Saturday, November 28, 2015

Church Growth 101: Some Things Work And Many Do Not

After forty years in active pastoral ministry, and seventeen years as a church health consultant and coach, having worked with larger and smaller churches, I have a church growth observation, especially for those starting out in church ministry. Some things work for church growth, while many do not. I have used most every evangelistic method ever produced over the years. A few have produced some church growth results. Most have not. The latest and greatest church growth program produces the same continuum of results. Churches can be event oriented, seeker targeted, seeker sensitive, assimilation driven places that see little significant growth. Most churches in America are a few hundred in worship attendance, if that. So, what's the problem and, more importantly, what is the solution?

There are numerous reasons why churches do not grow. Most of the time, it has nothing to do with location, except in a few depressed areas of the country. It also has little to do with decent, biblical teaching and preaching. In fact, church health statistics (from Natural Church Development, would say that churches with the most educated pastoral staff show the smallest growth overall. Some of this is due, no doubt, to a disdain for numbers among some pastors and denominations. They minister to the "chosen" people of God, the committed core of Christendom, and are out for church purity and distancing from the secular world. I am not making fun of these places of ministry, just observing them. But what about those churches and ministries really trying to grow and reach a larger audience for Christ and the gospel?

A misplaced dependence on methods or programming or events. This would be a first reason, I believe, for lack of church growth. People are not attracted, in the long run and to regular church attendance and involvement, because of programming and events. Slick and cool graphics and websites and presentations and catchy videos and production elements in services and other church venues do not, by and large, grow churches. I have been to a number of smaller churches where the very latest and best in technology is used, much to no avail in church growth results. Hundreds and even a few thousand can attend a weekend event at a church or ministry with little or no church growth happening. It's just a big production or event, and that is all. Some churches spend a lot of money on these elements supposedly to produce more people in the pews or chairs of the worship venue, and the result is just more money spent.

Attention to demographics and younger people is not the secret formula for church growth. Let's just read the latest George Barna statistics and do what his organization, or a similar organization, advises, and our church will grow. Not really. Most of the time you will simply displace the older generation paying for these ministry venues. Perhaps if we follow the latest Saddleback forty-day ministry and group programming, we will grow. Despite Rick Warren's glowing claims, many churches do not grow in the long run with such programming. In fact, I have coached churches which have tried every church-wide programming tool known to Saddleback, with little or even negative results. Warren would claim that they did not follow the "rules," but that is not true. If such "proven" methods do not work, then what does?

First, church growth is a God-ordained thing. God grows His Church, His way, with His timing, and His purposes. I do not believe that in the long run you can biblically grow a church, any church. God has to grant His blessing and anointing for such growth to occur. Otherwise, it will either not happen or it will be like a shooting star, a flame that burns itself out. Ask those who have seen their churches mushroom and grow. Most, if truthful, would have to say that the bottom line for such growth is that God has blessed them.

Then, it has to be the right people at the right place and the right time for growth to occur. Don't expect a highly charismatic preacher to grow your church. Don't depend on an awesome and gifted church staff to do the same. With God's sovereign blessing and timing, average pastors with less than stellar staff can grow a church. I read a leadership article quite some time ago about one of the largest and growing churches in America. The pastor frankly admitted he did not know why his church grew and continues to grow. He talked about just watching God work around him and many, many people came to his church and stayed and became involved. Andy Stanley might say his systems and expectations were the real reason for growth. I don't buy that. As important as they are, strong leadership, great systems, and high expectations still don't guarantee church growth.

Am I therefore pessimistic about church growth? No, just doggedly realistic and seasoned about the topic and discussions. Can your church grow? I don't know. It may or may not numerically grow. It may grow to a point and then plateau or subside. It might mushroom and grow beyond your wildest dreams or goals or vision. The key thing I do know is to seek God's will and God's blessing upon your ministry and your church. Do the right things at the right time and with the right people in place. While this will not guarantee church growth, it will be what is right to do. And, isn't that what God really expects of us?

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Lessons In 40 Years in Ministry: What Do You Learn After the First 20 Years?

Lessons After 40 Years in Ministry
(What Do You Learn After the First 20 Years?)
Carl Shank

Having read Brian Croft’s 20 Lessons from 20 Years in Ministry*, I took off from his lessons, agreeing with many, adding to some, and developing others. The original Croft lessons are labeled (BC). Any developmental lessons to his I have added are labeled (CS).

1. God’s Word is sufficient to build Christ’s Church (BC), but systems matter (CS).
One of the major lessons in church health I have learned after being a church health consultant since 1998 has been that church systems either hamper or help to build the church. God’s Word provides the foundational building blocks and sustains the church, but outdated or understaffed or wrongly staffed systems can throttle a church and actually destroy it or limit its effectiveness.

