Read an Excerpt
When God Builds a Church
By Rusty Russell
Howard BooksCopyright © 2000 Rusty Russell
All right reserved.
A DRAMATIC BEGINNING
I'll never forget the first time I met H. W. "Butch" Dabney that afternoon in Cincinnati, Ohio, during a break at a conference on evangelism in 1965. "Hi, I'm Butch Dabney," he said. "I'm the chairman of the pulpit committee of a new church in Louisville, Kentucky, and I'd like to talk to you about our church. Do you have a minute?"
Butch, who was then in his early forties, was personable, confident, relaxed, and quick-witted. And he had a contagious enthusiasm for the Lord and the new church he had helped start -- Southeast Christian Church in Louisville. Little did I know that I had just met a man who would become for me a spiritual mentor and lifelong friend.
"Southeast is going to be such a special church," Butch assured me. "We started just three years ago with fifty members from the South Louisville Christian Church. Among those members were several experienced and devoted leaders who really want the church to honor Christ and grow. Although we're currently meeting in the basement of a house, we've grown to 125 people and are in the process of building a new church building that will seat four hundred." Butch spoke with conviction and enthusiasm as he continued, "We believe that what we do for the Lord should be our very best. We also believe we havethe potential to be a powerful church, and we've been praying for the right minister. That's where you come in."
The situation at Southeast sounded ideal, but I knew what I had to say. "Your church sounds wonderful, and I'm sure it's going to do great things, but I know it can't be the Lord's will for me right now. In June, I became the first full-time minister of a congregation here in Ohio, and I committed to stay at least a year. It can't be God's will for me to break that promise." Butch and I parted company, and I didn't think I'd ever see him again.
Several months later I received a long-distance phone call. "Hi, I'm Butch Dabney. Remember me? I talked with you at the conference on evangelism several months ago. Well, we still haven't found a minister. Two women from our church came to hear you preach last Sunday and gave a glowing report. Sometime in the next few weeks, we'd like for you to come down and look over our situation. If it seems like a good fit, we'd be willing to wait until June when your year's commitment is up. Will you come?"
Although I had a lot of apprehension about preaching in the suburbs of a large city, this was obviously an open door through which God was prodding me to walk. "Yes!" I said without hesitation. "I'll be happy to take a look."
When I became a part of the ministry at Southeast in June of 1966, I was not quite twenty-three years old! But Butch Dabney assured me that the church was hungry to love a minister and poised to grow. He was right. The people were supportive and loving, and that's why I've been able to stay for thirty-four years. They endured some very immature sermons in those early years and helped me smooth out a lot of rough edges, and we grew together.
God Does Immeasurably More
Southeast Christian Church was founded in 1962 when the leaders of its parent church (South Louisville Christian Church) felt the need to start a congregation on the growing eastern side of Louisville. After much prayer and planning, fifty people agreed to leave that established and growing congregation to start Southeast Christian Church.
The Sunday before the new congregation was to have its first service, Olin Hay, the minister at South Louisville, asked all those who were joining the new church to stand. When he looked out over the congregation, he was a little overwhelmed. He hadn't realized that so many were leaving. Among those who felt led to help start this new church were some of his most influential leaders. The fifty people included a worship leader, four elders, several deacons, and Butch Dabney -- Olin's own brother-in-law! But Olin bowed in prayer and asked God to bless this new congregation. And God began to bless it in an outstanding way.
Since 1966, Southeast Christian Church has grown from 125 to over 13,500 in worship. We have gone through five building programs and two complete relocation projects, the last of which cost over ninety million dollars (including land, construction costs, and architects' fees). We have gone from an annual budget of eighteen thousand dollars to an annual budget of eighteen million dollars.
There have been many great joys and a few deep sorrows. Butch Dabney is now a retired elder, but he is still a mentor and friend to me. Our families are still close. He's like a father, and his sons are like brothers to me. And I have discovered that God's Word is true -- "God does immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine."
