Pastor, Why Do You Want a Big Church?

Does that strike you as a strange question? Of course we want big churches because that will mean more people know and love the Lord Jesus Christ. That may be true, but not in all cases. Let us not forget Jesus’ warning that Satan can grow the church or fall into that trap that equates attendance with faith. I have written other posts exploring whether pastors should be passionate about numerical growth, and I have offered a few cautions about the role of metrics in ministry. In this post I hope to explore the pastor’s desire for a big church. This desire is surely in many cases a healthy and prayerful longing for evangelism and conversions. However I think that we are deceiving ourselves if we deny that mixed motives may lie behind it. Pastors are, after all, sinful, limited and self-seeking human beings. It is this darker side of the pursuit for big ministries that I hope to address below.

Idolatry

Church growthAs with many of the things we make into idols the thing desired may be morally neutral, and in many cases positive. A large as well as healthy church is undoubtedly an honourable aim and God-honouring ambition. But this means that it easily becomes a noble idol, similar to a happy family or success in the workplace. Pastors can very easily slip into desiring something good over and above God, which is a decent but limited definition of idolatry. Surely if I can make something as ostensibly God-given and wonderfully satisfying as marriage into an idol I can do the same with growing and pastoring a large church. In many ways this point will underpin the rest, which are struggles that I believe show we are bowing to the idol of a big, successful ministry instead of the God who grants us the privilege and task of ministry.

Desiring recognition

Linked with the above, Iain Duguid describes idols as things we demand from God in order to give us significance. It is not hard to see how being at the helm of a big church could lead to locating your meaning and even your identity in that, instead of Christ. I imagine this temptation develops the longer one is in ministry. After years of faithfully teaching the Bible, caring for God’s flock and making the many sacrifices involved in full-time ministry the hunger for recognition must cry out. Other pastors less gifted than yourself are enjoying success and growth. As you compare your own work to others you become racked with insecurity that insists you deserve recognition. This will only happen if your significance has shifted from Christ to being the leader of a big and successful church. 

Discontentment

Similarly to the point above, perseverance in ministry can quickly give way to discontentment with the church God has given you. Make no mistake: the church you pastor is God’s treasured possession bought with the blood of his Son and entrusted to undeserving men and women to lead. In his Institutes, commenting on sin in Genesis 3, John Calvin writes, “Ambition and pride, together with ungratefulness, arose, because Adam [was] seeking more than was granted him” (2.1.4). Adam spurned God’s great bounty. Like our first parents who were far too easily persuaded that God was holding something back from them, pastors grow discontent when their churches remain small. Ingratitude causes many pastors to overlook the glorious gift of God’s church – and their responsibility to it – in their longing for a bigger one.

Failing to accept your limitations

MinistryIt is ironic how proud those in service of the crucified Christ can become. Pastors speak about growing churches, assuming that they will be able to cope with its compounded pressures and demands. The proud pastor forecasts numerical growth as if he is in control and without accepting that he may not be gifted and godly enough to manage that growth. There are two problems here: the first is that it is God alone who gives the growth, who begins and finishes his work in people while using weak and often unwitting humans in the process. Secondly, being aware of his own failings and limitations, his very humanity, the pastor should recognise that the reason his church has not broken the 1000 barrier is simply because God in his perfect wisdom knows he will not be able to lead a church that size. God can grow a church despite its pastor in the same way he can keep growth from those who seem to have all the gifts necessary in leading a megachurch. The point is we do not determine that. However grand our vision for church growth we must face reality: God grows his church and we do not. Furthermore, our limitations do not limit God’s action, though in his kindness he may prevent your church from growing to a size that will crush you.

Seeking comfortable ministry

When I was heading up a youth ministry a few years back one of the teens told me that his aim was to become filthy rich, so thathe could be really generous to gospel ministry. Despite not knowing the hearts of men – much less teenagers – I asked him if his desire was not simply to be rich and comfortable. Recently I have wondered if the desire to pastor a big church, the goose that lays the golden egg, is little more than wanting to be comfortable in ministry, the pastor of an affluent church. IX Marks recently published an excellent book that highlights an uncomfortable pattern: churches are typically concentrated in middle to upper-class areas. Obviously I am not suggesting we swing the pendulum but merely that we recognise the self-preserving tendency we all wrestle with. The desire to pastor a big church can be the veil for desiring a plush position in a wealthy church, just like my teen’s intention to be generous towards gospel work was most likely a mask for his desire to be rich. 