2. The Gospel is powerful enough to change lives (BC & CS).
Here I fully agree with Brian. There are and have been decent support group materials and programs and retreats that have helped, no doubt. But I have found that faithful teaching and preaching and application of God’s Word is totally sufficient to build good marriages and solve the most intricate and difficult personal problems.

3. An effective pastor is one who feels deeply (BC), and who thinks clearly about people and issues (CS).
Authenticity of emotion speaks volumes to a younger audience looking for reality in their leaders and in their churches. But we must not let emotion override or replace clarity of thinking and planning and calculating. Authentic emotions plus clear thinking gives effectiveness in leadership and ministry.

4. Hang onto your family (BC & CS).
I could not agree more. I began ministry in the days when ministry was all consuming and took time away from family and needed time with kids and spouse. That was a mistake I have regretted with my first child, and have been trying to make it up to him through the years. Family always comes first after God, and ministry is further down on the list of priorities. It is so hard to regain a spouse’s love and trust if you put ministry commitments over your family.
5. Don’t underestimate the value of older members (BC), but understand their limits in growing a church in the modern age (CS).
The older I get, the more I see the wisdom and need of older members in a ministry and a church. However, not all older people think kingdom directed thoughts, and some actually want to practice nostalgic church patterns and programs which do not work anymore, especially for a younger generation. I have learned to avoid those older members stuck in their ways which do not advance God’s work and God’s kingdom.

6. Pursue being wanted, not needed (BC & CS).
John Maxwell has well said, “people don’t care about how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Every leader and minister is expendable. We need to let go of our egos and our self-proclaimed expertise as ministry goes on. There is always someone better than you are in everything. The sooner we realize this, the better and more effective and blessed our ministry becomes.

7. Don’t neglect your soul (BC & CS).
Good pastors and church leaders first care for their own spiritual condition and health before attempting to care for the souls of others. To do the latter without the former is at best worthless and at worst hypocrisy. You cannot lead where you have not been in the spiritual realm. Self-discipline, self-control, exercising the fruits of the Spirit are crucial to a healthy and lasting ministry.

8. Faithfulness is worth the harshest of criticisms (BC), as long as we understand faithfulness is not the same thing as theological or ecclesiological narrowness or denominational pride (CS).
Like Brian, I have had to make some very hard decisions in ministry and leadership. But I have seen the “faithfulness card” played too often by narrow and bigoted ministers and leaders who claim to follow God just to push their own agendas on people. Good people have been dismissed from churches and ministries because they have disagreed with the leadership. Or they have been silenced or shuttled to the sidelines. We need to make sure our faithfulness to God is really what God wants, not what we think God wants.

9. Authentic brokenness is better than unique giftedness (BC), but this again depends on the type and place of ministry and leadership (CS).
I value and champion authenticity and humility in ministry and leadership. But I also value skills and wisdom in ministry and leadership. Congregations and ministries value authentic brokenness in their leaders, but they still want strength and wisdom and giftedness in their leaders. And they don’t want or value excuses that seem to come from humbleness. They want leaders to lead and with the skill sets to do so.

10. Training men for pastoral ministry is an unspeakable joy (BC), as well as mentoring other leaders in ministry (CS).
I have had the privilege in forty years of ministry to mentor and train and help develop dozens of ministers and other church leaders. This is an absolute joy and fulfillment of ministry. One of my sons is entering professional ministry, and I have had the privilege to see him develop and grow and become a friend of mine, as well as a son, and ask for advice and help.

11. The burden to care for souls is too great for one person (BC & CS).
Amen to this reflection! Care-giving needs to be shared by many gifted people within a ministry or congregation, and not expected only from the senior leader. I have seen a “ranching type” of care giving approach reap vast benefits for the whole of a congregation’s needs and wants. The senior leader trains and organizes and even oversees other caregivers who use their skills and gifts to care for others. This works in smaller as well as larger churches.

12. Pastors will give an account for every soul under their care (BC & CS).
Hebrews 13:17 keeps me humble and often brings me up short in my care for others and ministry to them. I agree with Brian that it is those difficult souls that take the most out of you, but God has given them to you to love and perhaps rebuke and challenge. And there will always be difficult people. I have learned that people are basically the same everywhere, and that the ministry grass is not at all greener on the other side of the tracks or fence.

13. The most crucial pastoral quality might be patience (BC), or at least taking the long view of ministry (CS).
Pastors require many godly qualities, but patience may be the most important because of how it affects other qualities. Patience helps prevent pastors from overreacting. It helps them make decisions and evaluate their church with a long-term perspective and plan in view. We grow in discernment and wisdom when we’re patient, but these qualities are typically absent when we ramrod our agendas through (BC).

