Seven years ago my church growth world began to come apart. Many of
the sure-fire, guaranteed, great-new-whiz-bang-programs weren't working in my
church or the churches we were starting. They were supposed to work, they
worked in other places, they worked for some of my friends, but they didn't
work for us! We kept trying some of them, but my community just didn't respond
as the church growth experts promised. When I was a seminary professor, my
students told me the same thingthe sure-fire methods just werent that sure
Today, we live on a mission field made up of all kinds of peopleand they
dont all respond to the same approach. Blanket statements like small groups are
the only way, Sunday school is the most effective method, or you must have
contemporary worship are no longer appropriate (if they ever were). Instead,
insightful pastors will seek to lead their churches as missionaries. They will
ask, How can I take the unchanging faith delivered to the saints (Jude 3) and
present it effectively in a retirement community in Plantation, Florida, in an
artists commune in San Francisco, in a rural county seat town like Op, Alabama,
or on the Lower East Side of Manhattan? By necessity, these churches look
different because theyre in different settings, but they also have one thing in
commonthey must engage their communities as churches on mission.
Conduct a survey and ask the unchurched why they arent participating in
church. Dont just disagree with them; help them and the community discover each
others false perceptions. As part of your strategy, seek to include and to
intentionally address their concerns as you interact with them.
Learn from biblically sound churches reaching people similar to the people
you are reaching. Just because something is prominent doesnt mean it will work
for you. Instead, find a growing church in a similar community and see what God
is doing there. The principles might be transferable to your church.
Study the different ways in Acts that Paul presented the gospel depending on
the worldview of the listeners. Try to describe the worldview of the lost in
your community and develop a strategy to explain the gospel to them.
Learn more: Read some resources on being a biblically faithful church:
Missional Church (WB Eerdmans Publishers, 1998) by Darrel L.
The Missionary Congregation, Leadership & Liminality (Christian
Mission and Modern Culture) (Trinity Press International, 1997) by Alan J.
Perimeters of Light: Biblical Boundaries for the Emerging Church
(Moody Publishers, 2004) by Elmer Towns and Ed Stetzer
As a church planter and pastor, I experienced firsthand this shift from
canned to missional approaches. While planting churches in the northeastern
United States, we achieved success with certain methods and models. More than
200 people came to the initial services of the last three churches we started.
At first, direct mail provided a great tool to reach hundreds, but a few years
later direct mail had less impact. What worked once began to change.
We found that some methods worked elsewhere but not where we lived or among
the people we were trying to reach. We learned that we needed a specific
strategy to reach local people who were different from those in other parts of
the country and world. The Church Growth movement had been beneficial, but it
didnt provide all of the answers.
Church GrowthThe Church Growth Movement was started
in the late 1960s by Donald McGavran as a philosophy of foreign missions, was
popularized in the United States by Peter Wagner and Fuller Seminary in the
1970s, and then it exploded onto the evangelical scene in the 1980s.
The Church Growth Movement had its excesses and, rightfully in some cases,
its critics. However, its fundamental premise was, How can we be more effective
in reaching people? Many are surprised to discover that before the Church
Growth Movement very little was written on how to organize a church for growth,
welcome guests or plan an outreach campaign. The Church Growth Movement
provided great new insights.
Church HealthDespite all the good the Church Growth
Movement provided, its influence waned in the 1990s. Church leaders stopped
looking to professors (most of the early writers were seminary professors) and
started looking to successful pastors. They looked to pastors who had grown
large churches. Soon, most pastors knew names like Rick Warren, Bill Hybels and
Steve Sjogren. They flocked to their churches for conferences. These
mega-church pastors did not emphasize church growth but rather church health.
They explained that healthy churches, built around certain key values and a
passion for the lost, would grow.
Many pastors heard these insightful mega-church leaders and simply copied
their methods. Soon pastors across the continent were wearing Hawaiian shirts,
saying lost people matter to God and doing servant evangelism projects. Yet,
many of the approaches these remarkable pastors used didnt work as well in
other communities. Pastors had to discover Gods unique vision for their local
churches. They had to become missional churches where God had placed them.
