Leaders who are interested in planting or revitalizing congregations often feel discouraged and defeated after leadership conferences, or after reading about the ‘heroes’ of church planting and church growth. “They are amazing,” they say. “I can’t be that amazing.”
But Jesus’ load is easy and his burden is light. When we examine the practices and characteristics of those ‘heroes’, we see striking trends and commonalities. Aspiring church leaders can learn the practices and develop the characteristics that will lead to successful churches. Instead of feeling defeated, new leaders should have a hope-filled sense of what new thing they can do.
Authors Matt Miofsky and Jason Byasse carefully researched, interviewed, and profiled successful church-growers across the U.S., and identified 8 characteristics these leaders and their congregations have in common. These pastors are still learning, still figuring out how to do this work and how to faithfully live into God’s call. But for now, how are they doing what they do? What mistakes have they made & learned from? Where have they paid the stupid tax that others should avoid? Each of these ‘heroes’ is painfully ordinary and up front about their flaws. And each can see slightly farther than the rest of us. What do they see that we can learn from?
Discover the 8 characteristics, and learn how to adapt them for your own congregation and calling:
- Believe in miracles and act accordingly
- Integrate new people quickly
- Love the local
- Exist to reach the next person
- Elevate the practice of giving
- Work in teams
- Preach effectively to skeptics
- Make friends with the denomination
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About the Author
Matt Miofsky is the Lead Pastor of The Gathering United Methodist Church in Saint Louis, Missouri. Matt gained a degree in Advanced Math and played football at Washington University and then attended Candler School of Theology. Matt lives with his family in Saint Louis and has previously published two small group studies based on his sermon series, Happy? and Fail.
Jason Byassee is the Butler Chair in Homiletics and Biblical Interpretation at Vancouver School of Theology. He previously served as senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church, a 1500-member congregation in Boone, NC. He is trained in systematic theology with a PhD from Duke, and he worked as a journalist at faithandleadership.com and at The Christian Century magazine. He authored six books, including The Gifts of the Small Church and Trinity: The God We Don’t Know with Abingdon Press.
Read an Excerpt
RAPIDLY GROWING CHURCHES BELIEVE IN MIRACLES AND ACT ACCORDINGLY
Rapidly growing churches experience early miracles in which the Spirit shows up in surprising, unexpected, game-changing ways. As a result, these churches begin to look for miracles, expect them, and operate as if God's power to do the unexpected is real.
This book started with a pretty simple premise. In the midst of a culture where so many churches are in decline, why do certain churches grow, and grow rapidly? Something is happening here, and it is out of the ordinary. So why? I (Matt) get asked that question all the time. In the middle of a city (St. Louis) that is experiencing population loss, economic challenges, social upheaval, and deteriorating churches, why is The Gathering growing? Since I get asked it so much, I have had a lot of time to think about the answer. Want to hear it?
The Gathering is growing because the Spirit is doing something new and beautiful in St. Louis. We as a church spend most of our time trying to ride that wave without falling off. The Spirit is up to something miraculous, and we believe in that so much that we operate as if it is true, day in and day out.
Now I know that answer might sound trite to some of you. I can hear it now: "Yes, yes, the Spirit. We know it's God. But tell us about your worship, your small groups, your mission work ..." This is what we do. We skip over the best part, the only real way the church grows. We skip over the miracle-producing work of the Holy Spirit. And I think I know why.
When we started talking to pastors of rapidly growing churches and hearing their stories, we began to notice a pattern. Somewhere, at some point, these churches experienced things that most churches only dream about. A gift of land that is given to a church needing a permanent home. A leading area musician walking through the doors of a church that has been praying for better worship music. A highly qualified, bright, passionate, talented, and faithful person gives up their well-paying full-time job to commit their energy to the church. The area newspaper does a major story at just the right time; we could keep going. But the point is this: at some early stage, these churches had a miracle in which the Holy Spirit showed up in a surprising, unexpected, game-changing way.