On Christmas Eve, 1998, Southeast moved into a new facility. We desperately needed the room to grow. Before the move we had been cramming ten thousand people into a twenty-two-hundred-seat auditorium in five weekend services. In several of those services, people had to sit in the aisles, and as many as five hundred people were worshiping in the fellowship hall, watching the service on closed-circuit television. We had parking and traffic problems. We were shuttling people from off-site parking locations and housing adult Bible fellowship classes in neighborhood schools. We were even dealing with space problems during the week, without adequate room to house all the Bible studies, training programs, support group meetings, and activities we wanted to offer.
Our new facility includes a worship center that holds over nine thousand people, plenty of classroom space, an activities center, and two large fellowship halls. Attendance jumped by three thousand people in the first few weeks. We wondered if we would sustain that leap. Now, one year later, not only are we sustaining that growth, but we are also seeing many of those three thousand new people come forward to become a part of the church. When they come to shake my hand at the invitation time, I'll say, "How long have you been attending?" I am shocked at how many never attended our church before we moved into our new facility, which makes me all the more thankful that we chose to follow God's leading and build that new building.
While I was a student at Cincinnati Bible Seminary, I once visited a church that had five hundred people. I walked away saying, "That's just too big." I grew up attending a rural congregation in northwest Pennsylvania that until recent years never had more than one hundred members. I decided during my senior year of high school to enter the ministry, assuming I would return to that area of the country and help to pastor another small rural congregation. When people ask me today if I ever dreamed I'd be preaching to fourteen thousand people, I just laugh and say, "Not in my wildest imaginations." I often look around at what God is doing, consider my roots and my limitations, and say to myself, What in the world am I doing here? How did I get here? God must have a sense of humor!
Back to the Basics -- the Purpose of This Book
One of my favorite movies is Hoosiers, where Gene Hackman plays the part of Norman Dale, a former college coach with a tainted past who is hired to coach a rural high-school basketball team from Hickory, Indiana. Coach Dale leads the team all the way to the state finals. On the day of the semifinals, the team arrives at Butler Field House, the huge inner-city arena where they're to play in just a couple of hours. When the players enter the arena, their jaws fall slack and their eyes open wide. Gawking at the seats, the stand-alone goals, the suspended scoreboard, and the lights, they are awestruck and intimidated.
Coach Dale instructs one of his players to take a tape measure and determine the distance between the free-throw line and the goal. "What's the distance?" he asks.
"Fifteen feet," the player says.
Dale then tells the smallest player on the team to climb on the shoulders of a taller player so they can measure the goal. "How high is it?" he asks.
"Ten feet," the player says.
Coach Dale says, "I believe you'll find these are the exact same measurements as our gym back in Hickory."
The team members share in some nervous laughter, and everybody begins to relax. As they exit the gym, Coach Dale turns to his assistant and whispers, "Sure is big, isn't it!"
I don't know what monumental challenges lie ahead in this new millennium. But I know we're still playing the same game. It's the same Bible we are teaching, the same truth we are proclaiming, the same Lord we are exalting. For the church to be the church -- in any
millennium -- we must follow certain principles. If we ignore even one of these essential principles, we'll become something other than a church, with no defining characteristic to separate us from a country club or civic organization.
I'm convinced that if your church is characterized by the ten principles outlined in this book, regardless of the methods you choose to implement them, God will bless your efforts.
Many church leaders go to conferences looking for a quick fix or easy solutions to their problems. They hope to discover some fresh program, some unique gimmick that will jump-start their church --
contemporary music with a band, shorter or longer sermons, expository preaching or thematic preaching, small groups, or technological enhancements in the service. Discussing those ideas may be helpful, but what works in one culture or one area of the United States may not work in another. What one church adapts as positive change may be a source of division in another.
The methods we have implemented at Southeast Christian Church may or may not work at your church. You can't fight Goliath wearing Saul's armor. You can't minister with someone else's style. You have to be yourself and adapt to the culture around you. But the principles that undergird those methods -- the ten principles discussed in this book -- should be enlisted by every congregation that intends to glorify Jesus Christ. Although I will share with you some specific ways our church has tried to apply these principles, you must remember that the secret ingredients are the principles themselves, not the applications.