Church Growth-->Church health-->
missional churchThe missional church is expressing itself in new
ways. Pastors and church leaders are recognizing theyre on a unique mission
fieldright in their own neighborhoods. Theyre beginning to see themselves as
beachheads for the kingdoms advancetaking the unchanging message to their
changing context. This has led to several positive shifts in thinking: from
programs to people, from demographics to discernment and from models to
from programs to peopleI remember waiting for the
newest resource from the Fuller Institute of Church Growth. Every month new
materials would arrive to help organize small groups better, lead people to
give more, show people how to bring their friends to Friend Day. Still, over
time, we began to discover something strange: some of the best stuff didnt work
Books in the 1980s and 1990s explained that growing churches use
telemarketing, revivals, direct mail and Friend Day as their means of strategic
outreach. But because not all of these worked for us, we found that the most
important thing we could do was not present the newest program or idea but seek
to understand the people we were called to reach. Some of these tools were
helpful but only tools that would work among the people God had called us
to reach. (Unfortunately, very few writers said thisthey usually said this
is based on research, and if you do it, your church will grow. They just hadnt
been to our community.)
from demographics to discernmentElmer Towns launched
one of the most popular seminars ever in the 1980s. His How To Reach the Baby
Boomer was one of the most influential seminars in the history of Church
Growth. He was on to somethingmost Baby Boomers had similar values and could be
reached by similar strategies.
Today the generational approach doesnt work. The common characteristics of
white, middle-class Baby Boomers are quaint memories in the new millennium.
Some have tried to create the next How To Reach the Baby Boomer, but it wont
workthe growing diversity of our society continues to resist pigeon-holing.
Labels like GenX and Millennial have fallen into disfavor because theyve lost
People arent asking, How can I reach the typical GenXer? Pastors are
spending less time reading about the unchurched in North America as a way to
find generic solutions to reach people in their context. They are spending
more time asking why people in their community have not yet responded.
Like Jesus, they are spending time getting to know and evangelize lost people,
not just looking for the next anointed style, program or method.
They are discerning their communities and bringing the unchanging gospel to
from models to missionsEvery time I read a book from
a church health pastor (particularly those mentioned earlier), he warned Dont
copy me. You are not in [my community]. I didnt listen very well. As I look
around me, I see that lots of other pastors didnt listen either, as clones of
successful mega-churches popped up across the continent. The temptation was too
greatwe really wanted to reach as many people as they did, so we copied their
models and hoped for the same results. Unfortunately, it didnt work in most
Now, instead of importing styles and models, more pastors are genuinely
asking the same questions as international missionaries:
What style of worship/music will best help this group to worship in spirit
What evangelism methods should I use here to reach the most people without
compromising the gospel?
How can this church be Gods missionary to this community?
If we simply replace the Church Growth Movement with a rush to copy
innovative pastors, we will fail to engage effectively with the lost in our
community. God didnt call your church to reach Southern California, so it
shouldnt look like Saddleback or Mosaic (prominent Southern Baptist churches in
SoCal). Instead, every church needs to ask what God is calling them to be and
the missional churchThe Church Growth Movement
started as a missions movement. Donald McGavran was a missionary to India and
learned his mission principles there. But, over time, and because of our
burning desire to reach the lost, we sometimes focused too much on the
programs, models and plans and too little on missions. The Church Growth
Movement served the church in its time, and we should be grateful. But, in this
new millennium what we need most is a reemphasis on the churchs missional
The missional church is not just another phase but a full expression of
who the church is and what its called to be and to do. The
missional church builds on the ideas of Church Growth and Church Health and
brings the lessons learned to their mission focustheir local mission field. As
a result, such churches are truly missional as they take up the Acts
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., has planted churches in New York and Pennsylvania,
served as a seminary professor and is now manager of Strategic Networks of the
North American Mission Board. He is the author of several articles and books on
church planting, revitalization and missional ministry.
How goD is working: Roundtable discussion on the missional
Four pastors, from different parts of the country and serving in different
cultures, talked with Ed Stetzer for On Mission about whats most
effective in their communities and learned from each other whats working
elsewhere. Each Southern Baptist church represented is effectively proclaiming
Christ in its context while starting missional churches in other places.
On Mission: Tell us a little about your community.
Luther: I came to Inglewood, California, in 1974 to a
middle-class, mostly white congregation. We had 14 whites, three blacks, $26 in
the bank, 26 people in Sunday school and a $94,000 note. It changed from white
to black and now has changed from black to Hispanic.
Gary: Trussville, Alabama, is a suburban, bedroom community
of Birmingham. The population of our little hamlet is about 11,000, and we have
a 4,000-member church.
Daniel: Im in the highlands of Louisville, Kentucky. Its an
urban contextpretty affluent, very diverse, kind of a center for culture and
arts here in Louisville.
