is mandated to reach. These imbalances hinder the Spirit and create dangerous droughts. Learning to be sensitive and responsive to the moving of the Spirit is paramount in terms of church growth. A spiritually tone-deaf pastor will stick to the program even when the Spirit is flowing in another direction. A spiritually insensitive preacher will miss windows of opportunity when and where the Spirit is trying to flow. While I affirm that we must do all things “…decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40)” it is always orderly to abstain from quenching the Spirit’s flow.
Deal with sin quickly, mercifully, and decisively (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 2 Thessalonians 3:13-15, Galatians 6:1, James 5:19-20). Sadly, sin is going to infiltrate the lives of even the most trusted of saints from time to time. Even worse, it’s possible that trusted leaders in your church will fall into sin. It can be tempting to procrastinate addressing the issue at hand. Don’t do it. The festering will grow worse and leave a wake of destruction in its path. Make the necessary adjustments and corrections as quickly as possible. Take decisive and integrity-laden steps of action. And above all, be merciful and restoration-minded when and where possible. If you publicly oppose sin but privately tolerate sin among the core of your church or within the leadership structure over time the entire foundation of the local church will be weakened. If sin within a church is left unchecked for a long enough period of time it will replicate and spread like cancer until a church is no longer a church; just a collection of backslidden posers.
Have a guest follow-up ministry. As I peruse over what I’ve written so far, I’m realizing that the vast majority of these points are mindset oriented. They are mostly spiritual principles. But for those of you who are technique-minded, you will appreciate this point. Guest follow-up is a technical imperative for church growth. Yet, I am amazed by how many churches either have zero guest follow-up or very insufficient guest follow-up. To put things in perspective, if someone goes through all the trouble of getting ready and driving out to your church to visit they are the most likely converts in your proximity. I’ll double down on this point, if someone pointed a gun to your head (silly hypothetical) and forced you to choose between having a guest follow-up ministry or a neighborhood outreach ministry, you should choose guest follow-up. Studies have shown over and over again that a church is far more likely to get someone to come back than they are to convince someone to visit for the first time sight unseen. For the record, I absolutely believe that churches should be using every means of evangelism possible.
There are gobs of ideas out there about the best way to do a guest follow-up ministry. By the way, I prefer the word guest over visitor because the word visitor has a temporary connotation while the word guest is more welcoming and permanent sounding. Regardless, here are a few basics of guest follow-up. One, have some kind of welcoming area with a stationed greeter (preferably a very friendly and warm person) who is equipped with guest information cards. Two, the greeter’s goal is to make guests feel welcome, answer all of their questions, and acquire the guest’s contact information. Three, a letter from the pastor should be mailed or emailed to all guests within the following week. Four, a quick personal phone call or text (some people prefer this) from an actual human being should be initiated. Five, add them to a mailing list so they can be invited to all major events and activities throughout the year (unless they request to be removed from the mailing list). Those are the very basics. Many churches do personal visits. I did this in my early days of ministry but found that people were a little creeped out by having someone randomly show up at their house (maybe it was just me). Some churches with big budgets send a gift basket with all kinds of logo-covered goodies and edible treats. I think that’s great if you can afford it but unnecessary. However, I do suggest three things if your budget allows: 1) provide all your visitors with a very nice looking (professionally printed) brochure complete with information about beliefs, programs, media, service times, and ministries, 2) give away nice but inexpensive pens with the church logo and website emblazoned on it (people will use pens forever and it will serve as a gentle reminder of your church), 3) give away refrigerator magnets that contain your church contact info (people love fridge magnets and they will use them). This may seem like a lot of trouble but it will reap immeasurable benefits.
One last thought regarding this point (and this just might be the most helpful thought in this whole article), tell guests that you want them to become a part of your church. I mean, literally say those words to them out loud. Don’t just assume that they know how you feel because of your friendliness. Don’t say, “I really hope you visit again” as if they will always be an outsider trying to get into the club. Say, “I’m really hoping that you’ll make this your home church and become a part of what God is doing here”. One is exclusive and one is inclusive. Tell them they are wanted and mean it from the bottom of your heart.
Be a self-aware church. Over time it’s easy to lose perspective and awareness of how we are coming across to our guests and to our communities. Individuals can do it and churches can do it as well. For example, just because we think we are a friendly church (I’ve never been to a church that didn’t think it was crazy friendly) doesn’t mean that we are actually a friendly church. Be friendly, don’t just act friendly. Meaning, many churches become proficient at going through the motions of “friendliness” without truly having a caring or loving desire to know and help people, and they don’t have the self-awareness needed to even realize what has happened. But people can quickly spot all the things that we’ve gradually grown accustomed to in our comfortable surroundings.