Rick Warren, in his excellent book The Purpose Driven Church, warned church leaders not to try to copycat someone else's church. He said, "You cannot grow a church trying to be someone else." But then he identified what you can learn from observing other congregations.
You can learn principles. As the old cliché says, "Methods are many, principles are few; methods change often, principles never do." If a principle is biblical, I believe it is transcultural. It will work anywhere. It's wise to learn and apply principles from watching how God is working around the world. While you cannot grow a church trying to be someone else, you can grow a church by using principles someone else discovered and then filtering them through your personality and context.1
Amen, Rick! That's what I want to communicate in this book. I want to focus on those principles Rick Warren was talking about.
Many churches have changed their methods to try to reach a new generation and have failed to see any results. But I challenge you to find one church characterized by these ten principles that isn't a healthy, God-honoring, growing congregation. Someday the megachurch may become a thing of the past. Our culture may change, and we may discover a better way to make disciples for Jesus Christ. Right now God is using some very large congregations to reach thousands for Christ and to revive the hearts of thousands more. But regardless of the future of the megachurch, the ten principles that I share in this book will remain true.
Twice a year we host a leadership conference. About fifteen hundred people from churches all over the world attend. Our conference is unique in that it is designed primarily for lay leaders. When pastors go to conferences, they get energized with new ideas and a renewed vision for ministry, then return to a church board that is resistant to change. But our conference helps a church's lay leaders get on the same page as their ministers -- and that's usually the first step toward positive change.
We do have a track for preachers at our conference, but about 75 percent of those who attend are elders, deacons, Sunday-school teachers, volunteer music directors, and committee chairpersons. Hundreds of those church leaders have reported back to us about the dramatic growth their churches have experienced after implementing the ten principles I discuss in this book.
My Reluctance to Write This Book
When it was first suggested to me that I write a book about the principles that have helped Southeast Christian Church become the church it is today, I was reluctant to do so for several reasons.
God's Definition of Success Is Different
God doesn't define success in the same terms that we do. Although we rejoice over our numerical growth, we know that God doesn't measure success in terms of attendance, offerings, or size of buildings. He measures effectiveness in terms of faithfulness to His Word, conformity to Jesus Christ, and ministry to those in need.
What If Someone Thinks We're Boasting?
When we talk about the blessings our church has enjoyed, some readers will interpret it as boasting. The apostle Paul wrote, "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Gal. 6:14). But Paul did reluctantly boast about what he had witnessed God doing in his presence (2 Cor. 11:10).
God has done a remarkable thing in our church, and he deserves praise. When a church that has stayed true to God's Word grows from fifty people to almost fourteen thousand, builds a 770,000-square-foot facility, gives forty-two million dollars over its regular giving to finance the new building, and has over twenty-four hundred new members in one year, it's obvious that God is doing something significant.
If someone interprets describing all this as boasting, then we have failed to communicate that we're only speaking of how the Lord has blessed us. The Bible commands, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ" (Eph. 1:3).
I recently met a couple who had listened to me for years on the radio in a city several hundred miles away. They decided to come visit our church, and they were awestruck. The husband said to me, "Bob, we can't get over this place. Only God can do this. I mean, Bob, you're good, but you're not that good!" He's right. It's the Lord who is building the church, not me. I am grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution, but the glory goes to Jesus Christ.
Misconceptions about Megachurches
I have read several articles claiming that most megachurches have grown primarily through "stealing sheep" from other congregations. If you've read those same articles, you might be reading this book with a certain amount of skepticism. I can't speak for other megachurches -- I can only report what has happened at Southeast -- but through interviews and surveys with our new members, we estimate that 50 percent of them were not involved in any church before coming to Southeast. The other half had their names on a church roll somewhere, but most of them had not actively participated for years. Others left their church because of increased liberalism and were looking for a place where the Scriptures are believed and taught. I heard a preacher in a growing church say, "We don't steal sheep, but we do plant grass!" If people hungry for spiritual food find it in our fellowship, then we certainly welcome them.