14. Be content-driven with music (BC), and flexible with the worship needs of people (CS).
I agree that biblical truth must inform all of our worship, including worship music. That music must also match the communication needs of the people coming to services. And that means often a balance between old and newer forms and formulations of musical styles. Forcing a group of people into a style that does not speak to their worship needs is counterproductive and can be unnecessarily divisive.

15. Learn what not to do (BC) in ministry programming as well as personal priorities (CS).
I believe more clearly now than ever that ministry is like a funnel, big at the inception end and small at the concluding end. We try many things, some good, some not so good, some neutral and some a waste of time in ministry programming and personal achievements. Failure is always an option in ministry programming, so long as it accords with Scripture and seeks to advance the kingdom of God in a certain area.

15a. Not everyone can do everything (CS).
The pastor or minister who thinks he or she can do it all is sadly deceived or mistaken. We all have gifts that differ and gifts that God has distributed to us that are usually different from gifts He distributes to others. We cannot and must not do it all. I have learned through the years that less stress and more productivity in ministry comes from focusing on what you were made to do rather than trying to do what others tell you to do or what you pridefully think you can do.

16. Prayer changes me the most (BC & CS).
I have learned through the years, especially the last twenty years that prayer walks, prayer retreats, taking weekly time off for sustained prayer really do work miracles and solve problems in ministry and churches. The busier you are, the more prayer is needed. I have learned that talking to God and especially listening to God prevents many church catastrophes.

17. Choose battles wisely (BC), and know you cannot win them all (CS).
We need to pick and choose what we fight for and campaign for in ministry and church leadership. Not everything really matters. And, I have learned to lose graciously as well as win graciously. We will not and cannot please everybody, and if one tries to do so, he or she will end up immensely frustrated and may leave ministry altogether.

18. Expect suffering (BC), and plenty of it (CS).
Ministries that matter and lives that matter to God go through plenty of suffering. Nothing really important comes without a great deal of pain and travail. Some of this pain may be brought on by tough decisions, and some of it will come simply through the travails of life and ministry itself.

19. Numbers are not a helpful gauge for determining church health (BC), but they must be figured into church effectiveness (CS).
While nickels and noses are not really the barometer for church wide health and vitality, they should be considered as normal outcomes for effective ministry. As a church health consultant, I fully agree with Brian’s note here, but ministries that attract no one or drive people away in the name of health or so-called biblical purity are misdirected. Healthy churches do indeed grow in numbers and nickels. Not usually into mega-churches or vast campuses but growth in all areas will be noted.

20. Jesus is always enough (BC), and the gospel is always the bottom line and the main thing (CS).
Our worth is not measured by how successful or influential or powerful our ministry has been. Character is always the bottom line here, and character is developed by closeness to Jesus Christ and His gospel. Churches that matter make the gospel the main thing, because at the end of the day, it is the main thing. 

*Editors’ note: The article by Brian Croft originally appeared at Practical Shepherding.
Carl Shank is an executive pastor and church health consultant at Pequea Church in Lancaster County, PA. He has been in the ministry since 1973 and a consultant with ChurchSmart, Inc since 1998. He can be reached at or email at

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Supreme Court Same-Sex Marriage Decision and the Church

A lot of people, from all sides, are responding to the Supreme Court decision making same-sex marriage the law of the land. The claim is that this is what the majority of Americans want and desire. After all, recent polls show the majority favoring such a decision for homosexuals. The ploy by that community of people and their supporters is that everyone will want to be a part of history, and not left behind in such history breaking ground. And that includes the church.

Indeed, many Christian churches have given in to the rhetoric, the poor exegesis of biblical texts and contexts, and the "niceness" of those seeking homosexual affirmation and same-sex unions. My prediction stands that the Christian church, including many evangelical churches, will welcome and affirm homosexual people and same-sex couples as a "normal" part of their services and ministries in the not too far future. We will find openly gay people serving in all parts and roles of ministry in our churches. The LGBT community will be fully accepted in the church of Jesus Christ. We will become rainbow-colored churches. This is a tragedy and an open welcome for God's judgment upon the church.

I am an older evangelical pastor, who happens to believe that biblical truth never goes out of style and that there is always right and wrong in all things. The homosexual community will simply wait us out, no doubt, until we die off, and then they can make their presence and influence known in our churches. My son is studying for the ministry, and he and his kids will find a vastly different (and diverse) church in which to minister God's truth and gospel. But before I go the way of all flesh, let me just say a few things about this turn of events.

First, truth is non-negotiable. No matter what the post-Christian world says, truth is absolute, for all time and for all cultures and communities. Certainly, truth must be joined with grace and graciousness for all people in all circumstances. But that graciousness must not compromise or dilute truth, especially biblical truth. God does not operate on a majority opinion, nor on Supreme Court decisions. And the truth of the matter about homosexuality and its tentacles is that it is wrong-headed and sinful. No matter how much we want to re-interpret the plain texts of the Bible on this subject, the preponderance of truth is that openly gay choices and lifestyles are wrong.