If you have enjoyed any of the points made in this post and would like to think more about church size I highly recommend Karl Vaters’ blog, Pivot. If you are going to read just one of his posts then I would urge you to make it this one: 11 Advantages Of Having 50 Churches Of 100 Instead Of 1 Church Of 5,000.

If you enjoyed my post there are a few more in this series:

Pastor, You are Dispensable

Non disposableThe confluence of social media, celebrity pastor culture, hugely successful churches and the millennial assumption that everyone is exceptional has lead many pastors to a dangerously over-exaggerated view of themselves. I realise that on the other hand these forces can cause discouragement, as we measure ourselves against John Piper or Matt Chandler. But that is not what I want to address in this short post. My aim here is to challenge the notion that any specific pastor is indispensable. When we begin to imagine that without us this ministry or church would no longer function let alone flourish one thing is certain: we have developed far too high a view of ourselves. A second thing may also be true: we have created an unhealthy, not to mention unbiblical, ministry structure or strategy that makes us appear not only integral but indispensable. But God does not need us. You may think your church needs you but bear in mind that it is Christ’s church, not yours. It got to where it is because of his sovereign grace and God willing it will continue long after you are gone.

The apostle Paul understood this well, especially when we consider his significance in the early church. Writing to the Philippians he said, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (1:6). Paul was not issuing platitudes. He was writing from prison. Incapacitated, Paul needed a confidence that exceeded his leadership, influence and abilities and he enjoyed that in God alone. The great apostle is in chains yet he wants his readers to know that the gospel is not bound (1:12-18a). The survival of God’s church is not dependant on men and women, not even on great ones like Paul. Yet how quickly we deceive ourselves, and often others, into believing that this church or that ministry would collapse without us. In his superb book The New Pastor’s Handbook, Jason Helopoulos reminds those in ministry that they are nothing more than ordinary men and women with extraordinary callings. He goes on to say that pastors must give their accountability partners the right to challenge them regarding any growing “superhero complex”. Do you believe that God is powerful enough to accomplish his will without you? Are you fully persuaded, as Paul was writing from prison, that God will finish the good work he has started, whether he uses you or not? If your instinct to those questions is not genuinely affirmative then you need to repent.

In a section of his Institutes, titled “Why does God need men’s services?”, John Calvin makes a few more important points on the dispensability of pastors, or any Christian for that matter. Though God uses the ministry of men and women “to declare openly his will to us by his mouth, as a sort of delegated work, not by transferring to them his right and honour, but only that through their mouths he may do his own work—just as a workman uses a tool to do his work” (4.3.1; also see 4.1.5). Those who teach, preach and lead in the local church are nothing more than tools in the hands of our omnipotent God. He may pick up one of these tools and wield it mightily. But we must never forget what we are, lest at the same time we forget who God is. Calvin goes on, “He could indeed do it either by himself without any sort of aid or instrument, or even by his angels.” If we understand what Calvin is saying, we would wash our mouths of phrases such as, ‘He grew that church.’ God grew that church. Furthermore, he did not need that specific pastor or ministry team he used to do so. The succinct answer to Calvin’s question is that God does not need men’s services. Pastor, God does not need you. You are dispensable.

While Calvin does insist that honour is due to those serving as pastors in local churches (4.3.3), echoing the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 5, this still does not mean any of them are indispensable. Let me conclude by encouraging pastors with something D. A. Carson said at the TGCA launch last year. When was asked which theologians and leaders he foresees stepping into the vast gap his death will create he essentially dismissed the question as irrelevant. But he went on to give an answer that was truly astonishing, for two reasons. Firstly, he told us that it is very likely we do not yet know the names of the men and women who will lead Christ’s church in the future. Secondly, he does not even consider himself to be of any major significance in Christ’s church. How could he give such an answer, when he is undoubtedly aware of the most likely unrepeatable impact he has made for Christ and God’s people people? He believes God can raise up whoever he needs and will continue to use weak tools by his unfailing strength. Carson understands Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

If you enjoyed this post, keep an eye on Rekindle because I am planning to write a few more in this ‘Pastor…’ series. In the mean time you can read the previous post: Pastor, You do not release potential.