In many ways, it’s similar to how I feel when people visit my home. My home doesn’t seem dirty, messy, or disorganized until guests show up, and then I start noticing every flaw and imperfection. The difference between church and our homes is that most folks rarely have guests in their homes, but we constantly have guests in our churches. Make a conscious effort to look at your church like you do your house when you know that company is coming. If nothing else, keep the platform and altar area clean, organized, clutter-free, and pleasant. Why? Because the platform and altar area is where people’s attention will be focused 99% of the time. Do your best to “awkward-proof” your platform as much as possible. Meaning, avoid tripping hazards, weird set-ups where singers are practically on top of ministers who are seated, chairs that make strange noises (funny story goes with this tip), busy seating arrangements that people have to weave around like a maze, bad lighting, exposed tangled wires, decorative arrangements that are easily bumped or fall with little provoking, and odd instrument and musician placements that conflict with the overall environment.
Being self-aware also means that we realize that unchurched people often don’t understand expressions and words that are common to us. No. I’m not one of those guys who wants to dumb down our preaching or secularize our expressions, but I do think we should pause often and explain to guests what we’re talking about. Yes, sir. That’s just common courtesy and good manners. We know exactly what we mean by God is going to “split the eastern sky wide open” but a guest just hears a weird, scary sounding phrase. Self-aware churches do a lot of patient explaining.
Along those same lines, if you announce that everyone who wants to be a part of “such and such” needs to talk to “so and so” without visibly showing them who “so and so” is, every one of your guests and newer saints is going to feel completely lost and excluded. Self-aware churches do lots of introducing people to people.
Utilize the power of social media and onlinepresence. I’ve written many times about the dangers and pitfalls of social media (here, here, and here). However, it’s simply irresponsible when a church fails to harness this powerful outreach tool. Our church reaches over fifty thousand people each month via iTunes and podcast, and much more than that through our online presence. The vast majority of people in your community will check out your church online before making a decision to visit. Very few people show up without doing a little research these days. If possible, set up a podcast where people can listen to your lessons and sermons. Have a website, it doesn’t have to be state of the art but it needs to be updated (don’t have announcements posted for things that have already happened) and very informative. There’s no such thing as too much information. Tell them about your church, what to expect, what you believe, all about your vision, your ministries, your leadership (many church sites make it challenging to even figure out their pastor’s name), your service times, and your location. Link your site to various social media sites and utilize them to the best of your ability. Ideally, someone trustworthy and tech-savvy should be shepherding this ministry (and it is a ministry).
Don’t be ashamed of your apostolic identity (Romans 1:16, Luke 9:26). Hollywood isn’t ashamed of their spectacle. In fact, the world has never been prouder in spite of the chaos that it’s in. Do not be ashamed of the name of Jesus, holiness, Apostolic doctrine, the moving of the Spirit, exuberant praise, passionate preaching, or our Pentecostal heritage.
Beware of the Grasshopper Complex (Numbers 13:26-33). Remember the ten spies who gave an “evil report (Numbers 13:32)”? They said that they could not take the Promised Land. Mostly because they had spotted intimidating giants. They famously whined, “…we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in theirs (Numbers 13:33)”. They were suffering from an Inferiority Complex. They were so impressed and oppressed by the perceived strength of their enemy that they lost faith and paralysis took control. Many churches suffer from a Grasshopper Complex. They see thriving false churches, encroaching evil from every side, political pressure, cultural decay, obstacles that seem insurmountable, and they are frozen in fear. This is fundamentally a faith problem. Here’s the deal with giants; the bigger they are the easier it is to hit them with a slingshot. Okay. I know that sounds flippant and sometimes the battle is extremely intense. But in the end, we either trust God for the victory or we don’t.
For me personally there is probably no passage of Scripture that has given more inspiration to me than the epic story of Elijah calling down fire from Heaven on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:36-39). It’s inspirational on many levels because it shows how one person of faith can change the course of a nation. It shows that we are not alone even when we think that we’re alone. It shows that God works all things together for good to those that love and trust Him. It shows that evil does not have to prevail. It shows that you don’t have to be in the majority to win if God is on your side. It demonstrates that God is all powerful and willing to reveal His glory when the time is right. And beyond all of that it’s just an awesome story. Who among us would not want to witness God putting the skeptics to shame with an outpouring of fire? In fact, it’s easy to get so focused on the falling fire that we forget they still needed rain even after they experienced the fire.
