How to have a successful church…

church growth

Yesterday a friend sent me a link to a video of a performance by a particular well known mega church’s worship band. I am far from a prude, and I have zero issue with modernizing a worship service and playing contemporary music, but this video seriously disturbed me. The video I saw was more akin to a scene from a Broadway show as opposed to worship in a church. The song was a popular song from pop radio, and the stage was filled with dancers jumping around on stage. As far as I could tell, the entire thing had absolutely nothing to do with God, or praising the name of Jesus.

It may sound as if I’m angry. I suppose there is a bit of that going on…but even more than that I was sad. Here was this church that has thousands of attendees. Not only that, even more people tune into this “worship” service online. On top of that the “pastor” of this congregation sells tons of books all over the country. Other churches and pastors look to this church and pastor as models of what they ought to be doing. Even in my own city there are churches and pastors modeling themselves in the mold of this “church”. The entire thing is very sad to me.

Some would look to this church as a success. But is it really?

Certainly it is a great thing to have thousands of people in a church. But what if this church fails to preach Christ? Sure it can be a great thing to have a popular pastor with a lot of visibility. But what happens if he fails to instruct his people in the Word of God? It is a great thing for the church to get excited about worship. But what if this worship has absolutely nothing to do with God?

Coincidentally, as my friend sent me this video I happened to be reading in 1 Timothy. In 1 Timothy the Apostle Paul is writing to a young pastor named Timothy whom he had mentored and instructed in the faith. Timothy was sent to Ephesus in order to lead the church there. Ephesus at one time was a very successful and faithful church. It was started by Apollos who was a brilliant preacher/teacher. (Acts 18:24) This was a church in which the knowledge of God, and the Word of God was being taught and was flourishing. (Acts 19:20) Yet, as is so often the case, problems started to arise in the church. We aren’t sure exactly what was going on, though we do get clues from the text both 1 and 2 Timothy…but it is evident that Ephesus as a whole had gotten off track and the culture around the church had started to creep in. Worldly religion was invading the church and was threatening to destroy it. The church had begun to stray from the Gospel.

So what was Paul’s advice to this young pastor? Did he cleverly devise church growth strategies? Did he tell Timothy to implement certain programs that were guaranteed to turn things around? Did he tell him to revamp his children’s ministry? Did he tell him he needed to modernize worship or be more culturally relevant? Absolutely not, in fact, you could almost argue the opposite, especially on this last point. It doesn’t seem the problem with the church in Ephesus was that it wasn’t culturally relevant, but in fact it was too much like the culture around it.

**Side note** I have to be careful here, because I’m not saying that the church needs to be stuck in the 1950’s. What I am saying though is that the church must be distinct from the world. If you can’t tell the difference between a church, and a social club or a bar…I think it’s a problem. But, back to my original point.

Paul didn’t have a bunch of clever schemes and strategies for Timothy. As you read Paul’s advice to the young pastor he lays out three things for Timothy to do. I think all pastors and church leaders in our own time would be wise to follow this advice. So what did Paul tell Timothy he needed to turn this church around?


-Right Living (Practice what you preach)

-Sound Teaching

So, if you are a pastor and wondering  how to build a successful church or how to turn around your struggling church. I believe this is where we have to start. Take a look at your church, and take a look at your own ministry.

Are you a man of prayer? Are you on your knees daily seeking the Lord for direction and asking him to bless your people? If your work as a pastor isn’t drenched in prayer, it simply won’t work. God is the one who must bring about the growth. Sure, you can get more people in the church by following an x, y, and z formula…But are your people growing spiritually? Are they seeing Jesus in your church? We must be in prayer asking God to reveal himself amongst our congregations and we must plead for him to lead us where he would have us go.

Are you living what you’re preaching? Do people both inside and outside the church see you as one who is walking with Jesus? Now none of us are perfect…But do you honestly seek to honor God with all that you are? How are you loving your wife and kids? How do you spend your money? Where are your priorities? Again, you won’t be perfect, but do you seek to honor God with your life? Are you focused on God, or are you focused on you?

