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Outside Perspective: Growing a Healthy Church

One of the youngest U.S. megachurch pastors comments on growing sustainable, healthy churches in an age where only 40 percent of people attend church regularly.

At 29, I became one of the youngest megachurch pastors in the U.S. as I inherited the leadership of the church where I served on staff. Before my 30th birthday, I had achieved the ultimate goal of many pastors.

Yet, even as I lead this great church, I have begun to realize that what we largely experience in churches across the U.S.—even in ones that are growing and healthy—is not even close to the kind of radical and expansive growth that is possible.

As I read the book of Acts, I can’t help but notice that the church constantly grew. These first-century Christians would never have considered calling it growth if the believers were just moving into the area and started attending a church, or if they were leaving one church in order to attend another. Growth was always about people beginning to follow Jesus as the church at large grew.

The growth that the early church experienced, not only in the book of Acts, but also beyond, is a bit mind blowing. In The Rise of Christianity, author Rodney Stark noted that there were an estimated 25,000 Christians in A.D. 100; by A.D. 310, the church had grown to approximately 20 million Christians.

That kind of exponential growth wasn’t just reserved for the early church; we’re still seeing it in places today. Take, for instance, what a July 2004 article by Philip Yancey reported in Christianity Today regarding the church in China. By 1950, Western missionaries had essentially been kicked out of China, and it’s estimated there were around 1 million Christians. By 1995, it’s estimated that there were approximately 80 million Christians.

Decline in the U.S.

While it’s great to understand what’s happened in other places and at other times, we need to also recognize what’s happening here in the U.S., now. According to a recent poll by The Barna Group, in 1991, 49 percent of Americans claimed to attend church regularly. Compare that to today, in 2011—it is now 40 percent. In addition to that, in 1991, 24 percent of our population was considered to be unchurched; today that number has risen to 37 percent.

The hard reality is that the church in the U.S. is losing ground. We are seeing fewer people, by and large, begin to put their faith in Jesus.

At the same time, according to The Hartford Institute for Religious Research, in 2005 there were somewhere around 600 megachurches in the U.S. while today, in 2011, there are more than 1,200 megachurches. It seems that, as we have gotten better and better at growing our individual churches, the number that’s increasing is the number of people in our country who are unchurched.

This should be sobering. And it should lead us to ask a few very simple, but very important, questions: Are our methods producing the desired results? Is the kind of church that we’re trying to become and the models that we’re pursing actually the most effective ways for the church at large to grow?

We need to begin rethinking not only our methods, but also, maybe, what we consider to be success. While I don’t pretend to have all the answers or even all the specifics worked out on how to do this, I would like to propose three “mind-shifts” that we need to begin as church leaders, which can start to point us back in the right direction.

Think Mission Over Church Service

The way we tend to spend our time as leaders is largely directed toward what happens on the weekend. But Jesus defined His mission as this: ” ‘For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost’ ” (Luke 19:10, NKJV).

Far too many of us have bought into the fallacy that the way to accomplish this mission is to have really great and attractive church services. Is it possible that we have become too focused on the church service, believing that the service itself would accomplish the mission of the church? It seems we have lost sight of empowering our people to live out that mission, instead training them to become consumers of a church experience.

As leaders, we need to stop blaming those whom we lead, and instead recognize that we’ve played a role in creating the vast consumerism that’s running throughout the church in North America.

Think Multiplication Over Addition

In the church, we have learned to celebrate addition when we should be going after multiplication. In Long Beach, Calif., where I do ministry, approximately 10 percent of the population attends church on a given weekend. If we were to grow by 1,000 people a year over the next 10 years, we would be celebrated for our rapid growth. After all, adding 10,000 people to your church would be astounding!

The problem would be that, after all of the energy—and the huge amount of resources that would take—only about 12 percent of our city would be attending church after those 10 years. What would feel incredibly successful would actually hardly be making a dent.

We need to learn to think more biblically. What the New Testament teaches is that every person in our churches who has the Spirit of God in him or her already has the potential to be someone who is bringing others to faith.

Our churches can only multiply themselves when everyone is involved in living out the mission. As leaders, we have to learn to not make the evangelistic efforts in our churches center around people coming to hear us, but instead around equipping and empowering the people of our churches to be the ones who are personally engaged in helping others come to faith.

Think 7 > 1

Too often we train our people to think that what happens on one day a week—Sunday—is the most important part of their week. We have to learn to flip that around to say that seven is greater than one.

In the early church, and historically, whenever you find a radical movement of the church, there is a declaration of “Jesus as Lord” that comes with it. In our churches, we need to have a renewed emphasis on discipleship. Not the kind of discipleship where people simply gain more biblical information; we need to reclaim the New Testament definition of discipleship, which is simply following Jesus.

We need to begin new discipleship models that help believers to stop treating Jesus as a fact to memorize, a Sunday belief system or something that’s relegated to just their spiritual lives. Instead, we need to recognize Jesus as Lord in every aspect of our lives, seven days a week.

The church at large in the U.S. sits at the edge of what could be a potentially radical movement. Let’s be honest about our reality, and take bold and courageous steps to follow Jesus in leading our churches to be a part of a radical and expansive movement that can reverse the trends of decline.

Recommended Books for Follow-Up

Interested in learning more about how to multiply your church in a healthy way? Here are a few suggested resources:

The Multiplying Church by Bob Roberts Jr. (Zondervan)
An Unstoppable Force by Erwin Raphael McManus (Group Publishing)
On the Verge by Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson (Zondervan)

By: Mike Goldsworthy, lead pastor of Parkcrest Christian Church, a non-denominational congregation with three campuses in the Long Beach, Calif., area

is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Orlando, Fla.
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