We need less conventional wisdom and more creative leadership.
Not all of the advice you’ve heard on church growth works. Judging by results, most doesn’t. It’s time we re-evaluate the standard thinking on how to grow a church, especially considering new voices questioning the worth of church growth.
Jim Cowart is shepherding an amazing story. 1800 professions of Christ in ten years have propelled Harvest Church from a church plant of four – Jim’s family – to a thriving community of Jesus disciples. Harvest is changing their world and having a party while they do it.
Learn why conventional church thinking such as pastoral care, long-term planning, stewardship campaigns, committees and even staff inhibit church growth. Learn how to do less, and lead more people to Christ.
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About the Author
Jennifer Cowart is Executive and Teaching pastor of Harvest Church. With degrees in Christian education, counseling, and business, she has been integral to the development of the Emerging and Discipleship Ministries at Harvest. Jen is a gifted Bible teacher and speaker and the author of three women’s Bible studies, Pursued (Spring 2021), Fierce, and Messy People as well as several studies co-authored with her husband, Jim, including The One and Living the Five. She and Jim love doing life with their kids, Aly, Josh, and Andrew.
Jim Cowart is the lead and founding pastor of Harvest Church in middle Georgia, a congregation that he and his wife, Jennifer, began in 2001 and that has twice been named among the nation’s fastest-growing congregations. Jim has authored and coauthored numerous books including Leading from Horseback, Grab Gather Grow, and Start This, Stop That. Whenever life allows, Jim escapes to enjoy the outdoors on horseback, hunting, and traveling with his family.
Read an Excerpt
Start this Stop that
Do the Things that Grow Your Church
By Jim Cowart, Jennifer Cowart
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Jim Cowart and Jennifer Cowart
All rights reserved.
Stop the Cruise Ship
Go and make disciples of all nations. —Matthew 28:19 NIV
Think of boats. There are all kinds of boats: rowboats, ski boats, fishing boats, speedboats. Every boat is built for some purpose. You could ski behind a rowboat, but not easily. You could row a speedboat, but why would you do that? Every boat works best when it's used for the purpose for which it was designed.
Now imagine that your church is a boat. What kind of boat is it?
What's the first image that comes to mind? You might think of several biblical images, such as a fishing boat for fishers of men, a lifeguard boat to save people, or a sailboat blown by the Spirit. Those are pretty good images for the church. But here's one that is not so healthy: a cruise ship.
Nothing against cruise ships. We love them! Have you ever been on a cruise? From the moment you step on board, it's all about you! You are a valued customer, and the crew is there to make your trip smooth and enjoyable. They work hard to provide quality service and entertainment for you. Everyone is at your beck and call. (We don't even really know what beck and call means, but it's awesome!) There's food galore, and if you don't like something, they'll say, "Hey, just send it back; we want you to be happy." They clean your room while you're at the pool and fold your towel into a cool little swan or monkey. There's room service and even buffets at midnight!
Cruises are great because it's all about us. When we step on board, it's like we own the place. On a cruise, everything is designed to please the guest and offer the most comfortable and enjoyable experience possible. Why? Because the staff are nice people? Well, they may be nice, but their primary motivation is to get us to come back and spend more money with their cruise line. A cruise is all about customer enjoyment.
A church was never meant to be a cruise ship.
You can operate as a cruise ship, and many churches have slipped into that, but it's not why Jesus created the church. Many churches try hard to please their members with quality music and programs for the whole family. Pastors and staff act as a crew, offering a smooth and enjoyable experience for the members. There's fun, food, and fellowship, and the entire experience is about taking care of members and their families. Like the goal of a cruise ship, the goal for many churches is to keep the consumer happy.
So what's wrong with that? A lot actually.
It's not your boat. It's not your church. It belongs to Jesus, and he designed it for something else entirely: a rescue mission. It's about him, not you and me. So, here's a more biblical boat image.
Your church should be a battleship.
That's right: an all-hands-on-deck, batten-down-the-hatches, full-speed-ahead, lean, mean, fighting machine. This ship, the church, was built for a specific mission. It's called the Great Commission: "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19-20 NIV). These are our orders. They come straight from the Commander in Chief, Jesus.