What is the focus of your teaching? Do you preach Christ? Are you faithfully teaching the Bible? Will people walking into you church be able to tell this is a Christian worship service as opposed to a self-help motivational speech or quasi-spiritual pep rally? Are you faithfully teaching the full counsel of God? Are you accurately teaching the truths that have been passed down for centuries within the Church?

This post ended up being much longer than I planned, but my point is this. As a pastor or leader in the church, if you want a successful church, and a God honoring ministry…there is no grand secret. You don’t need the next “big thing” in ministry. You need Jesus. You need to be seeking him in prayer, you need to be walking with him in your life, and you need to be faithfully preaching him from the Scriptures.

It really is that simple.


Dear Pastor: What is Ministry to You?


Dear Pastor,

What is ministry to you? Is it a a job, a hobby, or a calling?

Is ministry something that you do for a paycheck? Is it something that helps you provide for your family and pay your bills? Is that all it is? Do you enjoy the perks of the job, the access to books, and freebies that might come along with being a minister? Do you find yourself wanting to climb the ladder of success? Are you unhappy with your congregation of 12, 30, 75, 1,000 people? Would you like to find another church where more people could hear you preach, where more people would give more money? Maybe you would like to earn the respect that a large church would give you? Maybe you could write a book, maybe even a best-seller. Is ministry a job? Is that all it is?

Is ministry a hobby for you? Is it something you really enjoy doing? That’s okay. You should enjoy serving the Lord and His people. The great thing about a hobby is that you really enjoy it, and you spend a lot of time doing it, probably even more than you spend at your job, and with your family. But the big problem with a hobby is that you only do it when it is convenient, and until it stops being fun. When ministry stops being fun, do you or will you stop doing it? Do you let silly unimportant things get in the way? Would you rather watch your favorite t.v. show than read God’s word, or pray for His blessings on yourself and others, or making that phone call of encouragement, or even making a visit to someone in need? Is ministry a cool thing to do? What happens when it isn’t cool? What happens when it isn’t fun?

Is ministry your calling? Has God called you to minister to His people, to love them, and show them His love for them? Do you understand you are accountable to God for everything you do, especially those things you do in His name? Are you burdened by the fact that precious souls weigh in the balance as you go about serving the Lord in your ministry. Do you understand it is really God’s ministry? Do you feel totally unworthy, yet amazed that God has called you to such an amazing privilege to serve Him as a Minister of His Gospel. Do you spend hours studying His word so that you can rightly divide it, and show yourself approved? Do you spend time on your knees praying for those precious souls that God might use you to reach? Would you still minister to God’s people if there would never be a paycheck? Would you still minister to God’s people if it was no fun? Is ministry your calling? Why don’t we start acting like it?

*This is a slightly edited version of a blog I posted a few years ago. I’ve recently been reflecting on these questions myself as I examine my own calling. The tone can come off a bit harsh, that is intentional. I believe for anyone in the ministry, or anyone even considering the ministry in any capacity, would be wise to do a bit of self reflection and ask themselves these questions. Ministry is not something that is to be taken lightly, as all of us who choose to enter into this sacred calling on any level have much to give an account for.

Praying Through the Desert – Jana Greene

I’m so excited to have one of my favorite writers guest blogging for me today. Her name is Jana Greene and she blogs over at The Beggars Bakery. Jana is also the author of Edgewise: plunging off of the brink of drink and into the love of God. Be sure to check out both her blog and book. You won’t be sorry!

vegas prayer

How do you get out of the spiritual desert? You build a huge, blinking distraction to it.

Or, you can just walk through it, and fully expect God to bring you to the other side.

About eight years ago, I went to Las Vegas on a business trip. The long and short of it was that I had a mini-nervous breakdown.

My colleagues and I stayed in the Luxor – a magnificent pyramid structure on the Vegas strip, smack dab (as we say in the South) in the heart of Sin City. Although there were seminars by day, there were too many hours of free time after the nine-to-five activities.

