How Do I Create a Fast Growing Church?
By Peter Haas
a.k.a., The Momentum Equation
Over the years, I've had hundreds of pastors and leaders ask me the same question: How can I create a fast growing church? What do I need to do to create a fruitful congregation?
Of course, I usually stop these people and remind them: You don't necessarily want a "fast growing church." Rather, you want a healthy church that effectively creates long-term disciples. Some pastors seek fast growth out of ego. Others, like most church planters, are just trying to survive. After all, if they can't generate success straight out of the gate, they may not have much food on the table. But, I believe that anyone who cares about expanding God's kingdom is going to be interested in accelerating the growth of their organization.
Keep in mind: The Bible says, "Only God makes things grow" (1 Cor.3:7). So, plain and simple: if we're out of sync with God, no amount of "watering and planting" will amount to much. Without humility, integrity, and generosity, it's going to be hard to grow our churches (or our lives) into anything significant. But, beyond this obvious reality, what are some of the factors which can dramatically affect how fast a church grows? I like to put numerous ingredients into a simple formula I call the Momentum Equation. It goes like this:
"The right person,
at the right time,
in the right location,
with the right methods,
with the right inner circle of leaders
But here's the important part: If any one of these criteria are off, it will have a dramatic affect on your success as a leader. Almost all of the great pastors I know could easily write a book on each one of these ingredients. And if you haven't considered each of these criteria, then listen up: You just might discover a missing link in your own leadership tool-box. So let's begin:
The Right Person: A lot of people can be quite deceived when it comes to their true strengths and weaknesses. (Just look at the first few weeks of American Idol for starters). Not everyone is meant to be a CEO. Not everyone is meant to be a teaching pastor... or a church planter. But if we get our self-esteems wrapped around ministry positions we're not, we're always going to experience a frustrating lack of fruitfulness. But my Bible says: "A gift makes room for the giver and ushers him into the presence of the great" (Prov. 18:16). And sometimes, this process takes decades to unfold. But, if opportunities seem to be drying up for us, there's a good chance we're out of sync with our true gift-mix.
So, how do we know if we're the "right person" for a given task? Simply find people who are experts in the area you feel called. Once they know you, ask them: "Do you truly see the same potential in me?" Sometimes your greatest fruitfulness and promotions can come when you demote yourself into a supporting role. No one wants to be an ugly duckling when God created them to be a swan.
The Right Time:
Over the years I've met a good number of church planter's who's "timing was off." I.e., They'll make a great church planter... in a few years. But many of them bow to external pressures and pull the trigger on a vision that hasn't fully matured. As a result, their resources and opportunities always seem to be lingering along. The same process can show up when taking over positions at established churches.
I once had a pastor friend who became the interim pastor of a church in crisis. He was a brilliant leader; but, circumstances beyond his control made it almost impossible for the church to see and get in sync with his skills. Again: Right person. Wrong timing.
I also had a friend who pastored in a church and city that was riddled by moral failures and theological extremists. Christians were desperate for a new voice and my friend fit the wish-list perfectly. Not surprisingly, he had explosive growth. He was the right leader at the right time.
So, can we manufacture "great timing?" Sometimes, yes. After observing organizational life-cycles for a while, it's a lot like jumping rope: there's a time to jump in and jump out. There's also a timing to our own personal ministry skills. Much like baseball, if you enter a big-league vision without big-league skill... you just might turn into one of those bitter players who rant about how you always got the short-end of the stick. But here's a better approach: In the storyline of your life, God's got a climax for your calling. But don't allow finances, comfort zones, or impatience obscure God's will. "At the proper time, you will reap a harvest if you do not give up" (Gal 6:9).
The Right Location / City
Before my wife and I planted in the Twin Cities, we were very careful to study a good number of cities. We constantly asked these questions: Who are the people that God has most qualified and anointed us to reach? And where do these people live?
There are also many regional factors that affect speed of growth. Downtowns and Urban centers often have increasingly transient membership – thus making stability a problem. Cities with populations less than 50,000 usually have the opposite problem...requiring much more longevity and political savvy. Bible belt or Sun-belt metros can have a huge number of semi-Christianized transfer growth but can also be over-saturated with your style of church. But after hours of diligent study, we intentionally chose, not merely our city, but the location and methods as well. This leads us to the next part of the equation:
The Right Methods
Let's face it: We all have opinions about worship, service length, sermon styles and church sizes. But it's amazing how thoughtless many Christians are about their methodology. Almost every month I hear another silly pastor spiritualize a singular method or format of church as though it is the only one we need. But my Bible instructs me to judge a tree by its fruit not it's format.
