2000 Gold Medallion Award winner!
The Upside Down Church is a must-read for pastors and church lay leaders to help them grasp the principles of biblical church growth. Any church can revolutionize its community for Christ by following a biblical model for local church ministry. Readers will rediscover the first century church priorities of fellowship, evangelism, worship, and discipleship.
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Read an Excerpt
The Upside-Down Church
By Greg Laurie
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 1999 Greg Laurie
All right reserved.
I SUPPOSE I should be the last person writing a book on what a church ought to be. I have been a Christian only since 1970. I was not raised in the church. In fact, I had no background whatsoever in an understanding of the evangelical culture. I was your garden variety unbeliever. It's not that I was somewhat ignorant of spiritual things-I was completely ignorant of them. But Jesus Christ came into my life in 1970 and dramatically turned it around. I began preaching about a year and a half after my conversion, and I was pastoring at the ripe old age of nineteen. It seems crazy, doesn't it? But it happened.
We recently celebrated twenty-five years of ministry. As I look back on my life, I don't know what I would have done much differently. It was never our goal, per se, but we have become one of the largest churches in the country, with some fifteen thousand attending on an average Sunday. We see an average of three to four thousand people come to Christ every year in our church services alone. Thousands of others come to faith through our various outreach ministries, including the Harvest Crusades. One-fourth of the people in our congregation are actively involved in some type of ministry today. More than 60 percent of them came to faith at our services.
I know what you're thinking: This guy's bragging, and he's going to try to get me to buy into some program or seminar that will tell me how to do it for a small fee. And if I act now, he'll throw in some Ginsu knives! I guess I am bragging a little bit. But if I am, I am bragging on God, because I am about as ordinary a guy as you are going to meet. And that is why I have written this book. To give hope and some words of encouragement on how God can do extraordinary things through very ordinary people-people like me and maybe you. In this book I will share with you our theology, philosophy of ministry, and some practical advice as well.
I have been asked many times what verse best sums up my life and ministry. There are many things that I would love to quote that would position me as someone with great vision or faith. But if I were totally honest, it would be 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 (NIV): "Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things-and the things that are not-to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him."
It is hard to explain all that the Lord has faithfully done in our ministry over the last twenty-five years. I'm reminded of a statement Warren Wiersbe made: "If you can explain what is going on then God didn't do it." I think there's truth to that. God has blessed our ministry. Yet we didn't use many of the techniques being touted today-surveys, studies, or attempts to have a more "friendly" approach to unbelievers. If you came to a service at Harvest Christian Fellowship, it would probably seem very contemporary to you. We have a relatively simple building, with no religious symbols to speak of. The music is clearly contemporary, and the dress style is casual. But underneath all of that are timeless biblical principles. This ministry could be compared to a Windows 98 operating system. On the surface it is brightly colored, with simple icons to click. But underneath it is a DOS infrastructure. A healthy and thriving church must have a strong infrastructure. If you don't have a good foundation, trouble is coming, regardless of your growth, be it numerical or financial.
I would like to tell you our story. It may surprise or even shock you at times. I think you will laugh a bit. It has been and continues to be an adventure.
After I became a Christian, I was afraid that God might "call" me to preach. I feared that it would happen at a really awkward time, such as when I was standing in line at the supermarket. I thought that maybe the Lord would force me to turn to the people behind me and say something really clever like, "I see that some of you are purchasing bread today. You know, Jesus said, 'I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst'" (John 6:35, NKJV). Then I could say something like, "How many of you would like to come to Jesus right now?" The thought of the whole thing terrified me.