Elijah lived and prophesied in dark days. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel had ushered in an era of idolatry. It seemed that everyone was a backslider in Elijah’s early years of ministry. Jezebel was a murderous queen who introduced Israel to a brand of sensual religious paganism. Evil was rampant in the kingdom. The culture buckled under the pressure of compromise and lasciviousness. Good and decent people were forced into hiding, godly people became the outcasts of their society simply because they would not conform to popular culture. Babies and children were the most vulnerable in the culture that Jezebel shaped because they were offered as living sacrifices to the pagan god known as Baal. If all of this sounds familiar it’s probably because I could just as easily be describing today’s culture where good is called evil and evil is called good, where righteousness is considered stupid and sensuality is the norm, where false religion is prevalent but true religion is scarce, where compromise is cool and steadfastness is underrated, and over 55 million defenseless babies have been murdered since Roe vs. Wade (watch this powerful pro-life video if you dare). It is the single most atrocious genocide in the history of mankind, and yet they sip their wine and eat their salads completely undisturbed. What have we become as a nation? What will we become without revival? How much longer will God allow mercy to hold back the hand judgment? And yet, as bad as things are now it was just as bad in Elijah’s day.
In a moment of exasperation, Elijah prayed for God to withhold the rain and for three and a half years not one drop of rain fell to the ground. It was a brutal famine. People were desperate for life-giving rain. They were perishing slowly but surely. Yet, Elijah remained sensitive to the voice of the Lord and he realized that there needed to be an outpouring of fire before there could be an outpouring of rain. The fire represented death the rain represented life; Elijah understood that you can’t have new life until you put the old life to death. This generation will not have an outpouring of rain until we first have an outpouring of fire.
And so I echo the words of Elijah, “How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him(1 Kings 18:21).” You can’t serve God and the world at the same time. You can’t gain new life and keep your old life at the same time. If we ever want to see a deluge of the Holy Ghost than we must first experience the purging of the falling fire. But Ryan you’re stuck in the Old Testament. Let me take you to the New Testament:
1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.3 And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:1-4).
So how do you get the fire to fall? First, you’ve got to get yourself to an altar. Second, you’ve got to be willing to sacrifice. Third, you’ve got to pray and then pray some more. And then just step back and watch God do His thing! We would have more rain if we would be willing to experience the fire. There are too many Christians who want rain, but they don’t want fire because fire takes sacrifice. Fire takes consecration. Fire takes perseverance. Fire takes dedication. Fire takes courage. Fire takes prayer and more prayer. Fire takes confrontation. Fire will not fall if we’re just doing business as usual. Fire will not fall if we’re just going through the motions. Fire will not fall while the altar is in disrepair. But there is a spiritual famine in our society today that is so prevalent that it cannot be ignored any longer. And if the Church will not call down the fire the rain will not fall.
The Holy Spirit is powerful and it moves in mysterious ways. Anyone who tells you they fully understand every interworking of the Holy Ghost is either a liar or extremely foolish. But I can tell you that the Holy Spirit manifests itself in many different ways. It convicts us and yet it saves us to the uttermost. It brings joy and consternation. It reveals our weakness and empowers us at the same time. Sometimes it falls like a gentle shower and sometimes it burns like a holy flame. It heals and it makes whole. It breaks us and reshapes us. It molds us and makes us better than we were before. It fills us and surrounds us, and it goes before us. When the Holy Ghost falls like rain it brings growth just like physical rain brings growth to the natural world. In the natural rain brings strength, refreshing, and cleansing and so it is in the Spirit as well. Our culture desperately needs the Spirit to fall like rain. But remember, the way God operates is fire first, then rain. When the Holy Ghost falls like fire it purifies.
For He is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap: And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness (Malachi 3:2-3).
You can’t get to the rain until you go through the purification process. However, you can’t offer a bull as Elijah did on Mount Caramel. No. We must present ourselves to God on the altar of sacrifice. When we give ourselves wholly and completely to Him the Holy Ghost will fall like a refiner’s fire.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service (Romans 12:1).
And it came to pass in the mean while, that the heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain… (1 Kings 18:45).
I know in my life it can become difficult to keep the right things in focus. We live in a world where so many things are fighting for our attention, our time, our money, and our devotion. There are moments when I have to slow down and think about my priorities. Consider for a moment what Jesus said in Matthew 6:23, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” A powerful spiritual principle emerges as Jesus shows us, that when we put God’s Kingdom first, the rest of life’s moving pieces begin to fall naturally into place.
Sadly, many people place God’s priorities near the bottom or the middle of their To-Do-List. This creates a life that is constantly out of sync with the benefits of God. If you are peace-less, than you probably have a priority problem. If you are joyless, than it’s probably time to reevaluate who’s kingdom is first in your life.