When I share this observation with other pastors, the initial reaction is often exasperation. After all, we cannot manufacture miracles. We can pray, sure. We can hope. But we can't make miracles happen. If church growth is dependent on the surprising, miracle-producing work of the Holy Spirit, then that leaves us pretty helpless. Or so we might think. In fact, that is what we thought. We almost left this first chapter out precisely because we wanted to share observations that people could use, that were transferable, that could work in any setting. But as you know, the Spirit blows and we know not where it comes from or where it goes.
But then something happened. I started thinking more about these miracle stories from rapidly growing churches. I started to reflect on miracles I have experienced at The Gathering. I started talking to pastor friends whose churches may not be on the fast-growing list, but nonetheless could name miracles that God was doing in their own midst, and I discovered that this idea does not leave us helpless. What I discovered is that miracles are actually happening everywhere. In small towns and big cities, in wealthy churches and poor ones. In multisite megachurches and in rural four-point charges. Miracles are happening. Here is the difference — some churches (and church leaders) live and work and act like they believe this, and others don't. This distinction makes all the difference.
Acting as if we believe that the Holy Spirit is up to something in our midst is the single greatest game-changing decision a church leadership team can make. Talk to any of the pastors we interviewed and you will instantly see that before there was any evidence that a church would work, these pastors believed that God was up to something, that God was going to do something significant. They were determined to be a part of it. Acting as if the Spirit is moving changes everything.
For starters, we discovered that churches that believe in the miraculous movement of the Holy Spirit pray fervently, specifically, and boldly. Jorge Acevedo tells a story that occurred shortly after he was appointed to Grace Church, at the time a traditional United Methodist Church in Florida. He had a strong belief that God was going to use the church to reach people who were disconnected from Christ. To do this, he decided to start a contemporary worship service (at the time a risky and controversial step). The morning of the first service came, and he was standing in the new space when someone said to him, "It'll never work." He was launching a contemporary service in a traditional place. But he spent that early morning praying over every chair, over every new person who would come, and praying that the Holy Spirit would produce a miracle. He went back into his office to prepare for worship. When he came out, 261 people were gathered for worship. He describes it as his Pentecost moment. More important than the number, though, was the habit. They were going to pray for the Holy Spirit to work, expect that the Spirit would work, and prepare for the miracles that the Spirit wanted to do in their midst.
Now I know what some of you are thinking. Not every prayer is answered in such a way. We all pray. Maybe you've prayed just this kind of prayer, except no one new showed up. An early morning prayer does not necessarily correspond to hundreds of new people. In fact, it rarely does. But prayer does something else that matters. Praying fervently, boldly, and specifically for miracles begins to focus our vision. It helps us to be on the lookout for where God might be working — and where we were perhaps missing God.
Olu Brown at Impact Church in Atlanta tells a story about early leaders in his church. As many of you know, when you are trying to get something new going in your church, you often pray that God would send a seasoned, mature, thoughtful, and committed church person through your doors. You know, someone who can lead, who tithes, who isn't dysfunctional, and who actually shows up to worship, even when it rains. Early on, Olu received a few people just like that, and he was so thankful. But there was a problem. They would stay for a season, but then for one reason or another, they would move, switch churches, or pass away. At first, Olu shared his frustration at "losing" good people. But then he began to see it differently. He realized that each of these leaders miraculously showed up at Impact, helped Impact through a critical early season with their unique gifts, and then left. He realized that God was sending angels to help them through vulnerable early stages of starting a new church. So instead of focusing on who he was losing, he began looking for the next person that God would send through the doors. Every new person became a potential angel, there to serve a key role in what God was doing. Belief in the Spirit and prayer changed how he saw each person he met.
This virtue matters because when we believe that God is up to something even in our context, we pray differently, we see differently, and most importantly we begin to act differently. This is perhaps why this virtue matters so much. In the rapidly growing churches we studied, a belief in the miracle-producing work of the Spirit led such churches to not only pray, to not only see, but ultimately to act. They are churches that consistently make big bets and bold moves that other churches are afraid to make because they believe the Spirit is at work. The Spirit prompts them to act more boldly. And if you want to get results that most churches don't get, you have to be willing to make decisions that most churches won't make.