What kind of boat is your church? Are you cruising or rescuing? Has the crew been assigned to a station or given a lounge chair with an umbrella? If your church has turned into a cruise ship, then you have an identity crisis. You are using what Christ intended to be a battleship for a pleasure ride. When you have an identity crisis, you are apt to do all kinds of crazy things in search of who you are.
When I, Jim, was a little kid, my family lived way out in the country in South Georgia. One day my brother and I found a baby deer near our house that had been abandoned by its mother. Well, that was great for us! We loved animals so we adopted the baby deer and named him Clyde, my dad's idea from an old Ray Stevens song. (Google it.)
Clyde was so little that we had to feed him formula from a bottle. Then Mom and Dad had a great idea. Every time we fed Clyde, we rang a little bell. Clyde began to associate the bell with food and would come running when we rang it. We never kept Clyde in a pen. He lived outside, and as he grew, his two best buddies in the world were our little dogs, Lobo and Mutt Mutt. At first we weren't too sure how the dogs and the deer would react to each other. But pretty soon they were doing everything together. Those three animals loved each other!
Now, for you city slickers, when I say we lived in the country, I mean we had to drive forty-five minutes to get to school. Surrounding our home were dirt roads, cornfields, and pine trees. And when I say we had two dogs, I mean good old mutts. These animals had questionable lineage, slept under the house, and ate whatever we had left over.
As Clyde grew, we had great fun together. After he was weaned, he started eating grass like a regular deer, but he also ate table scraps with the dogs and slept under the house with them.
His favorite game was to butt heads with us. Boy against deer. We would line up and charge each other. When he started growing antlers, we found an old football helmet and continued to go head-to-head. It was awesome! Clyde kept some of his deer characteristics; however, since his best buddies were dogs, he started thinking and acting more and more like a dog.
Living so far out in the country, we didn't get much drive-by traffic. One day a man was driving through the country past our house. Now, while Clyde liked to butt heads, Lobo and Mutt Mutt loved to chase the occasional car that came along. They were little dogs and wouldn't know what to do with a car if they caught it, but they barked and charged with great enthusiasm. Well, that day Clyde chased the car too! In retrospect, Clyde was probably just running along with his best buddies and didn't have any interest in the car that was kicking up a tail of dust in front of them. If animals could talk, Clyde might have said, "Why are we chasing this thing again?" Lobo and Mutt Mutt would have barked, "Because this is awesome!"
Clyde was a great deer, but he had a bit of an identity crisis. He thought he was a dog. He ate with dogs. He slept with dogs, and he chased cars with dogs. Barking eluded him, but if he could have, he probably would have.
Clyde's story has a good ending. He loved Lobo and Mutt Mutt, but something happened to him. He grew up. He started taking longer and longer visits into the woods. Sometimes he would be gone for days, then show up again to get table scraps and check on his buddies. Then one day he didn't come back. I like to think he met up with a cute little doe and they settled down and had a family. Somehow he got back to being a deer. That's what God made him to be.
When a church thinks and acts like a cruise ship, it develops an identity crisis. The church is God's battleship, sent into hostile territory on a rescue mission. Instead of Love Boat, think Navy Seals. Instead of Julie McCoy, think Patton. (If you're under thirty-five, you may want to head to Google again.)
Some people will be afraid to adjust their ship mentality. They'll say, "What if people get mad and leave?" Some will. Not everyone is comfortable with a mission. There will be those who prefer for you to maintain the cruise ship. But Christ did not leave us the option to choose the kind of ship his church will be. His mission is our mission—to reach people with his love. That requires all hands on deck.
Don't be afraid to raise the bar in your church. Don't be afraid to ask for a big commitment. Don't be afraid to become a battleship. I used to think people would run from a battleship church, but to my surprise, they run to it. People want their lives to count. They are attracted to someplace with a clear vision where they can make a difference. Would you rather be a Navy Seal going out on a mission or a sunburned tourist ordering room service every day? It may be easier to sit around all the time, but it doesn't offer meaning or fulfillment.