Everybody instinctively longs to be loved (by the way, love itself is a phenomenon that the atheist simply cannot explain scientifically), but our fallen nature tricks our minds into believing that love is something that we must search after selfishly. Our human default settings look for love in all the wrong places, in all the wrongs ways, and with all the wrong resources. Looking out for “me first” is not a strategy that invites God’s Kingdom to rule our individual world.
In actuality, true love is only accessible when we humble ourselves, seek God’s plan first, and allow Jesus to be the Lord of our lives. And Christ’s lordship must apply to every area of our hearts; that includes the secret places that no one can see or hear. We must allow His lordship into the things that we grasp tightly onto: finances, time, family, relationships, attitudes, lifestyle, culture, and behavior. Deception tells us that we know best, and that we should simply follow the desires of our hearts; but God warns us that our hearts are not to be trusted (Jeremiah 17:19). Like the song we cry, “Lead me Lord, I will follow.”
Consider another Scripture found in Mark 1:15 as Jesus preaches, “…the Kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the Gospel.” Thus, we see that God’s Kingdom is only available to us through repentance and obedience to the Gospel (for a brief description of the Gospel which requires: repentance, water baptism in Jesus’ name, and Spirit baptism visit Acts 2:38). If we are Kingdom minded, than we must realize that it is not enough to be satisfied with our own salvation; we are called to reach others and bring them into the Kingdom as well.
The Apostle Paul demonstrated admirably how a Kingdom minded individual operates with those who are lost, “…there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the Kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening. And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not (Acts 28:23-24).” It is, I think, important to remember that we can reach for the lost, but we cannot impose God’s will upon them. Even God does not impose His will upon us. However, we are mandated to lovingly reach for every single person that we possibly can.
So as we rush through the busy month of August, let’s intentionally seek the Kingdom of God first. Let’s refocus our minds upon spiritual things, rather than allowing the busyness of our daily lives to be an overwhelming distraction.
I remember a kind of gloomy fog settling over my mind after hearing from my Pastor (who doubles as my father) that we would be planning preaching and teaching strategies for the entire upcoming year. Dread! Panic! A throbbing, and all too familiar migraine, began forming in the base of my skull. Up until that point, I had mostly been a high powered evangelist approaching each new service like a maverick gunslinger. On some, albeit rare occasions, I even went to the pulpit with a few scribbled notes and an open Bible. I had a preaching mindset that prided itself upon being highly in tune with the Spirit, and evidently (according to my youthful way of thinking) the Spirit could only see a few days (or even hours) into the future.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a certain kind of desperate advantage to that style of ministry. Certainly, an evangelist is charged with the sacred duty of stirring a sudden response to the Gospel that is often best served with a large dose of spiritual spontaneity. But my role in the Body of Christ had shifted, and now my pattern was being drastically jolted.
Plan we did, with calendars and coffees in hand. We planned teaching series for Midweek Bible Study and Sunday School, and preaching series for Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings (we have lots of good church at Apostolic Tabernacle). Thankfully, we left some wiggle room for my coveted spontaneity. We left no stone unturned. We met with our church staff (paid and volunteer) to plan yearly events and activities. Meanwhile, I held my breath and nursed a silent tantrum fully expecting this strategy to fail magnificently. Not only did it not fail, it excelled beyond my wildest ability to believe. When I say excel, I mean far more than that the church received good sound doctrine, grew at a reasonable pace, and enjoyed good health (although all of that is true); I mean that the process has been a tremendously freeing experience.
This is shocking to me because it seemed so constricting at first. I discovered a profound peace in having a structure (loose but not too loose) in which to study and seek God’s heart. Also, it seems that God is fully aware of what will be happening next month or even (gasp) next year. God can give direction far in advance of any man made time stamps. Not only that, God operates according to a certain command structure. God honors us when we surrender our stubborn will to ordained authorities.
Fast forward several years later, and I can’t imagine ministry without a well-planned preaching and teaching schedule. I just happened to mention this to Dad at lunch the other day, he laughed and gave me a knowing look; then he said something profound (as he often does), “If you approach study without self-imposed parameters of difficulty you will always seek the most familiar path or the mediocre path of least resistance.” In other words, when we approach preaching and teaching like a maverick gunslinger we never challenge ourselves to learn, study, contemplate, and digest things that are unfamiliar. It’s well and good to have a favorite soap box or a tasty candy stick but those things, although comfortable, may become little more than an excuse for intellectual laziness if we are not very careful. So father does know best (sometimes).