Most of us know the story of Moses splitting the Red Sea with his staff. It is told in Exodus 14. The Israelites had fled Egypt with the tacit permission of Pharaoh. As they fled, they camped down for the night on the shores of the red sea. Suddenly Pharaoh changed his mind. He ordered his army to chase after Moses. Soon the Israelites found themselves trapped in an impossible situation. On one side was a vast sea. On the other side was the army of Pharaoh racing toward them. They were no match for the army, and they had no way to cross the sea. The situation was about as hopeless as it could get. And so they turned to Moses, and said
Weren't there enough graves in Egypt that you took us away to die in the desert? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt like this? Didn't we tell you the same thing in Egypt? "Leave us alone! Let us work for the Egyptians!" It would have been better for us to work for the Egyptians than to die in the desert. (Exod 14:10-12)
Have you ever heard a version of this before? You want to do something risky, you want to try something new, you want to go for a bold initiative but the task feels impossible — like being stuck between a massive army and a raging sea. And it seems like there is no way forward. Worse than that, the very people you lead seem content to sit tight and die where they are — rather than trying something new. Moses pleads with them to trust God, pleads with them to keep moving forward. But they won't. They are frozen on the shore.
Most of us know what happens next. Moses stretches out his arm and God splits the sea, making a way where there was no way. We know that part of the story. But you may not know a little detail that made its way into the Jewish rabbinical tradition. According to the midrash, there was one more thing that was needed before God would split the sea and show the way forward. Someone had to brave enough to wade out into the swirling water. Someone had to be willing to walk out into the sea before God would do the miracle. That person was a man named Nahshon. According to tradition, Nahshon walked out into the roaring water. But he didn't stop when the water hit his ankles, or his knees, or even his waist. He had to wade all the way out until it was at his neck and threatening to drown him. Then, and only then, did God begin to part the waters.
There are a lot of lessons in this little piece of Jewish midrash. But one of them is this. We have to act boldly. We have to act as if we expect God to do miracles. We have to try things that, if God is not real, will almost certainly fail. The more boldly we act, the more likely we are to see miracles happening. After all, as long as the people stood safely on the shore, the sea remained an impassable obstacle. It was only when one person was willing to go, trusting that God would do something miraculous, that the impossible occurred. So who are you? Who is your church? Will you be one of the thousand on the shore, or the one who steps out believing that a miracle is possible?
Churches Don't Close because They Risk Too Much
In talking with the leadership of rapidly growing churches, a similar principle seems to be at play. To put it simply, these churches are willing to try things that most churches are unwilling to try in order to get results that most churches don't.
Jorge Acevedo tells a story about one of his riskiest early decisions at Grace Church. After stepping out and starting a contemporary worship service alongside the church's longstanding traditional service, they saw the new service grow while the traditional service did not. As the contemporary service filled up, they knew that a second one would be needed. It made the most sense to do it at 11:00 a.m., the time of the traditional service. A solution was emerging: they would change the traditional service to a second contemporary service. So Jorge decided to use all the "trust chips" that he had accumulated and told the traditional folks that the format of the service was going to change. It was a risky move. Immediately they lost eighty people, many of whom were long-time attenders and financial givers. The remaining folks were skeptical. Parishioners again said it wouldn't work. Failure was a very real option. After a year, however, the service actually grew by 150 people. But it didn't happen without real moments of fear and trepidation. They had to watch eighty people leave before they began to see new people connecting and the church begin to grow. In retrospect, it looks like a great move, but during that period of decline, it took an enormous amount of courage and faith to keep going.
We share this story because it is so typical. Many of us have faced similar kinds of decisions. We see a ministry move that we think God is asking us to make, and yet by making it we risk alienating or angering a cohort of people at our church. Important people.
