We have a leadership question for you today. “Hello Pastor John, in your time as a pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church, over all those 30+ years, did you ever use strategies aimed at church growth? How would you counsel pastors and churches who seek to grow numerically and reach more people, while doing so in the most biblical and faithful way possible?”
I am really happy for this question, because I don’t think we have tackled this in any of all the 900, plus. I tried to communicate to our people continually that, in view of the glory of Christ, his purpose is to be magnified in the world through believing people, the vast lostness of millions and millions of people near and far, the horrors of hell, the beauties and the power of the gospel, the nature of love, the truth that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I tried to communicate in view of all that, not rescuing perishing people is not an option for us. It is also not possible for us since only God can raise the dead and open the eyes of the blind and take out stony hearts of unbelief.
“Our first strategy for church growth was prayer.”
So, our first strategy of growth was prayer. I tried to create a culture of desperation for all the things that matter most, which are the ones that only God can do. Parents can’t do it. Evangelists can’t do it. Pastors can’t do it. Friends can’t do it. We scatter prayer meetings all through the week, besides encouraging families and small groups to pray and individuals, of course, to pray for the impossible goal of getting sinners through the eye of a needle, which only God can do that miracle.
We also knew, however, that faith comes by hearing. So, not sharing the gospel with a view to seeing people believe and be saved and be part of God’s family forever was not an option for us. The term “church growth,” however, had connotations for us that were not so good. At least in the circles in which I function and my people, so much depends on where the accent falls when you talk about church growth. Abuses of pragmatism, minimization of theology, dilution of the gospel, dumbing down of serious, joyful worship in a way that came to be known as seeker-sensitive, all these things were associated in our language with the church growth movement. Which is sad because there is nothing wrong with growing. In fact, I wanted to say: We must pursue growth.
But in that context, my suggestion to pastors is that you use biblical language constantly to permeate your people’s minds with something other than catchphrases that are in seminars like “church growth.” The great challenge is not to become a bigger and bigger church, but to see more and more people escape the wrath of God. Ask your people that. If they say: Oh, I don’t know if that church growth stuff is biblical, say: How about escaping wrath? Is that good? So, you put in categories like that.
“Pastors, constantly use biblical language to permeate your people’s minds with something other than church growth.”
Once our people believed in that, ultimately it didn’t matter whether the people who escaped wrath through faith in Jesus went to our church or not. That is quite secondary. What ultimately mattered was: In every community, are people hearing the gospel? Are they believing? Are they escaping the wrath of God? Are they getting full of the Holy Spirit? Are they participating in biblical churches? It is not about our particular church getting bigger and bigger. And when the people understand church growth in those categories, then, I think, a pastor can say, which I did: Not growing is not an option for us. They knew what I meant when I said that, at least if you live in a metropolitan area with several hundred thousand unbelievers, that is true. You might live in a small town where everybody is lined up somewhere, and growth is not a very big possibility. But if you live in the Twin Cities or in any place where you have a few thousand unbelievers, you can talk like that.
This can be, however — and here is a great obstacle — this can be very unsettling for a church. There are a lot of people, shame on them, for whom they are just happy with these 50 people. And they are happy with these 150. And they are happy with these 350. Or they are happy with these 500 and, frankly, they don’t like all these strange faces around here. It is just not as comfortable here as it used to be when we all knew each other.
That is an anti-gospel attitude, and it is deadly in the church. A pastor must so preach and teach as to overcome it. He needs to ask: Do we believe people are perishing forever without the gospel? And do we love them? Those two questions. The first one is theological, and the second one is moral and spiritual. Are we thinking right about heaven and hell and faith and gospel, and are we feeling compassion like Paul, who agonized over his lost kinsmen in Romans 9:2 and 10:1?
“The great challenge is not to become a bigger church, but to see more people escape the wrath of God.”