The day I first preached publicly did come. But it was not in the supermarket. In fact, it happened as the result of a misunderstanding. The church I attended was holding a mass baptism down at a beach in Newport Beach, California. I thought it was later that day, but it had already taken place, and I had missed it. When I rolled out of bed that morning, it was a day like any other day-no visions, no audible voices from heaven, no signs or wonders. But that day was about to alter the course of my life. I arrived at the beach, and instead of finding a few thousand people, as would be gathered for a baptism, I found only a handful. I was disappointed to have missed the baptism but glad to find some fellow believers to sing and fellowship with. As I joined their group I quickly noticed that no one was really leading. One person would sing a song, and others would join. Then another would sing a song, and we would sing again. I had read a passage of Scripture that morning that was sort of burning inside, and I sensed God nudging me to share it with this little group.
"Excuse me, but I read a Scripture this morning that I would like to share!" I blurted out nervously. Everyone seemed agreeable to the idea, so I stammered away, and when I was done, I was so relieved. I was saying to the Lord, quietly in my heart, Lord, thank you for that wonderful opportunity! I can't wait to tell some of my Christian friends how you used me.
I thought I was done that day, but the Lord was just getting started. While I was speaking, a couple of girls had joined our little group. When I finished, one of them said to me, "Excuse me, Pastor, but we missed the baptism, and we were wondering if you could still baptize us?"
"Pastor"?-what, is this girl nuts? I thought. "I'm sorry, I am not a pastor, and I don't even know how to baptize someone!" I protested.
"But we want to be baptized. Can't you help us?"
And then the Lord gave me a great sense of peace and impressed it upon my heart to go ahead and do it. "Uh, OK, I guess I could do that. Umm, let's go on down to Pirate's Cove."
Pirate's Cove is a charming little natural amphitheater, a spot etched in rock overlooking a small beach. Many times during the year, Calvary Chapel would have hundreds sit up on the rocks and watch as Pastor Chuck Smith and others baptized people. I had been baptized there myself, so it held fond memories for me. Except this time I was leading a little group that had now grown to about thirty down to Pirate's Cove, and I had no idea what I was going to do once I got there. As we went to the water's edge, I racked my brain, trying to remember something I had never really paid much attention to. The actual technique of baptizing a person! I remembered watching Pastor Chuck Smith holding a person's nose as he supported his back and gently lowered them backwards into the water. So I did the same and awkwardly baptized the first girl. She was still breathing afterwards, and I was greatly relieved. Then I baptized the second and was starting to feel like an old pro! As I came out of the water once again, I quietly rejoiced in this wonderful opportunity God had opened up for me.
While I was preparing to leave, I noticed that a crowd had gathered up on the rocks, taking all of this in. Then the thing I feared most came upon me. God clearly spoke to my heart and said one thing: "Preach!" Instead of being terrified, I had a great sense of calm and to the best of my ability proclaimed the gospel in my first little crusade. I even invited people to come down to where we were and receive Christ. A few did, and I had the privilege of baptizing them that day, too. Now I was ruined. I had the bug. Deep down, I knew that I was called to do this.
Early Days at Calvary
In those early growth days I couldn't get enough Bible study. I had no hostilities or hang-ups about the church because I knew nothing of it. In fact, I was like a sponge, drinking it all in and loving it. I wanted to serve the Lord somehow, and the only real skill I had to speak of was in graphic arts. In fact, my goal in life up to that point had been to become a professional cartoonist. Most of the Christian literature back in those days was pretty outdated. It was way out of step with the culture and, frankly, embarrassing to hand out.
So one day I decided to take one of Chuck Smith's sermons on John 4 and illustrate it in an easy-to-read comic-book format. I called it "Living Water." I wrote and drew it in about two hours and was so excited, I went over to his house and knocked on front door. When he came to the door, I held out my primitive little drawing and told him a bit about it. He really seemed to like the piece and suggested I redraw it in a tractlike format and then it could be printed up and distributed to the church. We printed about 10,000, and they were gone in a week. We printed 100,000, and they were soon gone. When all was said and done, upwards of 2 million of those little tracts had made their way out. Now I was really ruined. I knew that I was called to serve the Lord.