I (Matt) have the opportunity to travel and speak to churches that are seeking renewal and growth. In paying attention to the kinds of conversations I typically have with leaders, I have noticed two distinct patterns. Some church leaders will share with me their desire to reach new generations of people, engage more children, or reinvigorate their worship. I will start asking questions, and almost immediately they start sharing with me all the things that can't change: the worship style, the paint color, the Sunday school time, the worship committee chairperson, and so on. Whatever the circumstance, the outcome is the same. They aren't willing to make a hard, risk-taking move in order to do what they believe God is calling them to do. Instead they are looking for a solution that keeps people happy and maintains a roughly consensual stasis. They want to see the sea split without wading in up to their neck.
On the other hand, I will meet leaders who are ready and willing to rethink everything from the ground up in order to achieve a particular outcome. If it means changing a worship time, rethinking Sunday school, or dismantling the committee structure, they are willing to try it. You can guess which churches are in a better position to witness miracles and see different results: the ones that make bold decisions. The churches that can't or won't or choose to wait, even if the reasons are valid, usually don't.
Bold moves aren't just about a willingness to anger or even lose some people. This willingness extends to all areas of ministry, often with financial implications. Scott Chrostek tells a story about the risks associated with the purchase of Resurrection's first building downtown. They were a small community, eighty people, but felt that a permanent space was important for the church to demonstrate commitment to the city. An opportunity to buy a bar (next to a strip club) emerged. The provocative nature of the location aside, purchasing the building would require them to do a fast capital campaign, with eighty people, and all in about three weeks. They met, prayed, and decided to go for it. It had risk written all over it, but they knew they needed to do something, and they did. The decision paid off, and the site became their first permanent home, allowing them to establish credibility in the neighborhood and begin to grow as a church. The decision wasn't thoughtless, but it was financially risky and could have potentially set the church back if it didn't work. Failure was a real option, but the church saw an opportunity, felt God was calling, and made the move.
Contrast this with churches that consistently shepherd their finances to avoid disaster rather than to respond to the right opportunity when it arises. Let's be clear here. Responsibly managing a church's finances is faithful and important. This money was given in order to further a church's mission in a community. But when a church is in decline, they begin to make decisions differently. Often congregations are more afraid of running out of money than they are of missing a God-anointed possibility. But risky moves that are made in order to engage new people usually have financial implications. Churches have to be willing to rethink how they deploy their financial resources, and even risk losses, if they are going to truly change their trajectory. Playing it safe and maintaining a cautious course financially doesn't usually mesh well with a desire to try new things in order to get new results. We are not suggesting that you foolishly go all in with the church's finances. We are suggesting that an unwillingness to take risks financially will significantly restrain a church's ability to grow. It is hard to move forward when you are afraid of falling further behind.
Risky decisions can cost us people, they can cost us money, but they can also cost us something less tangible and visible. They can cost us emotional energy, confidence, and stress. Truly bold decisions contain within them the real possibility of failure. Most of us don't want to be the leaders responsible for a failing initiative. Even worse: What if we bet the farm and lose? It could accelerate the closure of an already fragile church. We are not pretending that these decisions don't come without real personal risk, anxiety, and even a loss of sleep. These kinds of decisions cost a leader something. Stepping into the water cost Nahshon something. We get to decide if that cost is worth it. But in churches where leaders are willing to withstand the cost of such moves, the payoff is often worth it. And many churches close with money still in the bank.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Eight Virtues of Rapidly Growing Churches"
Copyright © 2018 Abingdon Press.
Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Jacob Armstrong xiii
Introduction: We Can All Learn from Church Planter's xvii
Virtue #1 Rapidly Growing Churches Believe in Miracles and Act Accordingly 1
Virtue #2 Rapidly Growing Churches Integrate New People Quickly 15
Virtue #3 Rapidly Growing Churches Love the Local 25
Virtue #4 Rapidly Growing Churches Exist to Reach the Next Person 41
Virtue #5 Rapidly Growing Churches Elevate the Practice of Giving 53
Virtue #6 Rapidly Growing Churches Work in Teams 67
Virtue #7 Rapidly Growing Churches Preach Well to the Skeptic 81
Virtue #8 Rapidly Growing Churches Make Friends with the Denomination 97
Conclusion: How to Pastor Like a Planter 107