So, once that foundation of right thinking about the gospel and right loving was laid, I went after dozens of growth strategies over the years — so many, I can’t even begin to remember them all. But before I list some of them, let me just say that I tried to stress that the normal, never-changing, bread-and-butter, steady state, New Testament pattern of outreach and evangelism is not programmatic. It is not event-oriented. It is not primarily through the Sunday morning services. It is through the ordinary permeation of the city through believers in their neighborhoods: at work, at school, in families, opening their mouths and testifying to the value of Jesus. That is normal, steady state, New Testament strategies for growth.
That mindset about the everyday life of gospel spreading is the main mindset and needs to be cultivated, because if you create the mindset that the people are going to move from just one pragmatic, programmatic basket to another — now here comes one event, here comes another event, here comes another strategy — they get jaundiced to these things. Instead, we need to thrill the people in our preaching week after week with the glories of being a Christian so that it oozes through their lives.
But having said that that is the steady state, bread-and-butter, normative, always never-changing strategy of growth, I just want to say: Yes, I came to this church and I created immediately a pamphlet that described the gospel. It described something about our church. It had a map on the back. I made hundreds of them. I put them in the hands of the people. I said: Use these to share the gospel with people and invite them to church if you want to. We put ads in the newspaper. This is pre-Internet stuff.
“Every pastor needs to ask, Do we believe people are perishing forever without the gospel? And do we love them?”
We always had special efforts to invite people on Easter and Christmas. I always worked hard to create enough parking, because I knew if people can’t find a place to tie up their horse, they are not going to come in. We tried to make it friendly at the front-end by creating greeters who would greet guests and strategies to make them feel warm. We went to two services and then three services and then Saturday night service because we believed that making room was a way of growth.
In the early days, for, say, 10, 15 years, all the way along, really, I encouraged people to move into the poorer neighborhoods of the city where there is less gospel witness so that hundreds of people over the thirty years or so moved into the Phillips neighborhood and the northside and other parts of this area around the church. The Metrodome was three blocks away. We created pamphlets that were about baseball and Christianity, football and Christianity. We walked over there. I remember walking over there and handing out these brochures as people walked into the Twins games when they were playing at the Metrodome and to the Vikings games.
We had personal evangelism training. We sent out evangelistic teams to the malls on Tuesday night. We invited Campus Outreach to come here, because we so admired the strategy of a church-based campus ministry that sought to win people to Christ and then graft them into the local church. We did praise marches on big flatbeds and pulled them through and had a thousand people marching through Phillips neighborhood singing, Make way, make way. That was a song that was popular back in the 80s. We did Wednesday night picnics in the park and public venues, and we fed people and preached the gospel to them.
So, my answer, Tony, is: Yes, yes, yes. There should be a never-ending stream of creativity in trying to help our people reach the lost. But I will end with just saying theological faithfulness and depth is essential. Never diluting the gospel is essential. Never eviscerating or dumbing down or making silly corporate worship is essential.
“Unbelievers need to see the people of God meet and love and enjoy God.”
I want to stress that I don’t think pastors should preach to unbelievers. They should preach to the people of God Sunday after Sunday. And always acknowledge the unbelievers. Tell them you are glad they are there. Tell them you are preaching to the people of God, and rejoice that they can listen in on how great it is to be a Christian. That is the normal way of doing Sunday morning. So, you don’t have to structure the service for unbelievers. When an unbeliever comes to church, they expect you to be weird and it should be weird. If it is not weird, something’s off. Paul doesn’t want us to sound insane, so he doesn’t like the idea of speaking in tongues in public. But unbelievers expect things to be different as Christians go hard after God in worship to the living Christ.
We should design our worship services for the people of God, not for unbelievers, and we should encourage people to bring unbelieving friends in spite of all those other things we are doing, this also. And the aim is to let them taste and see what it is for the people of God to meet God, to love God, to enjoy God, to revel in God, admire God, be satisfied in God. That is what unbelievers need to see.