Very few of our new members have left an active involvement with a Bible-believing church to come to Southeast. In fact, a megachurch often acts as a funnel to feed other smaller congregations in its area. People often visit Southeast knowing they can remain anonymous and are introduced to Christ. But later they may decide that the church is too far from their home or too big, and they find another church closer to their home or more suited to their needs.
After both of our relocations, we helped support the two smaller churches that bought our previous sites. Several hundred people stayed behind and became involved in those two churches. We sent them a letter thanking them for their contribution to our church and wishing them the very best in their new church families. Our primary concern is that people grow in Christ.
It's Hard to Explain God's Blessings
When God works, it's very difficult to explain why or how it happens. I get amused when "experts" attempt to analyze church growth. Sometimes they even analyze Southeast as an example. They try to reduce all that has happened to us to a formula. But I've been in the middle of miraculous growth for thirty years, and I can't really explain it myself. Jesus compared the movement of the Holy Spirit to the wind: "The wind blows wherever it pleases," he said. "You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going" (John 3:8).
When I came to Southeast in 1966, I didn't say to the board, "We're going to implement these ten principles and watch our church grow as a result." I didn't have these ten things in mind. But over the years as we began to grow, people started asking why. Why is Southeast growing at such a remarkable pace when other churches aren't? What's the difference?
While I can't explain why God chose to bless us in such a miraculous way, this book is an attempt to explain the basic spiritual principles that have enabled God to pour out His blessings upon us. When Jesus went to Nazareth, he could do no mighty work there because of their unbelief. That tells me that our unbelief and failures can inhibit the work that God wants to do in our midst. I am confident that God wants to do even greater works in other places if he is invited and allowed to do so.
God Wants to Bless Your Church beyond your Imagination.
Many churches in America are dead. They aren't evangelizing, they've quit sending missionaries to the field, and they're having financial problems. The reason for their failure is that at least one of the principles in this book hasn't been followed. Their leaders aren't humble people with vision and a desire to change, the congregation doesn't get along, they don't worship God, they don't give generously, they don't care about evangelism, they don't do things with excellence, or God's truth isn't being spoken from the pulpit.
But I thank God that there are also many churches in America that are very much alive. They're worshiping God, loving one another, and winning people to Christ. Regardless of their size, the ten principles in this book characterize their church. And God has blessed them beyond their wildest dreams -- not just with numbers, but with growth in the hearts and souls of the people. Southeast is just one among thousands of such churches.
When these principles are implemented, regardless of the size of your church, I'm convinced that God will bless you more than you could ask or imagine. It's my prayer that he will use this book to prepare you and your congregation for an even greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit in your church.
Several years ago, a young intern went back to seminary after spending several months serving with us. He said his friends immediately hounded him with questions about his experience. "What did you learn from being at Southeast Christian Church? Did you learn about preaching? Administration? What was your most significant lesson?"
He answered, "I think what I really learned is what a church can be."
I'm hoping that's what you will gain from reading this book. I hope you won't see this as a story about a big church, but a vision of what your church can be. Your church may not grow to be fourteen thousand people. Maybe it will grow even larger! But regardless of the size, God can bless your church more than you ever asked or imagined. I hope our story will inspire you to lift your sights and increase your faith.
I can't tell you how honored I am that you have picked up this book. Whether you are a seminary student, church planter, minister, missionary, elder, deacon, or volunteer worker, I hope this book will be an encouragement to you. I pray you will learn something that will help your church better fulfill its mission. May your congregation be instrumental in bringing scores of souls to Jesus Christ and helping them get better acquainted.
Excerpted from When God Builds a Church by Rusty Russell Copyright © 2000 by Rusty Russell. Excerpted by permission.
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