I don’t always do that well with too much free time.

Vegas is not so much fun for a person in alcohol – or any other, so far as I can tell – recovery. Moment after moment, fleshly appetizers are placed before you. In-your-face, 24/7 sex, drugs, drink, gambling, smoking. Even things that had never tempted me before – such as the gambling – became this enormous tease.

I knew that Vegas was not for me before the plane even touched down. If you’ve ever flown over Las Vegas, you will know what I mean. Here is a visual synopsis of the view from the plane.

Hours of flight over sandy canyons, gorges, and deserts. Everything is some shade of brown– nothing, nothing, nothing, hours of nothing– barren brown, tan and beige. Nothing.

BAM! Super incredibly bright neon, see-it-from-outer space, larger-than life and twice as gaudy, Technicolor VEGAS, Baby! The strip is, quite literally, just a strip that – from the air – looks as though the heavens barfed forth a city-sized strip of neon, glitter, and a strange, Disney-like conglomeration of architectural/cultural mess. Pastel medieval castles, next door to Greco-Roman-columned casinos, next door to the great pyramids, next door to a shrunken New York City entwined by a roller coaster, punctuated by liquor and nudie bars.

It is the anti-nature, if you will.

Before even the first rah-rah corporate event, I was burned out. Too much to see. Everything in sight vying for my attention – and so, none of it really getting my attention. The first night, I stayed in the hotel room and cried while everyone else went out and had Vegas adventures. And I couldn’t stop crying.

Every morning, for privacy, I wandered down to a café in the Luxor, and call my (then) fiancé, a grown woman crying in an enormous, cartoonish pyramid, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people and utterly alone.

“I can’t be here,” I told him. “It’s too noisy. Too much temptation. Too many drunk and high people…so much gambling, porn everywhere…. too much empty, scattered, shallow glitz. I have to come home.”

It didn’t upset me because I believed I would never do such things, but because I know good and damn well that I could – given the right circumstances and a weak moment – and, in fact, have. I try to respect the parameters – the slippery slopes. And Vegas is a very slippery slope.

Each day, I became more and more depressed, the thin veneer of sanity cracking under the weight of trying to appear all the things I was not: Professional, immune to the temptations, and able to cope.

Where I live at home, the Ocean is a scant 10 minutes away, and the Cape Fear River 10 minutes in the other direction. Water, water everywhere. And people I love.

Of course, I survived it – and as a bonus, with my sobriety intact. When I finally, got home, it didn’t seem like such an ordeal. But during the experience, I was miserable.

For the last month or so, I have really been struggling with prayer. Not just having a desert-like prayer life, but a Vegas-like prayer life. Unwittingly, I’ve filled up a dry-spell with diversions to distract my spirit. Sensory overload is not the same as spirit satiation. What happens in my prayer life lately… goes nowhere. Or so it seems.

Praying…. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

BAM! Diversion!

But anything but Holy Spirit in a hurting soul is not an oasis….only a mirage.

Sometimes, my spiritual walk becomes about too much empty, scattered, shallow glitz. A grown woman crying in church, surrounded by dozens of happy worshippers. Everyone else seemingly bloated with happiness. Don’t they see the barren dryness?

Aridness…brown, tan and beige. So I build great, giant cities – big, awkward pastel and neon structures of distraction, instead of just walking through the desert – exhausted from trying to pretend to be what I am not: A “professional Christian.” Immune to the temptations. Able to cope.

I don’t always do that well when I have too much time, but I know the God of the Universe always makes time for me. I have to come home, and the only route is through the desert.

It’s hard to encounter God, what with the gaudy, neon monuments to my worries and anxieties blinking. Why don’t I remember that in the “uninhabitable” – He inhabits? He dwells in me always, vying for my attention.

And if I am simply willing to just walk through the desert?

BAM! God. Living water, water everywhere. Deserts can’t go on forever.

But the love of my Father does.