You were made to be a warrior, not a tourist. Don't contribute to a cruise ship mentality. If you do, you may have some explaining to do to our Commanding Officer one day. Your local church is a battleship. Are you fulfilling your mission? There is a spiritual war going on. There are spiritual POWs being held captive. Jesus says, "Go get them!" You are never going to be completely happy until you are doing what you were designed to do. Sure, take a vacation. Go on a cruise. Enjoy room service, midnight buffets, and towel art. We need times of rest and relaxation, but we need lives of purpose and significance even more!
Members need to know what kind of ship they are boarding. One way that Harvest does this is with a required membership class. Imagine that you think you're getting on a cruise ship, but you accidentally board a battleship! That would be an unpleasant shocker. Be clear about your mission and expectations.
I still think about Clyde every now and then. We sure had fun together. But I'm glad he got over his identity crisis and learned how to be a deer. I also sometimes think about that guy driving by our house that day. Wouldn't it be funny to have been in the car with him as he looked into his rearview mirror and saw two little dogs and a deer chasing him?
QUESTIONS AND THOUGHTS TO CONSIDER
1. Does our church have an identity crisis?
2. What kind of boat are we?
3. What are the costs of becoming a battleship?
4. What are the costs of remaining a cruise ship?
5. What steps can we begin now to move toward a battleship metaphor?
6. What tools can we use to cast the vision of the battleship to our congregation?CHAPTER 2
Start Casting Clear Vision
Where there is no vision, the people perish. —Proverbs 29:18 KJV
How do you know if you're leading? It's simple. Look behind you. Is anyone following?
When our kids were small, we took a family vacation with some friends to Sea World in Orlando. We had a great time with Shamu! The crowds were pretty big that day, and as we walked up to an outdoor arena for a ski show, people were crowding to get in. There were eight of us in our group, and I, Jim, saw an opening and broke for a good spot down front. "Follow me, guys. I'll get us some good seats," I called back. I moved like a jungle cat. I bobbed. I weaved. Never looking back, I kept my eye on the prize as I pushed and twisted and wiggled myself through the masses in order to lay down my life for the perfect seats. A bit dramatic perhaps, but that's how I felt.
But when I turned around to receive the glowing adoration of my appreciative family, they were not there! In fact, as I scanned the crowd I had just fought my way so bravely through, I saw my whole group already seated about fifteen rows behind me.
"What's going on? I thought you guys were behind me. I've got these great seats!" I called to them. Turns out, I was excited about sitting in the splash zone. My family: not so much.
It slowly began to dawn on me. My family and friends, the people I loved most in this world, the people for whom I had sacrificed and worked hard to secure prime seating, just weren't going to follow me. The ingrates! That really ticked me off! I had to make a decision. Should I stay in the good seat promised land, or go back into the wastelands of the upper deck?
My mind raced. What should I do? Part of me wanted to teach them all a lesson. I could sit down in the prime spot by myself and enjoy the show as they watched in envy. Only, there was no envy. They were happy right where they sat. What good would that do? And why did I come on this vacation anyway? Wasn't it to be with my family and friends? So, I swallowed my pride and took a walk of shame back up the aisle to sit with my family.
I learned an important lesson that day. When no one follows, he who thinks he leads is really only going for a walk! Sometimes, we leaders can get too far in front of the folks we're leading. We haven't taken time to cast vision and share the direction we'd like to lead them. This is a critical error.
You are a leader. Look around your sphere of influence. Who's following you? If you don't see anyone, it doesn't mean that you are not a leader. It may mean that the people who look to you for leadership don't understand where you're headed. It may mean that you have not cast a clear and concise vision for the people to follow. It may even be that you don't know the vision for your church. Let me help you with that in general terms. Jesus laid it out for us; you don't have to vote on it. We know it as the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.
The Great Commandment
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Matt.22:37-39 NIV)
The Great Commission
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt. 28:18-20 NIV)
We have a leadership deficit in our churches today. Pastors say, "The people just won't follow my leadership." The people say, "We just don't have a good leader." A tug-of-war begins or, even worse, a civil war with brother against brother and sister against sister. As we've talked with pastors, we often find that fear of the criticism of a committee or a few vocal people keeps them from leading boldly. Don't fear it; count on it. It's sure to happen. Lead anyway.