How’s It Going? Part 6: Build your own

Idea generation pageThis is the last in a series of posts on church metrics. We’re going to close off this series with some how-to tips.

We’ve seen that a metric is any quantifiable measure, any piece of data, which is linked to a goal. The closer a set of measures identifies how we are doing in relation to the goal, the more effective it is as a metric. For example, if you play cricket and want to be a great batsman, you would measure your strike rate and batting average.

It’s a bit tricky to nail down what this would look like in any given situation, because life is incredibly colourful. That said, below is a set of questions to ask yourself. These will hopefully take you some of the way toward developing your own set of metrics that help you get to where you believe God wants you to be.

How would our ideal situation look and feel? Paint a vivid picture of where you want to be, in your mind or on paper.

What are some key ideals? From your vision of the future, list some key concrete aspects which can be measured (e.g. amounts, quality, characteristics, purchases, etc). Measure those.

How does our current situation look and feel? Like the above, consider the current status quo. Pay special attention to the differences between the future and the present.

What are the key differences to overcome to get to our future state? Your answer to this question may help you identify further important concrete aspects of the future which you can measure.

What impacts my list of concrete measures? Identify, with your team, as much of the funnel of inputs and outputs which have a bearing on your metrics above as possible. From that funnel, select the aspects which have the most significant impact, and track those.

How could people potentially manipulate these measures? If you can see a way to ‘game the system’, include measures to help avoid that.

What actions can I take to move towards that future state? Identify the actions you can take to influence the key changes that need to take place. Put these in your diary and stick them on your wall. Bear in mind that these may change, so use your metrics as your conversation partner, and constantly adjust.

And that’s that. Our series on metrics has come to an end. My hope is that it will contribute in some way toward us being more faithful in our service to the Lord who has commissioned us.

How’s It Going? Part 5: Pitfalls

Man stepping in gum on the street If you are gung-ho and ready to go, I want to help you avoid some landmines. Below are two common pitfalls. Avoiding them will save you much frustration.

Unintended side-effects

One of the major problems with setting anything up are the unintended side-effects that sneak up on us. That is just as true when considering how and what you measure. Why? Because people can’t help but play to the numbers. So, make sure your numbers have balances in place, and explain the rationale of each metric to those engaging with it.

For example, if we decide that maturity is best developed through one-on-one discipleship meetings, we may set the goal of getting all our people into meetings like this. We assign this to our ministry staff team, and decide that the way we will measure their performance in this area is by asking, “How many one-on-one discipleship meetings have you had in the last month?” One possible side-effect of this is that the team will drastically lower the quality of their meetings so they can churn out more meetings. And according to your scorecard, they’re doing great.

Measuring the wrong point of the process

Another problem is measuring at the wrong point. It is possible to assess an outcome when you are really wanting to figure out the impact of your actions on factors which influence the outcome. So, make sure you identify which stage of a multi-stage process you are wanting to measure.

For example, let’s say giving is currently down in your local church and your leaders have decided that, if the situation hasn’t changed by a given date, specified actions will have to be taken. They’ve appointed someone to attempt to get things back on track by then. When that person jumps in, they take a shotgun approach to seeing the needle lift on the total income graph – perhaps even throwing in a few unethical approaches for good measure. Now, if they are successful (or unsuccessful), how do you critique what they did and if they created the kind of change you wanted? Because of what we failed to measure – whatever impacts the end result [1] – we have to assume they did everything right (or wrong).

What other pitfalls have you noticed?

Read part 6 (on building your own) here.

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[1] Perhaps the percentage of members who are giving and the percentage of new members who have received teaching about finances. Knowing the answers to those questions will give you far more insightful and actionable information than if you limited your attention to the bottom line.

How’s It Going? Part 4: A common objection

Confused dolls wondering who is winning and who is losingI want to address a common objection at this point.