Ramdan: When I came to Queens, New York, the church was 45
people, and now we have 160. Most of our members we call dark people, meaning
illegalthey just come here to work, they dont have legal status yet, so that is
the unit of our community here.
On Mission: In what ways do you reach out to your
community? How do you effectively reach the lost in your area?
Gary: We do a lot of relational things and other events. We
do direct mail pieces, leading up to Christmas and Easter and special events.
Were blessed in that you cant miss us in our community. Trussville has a
skyline, and were it.
Luther: We deal with what we call Soul Harvest Festival.
Some call them Block Parties, but we say Soul Harvest Festival. We use that,
and we also work through the Sunday school and train our people in evangelism.
We have a gang prevention program and several small group ministries that are
vehicles for evangelism.
Daniel: Our basic strategy is very relational, continually
calling people to create space for new people in their lives. Weve done
different thingswe had an art gallery for two years that was a place for bridge
building. Weve done everything from film discussions to philosophy studies.
Ramdan: Sometimes we invite the unreached and unsaved
people to come for potluck in the church. We have a lot of Indonesians here for
a long time staying in the United States, and they miss Indonesian food! Thats
a great outreach event for them.
Luther: We also put on good musicals, and we get a lot of
unsaved people. Theyll come to a musical, and we have trained people to explain
the gospel after the service. We always give an invitation, and we give out
flyers and information.
Daniel: We probably dont do a lot of events really geared
that way. Instead of events and Sunday school, our structure is more of a
community group gathering with a larger gathering structure for worship. We
dont do revivals or tracts. Weve found that they dont work well in our
Ramdan: We do revivals and normally in the revival meeting
we have a lot of prayer, preparation and a special guest speaker.
Luther: Our cell groups and Sunday school are very, very
strong foundations of our church. We wont accept anybody in membership unless
they are in the Sunday school.
On Mission: What about worship? What style helps your
church community to best worship in spirit and truth?
Ramdan: Weve found that blended is better than
Gary: Were blended, leaning toward contemporary. If we were
straight traditional, we wouldnt reach the bulk of the new people who move into
Daniel: Weve adopted a music style of a lot of artists and
musicians in our community. Theyve been in bands in this area which is kind of
an independent music scene. Theyre at the helm of the rock culture here in
Louisville and thats just been translated into responding to God with the music
of the culture.
Luther: Well, we use gospel music and hymns. In a global
settingand when I say global setting, people of other groups living hereour
people are trained to blend the music to fit the needs of the groups that were
On Mission: How are you helping start other missional
Luther: Weve started 19 new churches. As an example, my
Hispanic church is different from ours because their culture is different, but
the Holy Spirit just put us together. Our community has become Hispanic, and I
dont speak Spanish, but God gave me a vision to go out and start a Hispanic
Daniel: Our church is four years old this September, and we
have initiated a few new worksone is a new work in an area about a mile, two
miles away, using what some people call a house church model. Were learning a
lot from them as they seek to be community and extend the name of God in their
Gary: Were working on the Acts 1:8 Challenge, trying to
have a Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and uttermost parts of the earth kind of
church. So we co-partnered with another large church in our city to start an
inner-city church in downtown Birmingham, another church in Vermont and one in
Ramdan: We have invited and supported a pastor from
Indonesia in South Philadelphia, two fellowships in South Carolina, one in
Brooklyn, a training center in Chinatown in Manhattan and a new fellowship in
On Mission: We asked you to be in this discussion because
your church is a missional churcheffectively reaching your community and
helping other churches to reach theirs. What advice would you give to other
pastors and church leaders for becoming missional in their
Gary: Weve made some mistakes. We learned, and I know these
are going to sound like trite answers, but they are so true. First of all,
pray. You better bathe the whole thing in prayer. Then prepare. Really make
sure that you know who is in your community and know as much as you can about
them. Id say the third thing is intentionally work to make sure that you bring
your people along. A great idea in my office that doesnt translate to my people
will go nowhere. Having them buy in is absolutely critical.
Luther: I agree with exactly what he said. Pray and involve
your people. Go slow and be sure.
Daniel: We really blew it on all kinds of things. It took
us a couple of years to realize how important it is to translate everything
into our context. You know it seems like there are a lot of franchise things
that work real well in some places, yet didnt work for us. Instead, immerse
yourself in culture and be in the community. Those are pretty much the
essential elements. From that, translation will be natural because youll know
the language of scripture, youll know the language of culture, and there will
be a window called community for people to make judgments concerning the
On Mission: Thanks so much for your example and your passion to be
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