The fact is we need great leaders, leaders who not only have vision but also can share it in a clear and compelling way that motivates people to action. Our people are hungry for leaders who will stand up and lead them. They need pastors and leaders to equip them so that they can take on their roles on the battleship in effective and fulfilling ways. It's time to quit stumbling around and boldly lead our people in the battle for souls.
Stay close to Jesus. Stay humble. Stay focused on the Great Commandment, be nice, and lead well. The primary responsibility of leaders is laid out for us in Ephesians 4:11-12 (NLT 1996): "He [Jesus] is the one who gave these gifts to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God's people to do his work and build up the church."
The primary responsibility of the pastor is to lead. However, all too often, pastors spend the majority of their time doing hired holy stuff—visiting the sick, counseling the troubled, attending every ministry team meeting, or caring for the building. These are important tasks, but they are tasks that trained laity could do effectively. If the pastor and staff are consumed with these tasks, they have very little energy left for leadership. The biblical model looks like this: pastors cast vision and then train and equip believers. In other words, the pastor and staff are administrators and leaders. The laity do the ministry.
Following this biblical model has many benefits. First, think how much more ministry might happen in your community if every believer becomes engaged in meaningful ways. Second, the pastor and staff are free to lead and train. Third, laity feel fulfilled because they are using their gifts and time in godly ways. It's a win-win-win situation.
Recently, we spent time with a consultant from a church of around 14,000 members. He is a great guy and an exceptional leader. During our time together, he pointed out the need for pastors to leverage their leadership to help key laity stay immersed in the vision and lead the congregation. His practical suggestion was to make it a practice to have lunch with leaders or groups of leaders on a regular basis, the goal being to check on leaders' spiritual growth, hear updates on their ministry teams, and then cast vision for where the church is headed next. We liked that. We like to eat. We love our people—this should work!
So, let's get practical. How do we do this? How do we cast a clear vision? Here are a few suggestions:
Use the power of the pulpit. Preach the vision. Use examples. Positively paint the picture of what God wants to do in your setting.
Make a specific ask. Tell people what you want them to do, and create a system to facilitate that process.
Leverage your influence with other leaders. Take legitimizers in your congregation to lunch, and share the vision with them.
Use board meetings to cast vision for the future, not just to give reports that review the past.
Be courageous and lead boldly.
Pastors, your people need a spiritual leader. It's you. Laity, take on the ministry role that God has shaped you to fulfill. It's a good plan.
QUESTIONS AND THOUGHTS TO CONSIDER
1. Do we have a clear and compelling vision?
2. What is our vision?
3. How can we cast vision in smaller settings on a regular basis?
4. Is that vision communicated in ways that attendees understand and can share with others?
5. Would Jesus be pleased with how we are living out the Great Commission and the Great Commandment as a church body?
Excerpted from Start this Stop that by Jim Cowart, Jennifer Cowart. Copyright © 2012 Jim Cowart and Jennifer Cowart. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1: Leadership,
1. Stop the Cruise Ship,
2. Start Casting Clear Vision,
3. Stop Saying But,
4. Start Expecting Excellence,
5 Stop Committees,
Part 2: Worship,
6. Start the Party,
7. Stop Communicating for Information,
8. Start Using a Ladder,
9. Stop Speaking Shakespeare,
Part 3: Money,
10. Stop Pledge Campaigns,
11. Start Teaching Money Management,
12. Stop Wasting Influence,
13. Start Quarterly Financial Statements,
Part 4: Growth,
14. Start Three Things,
15. Stop Bottlenecks,
16. Start Big Things,
17. Stop Expecting Uninvited Company,
18. Stop Holy Huddles,
19. Stop the Trickle-Away Effect,
20. Start Tapping Volunteers,
Part 5: Tools,
21. Start Using Communication Cards,
22. Stop Using Flannelboard,
23. Start Counting,
24. Start Confronting Gossip,
25. Stop Allowing Staff to Drain the Church,
26. Start Valuing Membership,
Conclusion: Start Now, Stop Waiting,