One of the most thrown around lines in management blogs is “What gets measured gets managed”. This is held alongside “Measure what matters”. The idea is that we work to impact the numbers we are held accountable for, and so good leaders ensure people’s attention is focused on the right numbers. Some circles within the church respond to this by saying that the things that matter for us can’t be measured, because they’re invisible, bringing everything I’ve said to naught. How can you assign a number to an increase in love, or servant heartedness, for example?

Don’t miss the wood for the trees

The first thing to say in response to this is that, just because some things can’t be measured, doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot within the church that can have a number assigned to it. Many of these aspects are important, and can be measured with basic metrics.

Know your role and focus on that

The second thing to say is that it is sometimes better to measure the inputs we are responsible for, rather than the results God is responsible for. Since love is something God is responsible for producing in Christians, something we have no direct influence on, we are better off measuring whether we are providing an adequate context for growth in that area. That would be the difference between saying, “We want our members to be loving” and “We want our members to have worked through teaching about love, to be part of a smaller fellowship group, to have a close friend in the church, etc”. This approach sometimes turns that which doesn’t seem measurable around.

Be realistic and creative

Lastly, there are times that what we are aiming at is our responsibility, but it is still subjective. For example, we could say we want our members to serve according to their gifts. Then we take the following approach: we ask a sample set of people to score a statement on a spectrum; something like, “My ministry involvement matches my gifts”, or “I see many people at our church whose ministry involvement doesn’t match their gifts”. That will give us an aggregate rating across a spectrum. Asking that same question, in the same way, over a longer period provides a temperature gauge. As soon as the temperature changes (when it deflects from the historical norm), we are moving closer to or further from our goal.

So, how can you put a number to the intangibles? Well, a few ways. Can you think of anything in church life my suggestions above wouldn’t cover?

Read part 5 (dealing with pitfalls) here.

How’s it going? Part 3: Why are external measures important?

Frustrated man in front of whiteboardThose of you who have made it this far may be having two responses: firstly, this sounds like a lot of work and, secondly, I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.

The reality is that most ministers serve in churches where they have intimate knowledge of almost everything that goes on in the church, from fire hydrant services to pastoral situations. Most information goes through them, and they are the clearing house for most decisions. Because of this, when they make decisions they are able to intuitively weigh more factors than even the most advanced system of analysis. I imagine it is from them that this hesitancy will come.

So, why introduce a system that slows you down? I want to suggest three reasons.

Firstly, you’re already doing it. Whether you like it or not, metrics pervade your world. When you decided where to work, what career to pursue, or even who to marry, you used metrics to make the decision. When you choose to buy an ice cream on the beach, or join a gym after your ice cream binge, you used metrics. When you evaluate your latest sermon, or consider how well your mid-week group is doing, metrics inform and shape that evaluation. God has made us as rational creatures, and metrics are just the pieces of info we pull on as we go about rationalising towards an end. So, I’m not asking you to do something you aren’t in some way already doing.

Secondly, I’m not saying you need to develop an advanced and cumbersome feedback system of endless spreadsheets and piles of paperwork. I’m suggesting you get clear on where you are heading and how you will know if your plans to get there are succeeding or failing. Now, that can happen in your mind. However, from those I’ve listened to and read, putting it in writing forces you to be clear and decisive in a way that we usually aren’t in our heads. Scheduling time to frequently review what we’ve written down, and evaluate how things are going, has the added benefit of providing a ballast when the waves of busyness come our way. Temporarily slowing down in this way can prevent the additional effort required when we wake up one day and realise we’ve drifted off course. It can also increase our effectiveness by helping us more clearly see the things that we need to say “no” to.

Finally, the New Testament envisages team leadership in the form of a plurality of elders. These elders are the guardians of God’s flock, and God will hold the group responsible for where the flock wanders. It is wise to listen closely to the senior minister (or rector, pastor, bishop), based on their insights into the situation on the ground, but it is unwise for the rest of this group to abdicate their role in being a guardian of God’s people by deferring completely to them. This is especially true of the church’s future. The senior minister will be wise to keep in step with the rest of the team by having a clearly articulated and agreed upon picture of where the church is heading – and a scoreboard, so it is clear how things are going.

I hope these three reasons go some way to convincing you that clear vision and regular review will assist you in being a more effective and faithful minister for our Lord Jesus.

Read part 4 (dealing with a common objection) here.