Second, same-sex marriage and homosexuality are choices made, not genetically forced upon us so that we can do nothing about them. A lot of talk is made about homosexual desires and how people cannot help being what they are. This supposedly is a defense of openly gay choices and people. However, we all operate by choices. And those choices can be good or bad or neutral. I can choose to smoke or not smoke. Nicotine habits can be broken. Homosexual choices can be broken. To claim I have to be what I was made to be negates the "new birth" and "new creation" that God does in a person's life and choices. We all do what we want to do--just admit this about gay people and same-sex unions.

Third, we live and operate in an increasingly post-Christian and irreligious America. Everybody agrees with this. It's not a thesis or supposition anymore. It is a fact. We have trashed our Christian and biblically based value systems for a humanistic and me-centered lifestyle. Therefore, the Court simply recognized what is true about American culture and values and societal trends. Again, let's just admit this. However, admission of this cultural shift and trend does not make it right or acceptable in our churches. We still need to proclaim and teach biblical truth and standards and the gospel to a dying world.

Finally, life will get worse, not better, for a Christ-follower and a church committed to the truth of Scripture. Such thinking coincides with a Scriptural model of the end times. The letters of the New Testament talk about deception in the last days, and how people will call truth evil and hold to deceptive and false practices. Christ-followers are called to stand their ground. It will be a battle for the hearts and minds of cultures and communities. I predict a day when churches not accepting openly gay people and couples will lose their government privileges. They will be fined for not marrying same-sex couples. Not just dismissed, but openly challenged. Remember the words of Paul the Apostle, "having done all, to stand firm." (Ephesians 6:13)

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Principled Relationships

I recently read an email devotional from a man I admire and respect, and have used many of his devotionals in my own life and work. However, I have had to disagree with the following devotional. Here it is:

Stop Living By Christian Principles
TGIF Today God Is First Volume 2 by Os Hillman
Monday, May 04 2015

..."having a form of godliness but denying its power" (2 Tim 3:5).
God never called you to live by Christian principles. He calls you to live in relationship with the living God, Jesus Christ. One of the weaknesses of the Church today is that we teach people principles without the relationship. 

The western church is big on ten step programs, "how-to" methods and acrostics to illustrate memorable ideas. There is a place for establishing principles to change negative behavior. However, we are not called to have a relationship with principles, but a living God.

Living by principles is the equivalent to living by the law in the Old Testament. It is rooted in the Greek system of learning and is dependent upon our strength instead of being led and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Principle-based living is powerless living. This makes our Christian experience a religion instead of a relationship. "But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law" (Gal 5:18). 

We read about principle-based followers in the book of Acts, "The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon's Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people" (Acts 5:12-14). There was a group of followers who liked being taught but never entered the game.

The prophet Jeremiah tells us about the nature of God and His desire for every believer. 
This is what the LORD says: "Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight," declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 9:23-24).

Friend, have you been guilty of living a life based on principles instead of knowing the One who authored the principles? Invite Jesus to be Lord over your life and begin to spend time with Him every day. Ask the Holy Spirit to lead and guide you through every moment of your day.

I fully agree with the problem of "religion vs relationship," and the need of personally knowing Christ with a vital relationship. What I have a problem with is the trashing of Christian "principles" as if something is wrong with living a principled life.

The Old Testament principles were established as a means of loving and obeying a covenant keeping God. The introductory statement to the ten commandments in Exodus 20 reads: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." God begins the commandments with a statement of redemption and deliverance. The commands are meant to flow from and follow redemption, not to be a substitute for them. It may be true that Israel missed this flow and legalistically followed the commands without savoring and living out the reality of a redemptive covenant relationship with God. And they did not do this well, as we know. But this does not invalidate those principles, which, by the way, Jesus Himself followed and obeyed.

Our own law code is founded on biblical principles, not a Greek-based system of learning. I am glad we are a society resting on principles, not on some kind of experiential, illusive, feeling-oriented relational reality. It is true our American and Western societies have departed greatly from those biblically based principles. That is to our detriment and maybe future destruction.

I am also thankful that many non-Christians I know live "principled" lives. My own deceased father, while never knowing Christ personally and relationally, lived on Christian principles taught to him by his grandparents and other family members. Therefore, he did not steal or murder or covet another woman apart from my mom. He even kept the sabbath. Not out of a relationship with Christ, but out of principled living.

So, I am opting for what I call a "principled relationship." I love Jesus and abide by biblical principles. Both are important and necessary. Why would we want it another way?