For example, I once heard a well-known pastor say: "If you're not doing line-by-line expository messages straight through the Bible then you aren't preaching the Gospel." Perhaps if he preached this way through the parables of Christ, he would have realized his statement was both ridiculous and ironically un-Biblical. But, in every Christian movement there is an unspoken list of values intended to delineate a true elite "super-Christian." Unfortunately, many of these values and methods are actually extra-Biblical and are a hindrance to fruitfulness.
So, how do I know if I might be carrying some of these religiously transmitted diseases? Well, simply go and study a diverse group of fruitful Christian leaders (i.e., Find Christians that worship differently or have different secondary doctrines.) As long as they value the scriptures and are clearly taking ground, open up your heart and listen.
There is also a "statistical science" to success. Studies like Natural Church Development have long been saying that churches are like human bodies: you can statistically predict growth and health issues. For example, obese smokers have a life-expectancy that's 15 years less than other people. I didn't learn this through some prophetic gift. I learned it by listening to God speak through statistical facts.
For example, it's also statistical fact that: Rarely will an American church grow larger than 200 people per acre. Also, for every two to three seats, the average American church needs one parking stall. So, in light of these practical insights, I made the controversial decision to relocate our church to a more adequate facility. Of course, this completely angered one man in our church. (He was convinced that we weren't growing healthy because I refused to preach more on his pet-theologies). He acted as though a simple sermon or worship format would suddenly compensate for methodological foolishness.
But listen: God doesn't honor this type of hyper-spirituality in leadership. Don't think that your prayer life will compensate for the fact that you never wear a seatbelt. I.e., Don't allow hyper-spiritual pressure to cause you to overlook common sense. Again: You can be the right person in the right city; but, if your methods & practices need tweaking, no amount of sweat is going to change that.
The Right Inner Circle:
Of course, you might be a tremendously gifted person. But very rarely will a person make it to the top of their field without a great team. As John Maxwell says: "You are only as good as your inner circle." For example, when I first started Substance, our entire leadership team was comprised of inexperienced college students. Almost none of them had been in leadership positions before. And even though my preaching skills were fairly well-developed back then, these skills were certainly not enough to overcome the foibles of our rookie leadership teams. Not surprisingly, many dynamic Christians came through our church; but, eventually they moved onto better churches who had better leaders who created better leadership systems.
Of course, I couldn't blame my lack of fruitfulness on my inner-circle; after all, a good leader is measured by their ability to recruit such a circle out of nothing. I.e., it's my job to create the inner circle. Keep in mind, your age, your ethnicity, your dress style, even your spouse can affect your ability to build a healthy inner-circle. As a 24 yr old senior pastor, I had to surround myself with dynamic 46 year old leaders. As a white pastor, I have to surround myself with multi-ethnic leaders who are more adept at recruiting their people. So back when we planted Substance with a rag-tag group of college students, I knew I had to be intentional about recruiting across cultural and age barriers.
So rather than whining about my circumstances (or lazily hiring other people's staff), I simply made the decision to do three things better: (1). Do a better job at developing the leadership skills of my current team. (2). Do a better job at identifying and recruiting socially intelligent leaders out of nowhere... even those outside of my own demographic (3). Constantly be switching people into their sweet spots; (and/or removing the people who stop growing / stretching / or who stop living in sync with their own gift-mixes.)
Even more, I taught my inner circle to do a brilliant job at these same three things. In fact, if your inner circle can't write a book on each of these three things, then you probably have a rookie leadership team. And the same thing is true with all of the elements in this formula.
The Final Word
So it begs the question: How can I get in sync with this equation? How can I increase my leadership insights on this equation? Well, here's a simple solution: Get insightful mentors who can help you answer these questions. After counseling hundreds of young leaders over the years, I've always asked them three questions: What are your dreams? Who is living out your dream? And what are you doing to get around these people? Or, to rephrase these: What are your leadership problems? Who has successfully navigated these problems? And what are you doing to serve these people? (Because access to good mentors usually requires meeting the needs of good mentors).
Keep in mind: Leadership is a life-long art-form. I'm only just beginning to understand the momentum equation myself. But, one thing is for sure: If we ignore a single aspect of this equation, it's going to affect how fast our churches grow. It simply means: Our time has not yet come.
Of course, God may intentionally ask you ignore a few of these criteria. I adore pastors who are willing to take on inglorious positions for the cause of Christ.
But pity the leader who's church has stalled-out simply because they were ignorant of how momentum works. Agreed?