I began to support myself doing graphic arts on the side, but my real hope was to preach and teach others about Jesus Christ. I hung around Calvary Chapel, just hoping for opportunities to come my way. I set up my drawing board in one of the extra Sunday school rooms and would just wait for anything to do. When the pastors went out for lunch, I would firmly plant myself in the church office, hoping the secretary might shoot a counseling call or two my way. When a speaking opportunity arose in some faraway city no one wanted to go to, the other pastors would say, "Let Greg go. This would be a great opportunity for him!" I didn't mind a bit. I was eager to be used.
One day the ultimate leftover was dropped in my lap.
Leftovers from Heaven
An Episcopal church in a city called Riverside wanted to see if what God was doing in the Jesus movement down in Orange County could happen in their city as well. Some of the leaders of that church approached Chuck Smith and asked if he would send up some of the associate pastors to teach a Bible study aimed at young people. They rotated, each doing it for a few weeks and then handing it off to another. One particular week no one really wanted to go. They were talking about it among themselves as I quietly listened. One of the pastors said, "Hey, why not have Greg go up there?" They all agreed and said I could take the next Sunday night. I studied hard that week and desperately wanted to do well.
When I showed up at the church, I quickly realized no one had told them I was coming. They were expecting a pastor they already knew. The elder in charge reluctantly agreed to have me preach and said that he would be watching and listening very closely that night. Not exactly a vote of confidence! But I made my way through it and was told I could come back again the next week. So each week I spoke, and attendance actually began to grow. People started to receive Christ, and I was beside myself with joy! In fact, it grew into a group of about three hundred, and some of the people were starting to call me Pastor Greg. Here was the "pastor" thing again. It was almost laughable. I was twenty years old! I had been a Christian for only three years. I hardly felt qualified to be a pastor. Besides, I really felt called to evangelism, not pastoring. But this crazy Bible study just kept growing.
This little Bible study that I had the privilege of leading had now, for all practical purposes, become a church. We had outgrown the facilities at the Episcopal church where we began, so we looked for our own building. I was told of a Baptist church in the middle of town that had had a split and was available for lease or rent. We had no money in the bank and were really a bunch of kids just trying to do what we thought God wanted us to do. I called Chuck Smith and asked him if he would come and check this thing out with me. As we walked around the building, taking it all in, Chuck spoke with the Realtor who had listed it. I saw Chuck take out his checkbook, write out a check, and hand it to the Realtor. They shook hands, and Chuck came over to me and said, "Well, congratulations, Greg. You just got yourself a church!" He had to get back to Costa Mesa, so he climbed into his car and drove out of the parking lot, and I just stood there stunned.
What was I going to do? Who was going to help me? Was I really called to do this? As it turned out, Pastor Chuck had provided the down payment, but the rest was up to us. The next Sunday we made the announcement at the Episcopal church that we were moving to this new building. I was terrified that no one would follow us. But the next week they showed up in force. We were now five hundred strong!
I felt called primarily as an evangelist. Prior to taking on this Bible study, in addition to doing graphics I had become something of an itinerant preacher. I traveled with a number of the early contemporary Christian music groups, and I sort of emceed the evening and then got up and preached the gospel and gave an invitation for people to come to Christ. As itinerant, or traveling, preachers often do, I had developed five or six messages that I gave over and over, and they were well honed.
Yet now, here I was, called upon to teach every single week in the same place in this new and growing church that I had somehow become the pastor of. We had not only our Sunday night services but Wednesday services as well. I had to learn how to really study. I decided to teach through the books of the Bible as I had seen modeled at Calvary Chapel. I decided to start with Ephesians. The commentary In the Heavenlies, by Harry Iron-side, was recommended to me, and I used that as my guide. For all practical purposes I stole Ironside's outlines, illustrations, and antidotes lock, stock, and barrel, but I was beginning to develop my own style. The numbers were not huge for our midweek studies, but I gave my all, sometimes learning things for the first time as I prepared during the day and delivered it to the people who came out that night.
Sunday nights were another issue altogether.
Excerpted from The Upside-Down Church by Greg Laurie Copyright © 1999 by Greg Laurie
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.