As church leaders, we have little control over who shows up in our churches. It would be nice if we could form a “Dream Team” of capable, happy, well-adjusted, disciples who are willing to do anything necessary to conform their lives to the teachings of Christ and his church – and give ten percent of their income. Sorry, it’s not like that…unless you want to have about three people in your church. Consider the apostles. They had walked with Jesus for three years. They saw him crucified. They stood inside the empty tomb. And yet, when Jesus appeared to them after his (resurrection) these same men had to be commanded by Jesus to “Touch me and see.” Why? Because “…they still did not believe.” Yet Jesus gave the church to these men! Pastors and leaders don’t have a draft like the NFL. Just because First Baptist had a lousy season last year, doesn’t mean they get the first round draft choice of available converts. When all is said and done, the Lord of the harvest adds to our numbers those who are being saved…those whom he chooses. John Wimber
Our Theme: ON EVANGELISM.
Remember, John Wimber was a church growth advocate. For several years before starting what would eventually become the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Anaheim, CA, John traveled extensively across the North American continent, talking with pastors and leaders about how to make their churches grow.
In 1975, Wimber met Peter Wagner at a summer course on church growth held at Fuller Seminary. By the end of the two-week intensive, Wagner knew that Wimber was a church growth practitioner. During the ‘70s Wagner served as the CEO of Fuller Evangelistic Association (FEA), which was created by Charles E. Fuller in 1933, and he was a professor at Fuller Seminary, which Fuller along with Carl F.H. Henry and Harold Lindsell had created in 1947. Around 1975, Wagner was establishing the Charles E. Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth and he reached out to Wimber to give direction to the Charles Fuller Institute. Wimber resigned his pastoral position at the Friends Church in Yorba Linda and accepted Wagner’s invitation.
During his years at FEA, Wimber worked the church conference circuit, helping pastors from numerous denominations get a better handle on the changing climate of the day and how the church needed to re-think how they were “doing church.” In his own testimony, I’m a Fool for Christ, Who’s Fool Are You?, Wimber told us how he, at the time, believed that he was doing a noble thing (in helping churches grow), but sadly, he was using spiritual gifts uniquely given to him by the Holy Spirit to manufacture growth in a rather secularized way.
For Wimber, “church growth” at its core is something only Jesus can do to his church. As you can see in the quote above, he eventually came to the point of realization that the secularized pursuit of church growth was not something he wanted to be a part of. I recall many times that he told us pastors who were so caught up in the fine art of church growth that if we kept on that track, we’d end up with a “crowd,” but never a “church.”
Sadly, I believe we’re dangerously close to such a state once again in the American church. Statistics today seem to indicate that the only churches in America that are really growing in numbers are the larger mega-churches or churches that are specifically geared toward providing all the bells and whistles church goers in our secularized society insist upon having. Like Wimber, I wonder how many actual “churches” exist in America today. Yes, we have “crowds” of people, but as Wimber so succinctly stated, “a crowd is never a church.”
In recent years,Willow Creek Church in the Chicago suburbs did an extensive study, evaluating the long-term effectiveness of their “seeker-sensitive” approach to church growth. Without a doubt, Willow Creek had become one of the key models of “successful” church life by countless pastors across America. Yet when their “Reveal”study was released to the public in 2007-2008, the “church growth” world was shaken to the core. The study actually showed what Wimber had projected thirty years earlier. After two solid decades of utilizing a “seeker-sensitive” approach to church growth, the Willow Creek folks sadly reported that their popularized approach to ministry had actually produced very little in the way of true biblical “discipleship” in the people they were attracting to the ministry! Willow Creek had gathered a “crowd,” but had not been all that successful in actually forming “a church” of “Christ followers,” men and women who would be seen as “obedient disciples” of Jesus of Nazareth.
So as Wimber stated so very long ago, Jesus is the only one who actually grows his church; and even with our best efforts as evangelists and pastors, we must realize that the church growth job truly belongs to Jesus. Our job, on the other hand, is to be obedient care-givers and disciple-makers, equipping the “crowd” (see Ephesians 4:12-13) to become a “church” of disciples who are learning the fine art of following Jesus in a society where much of what we call Christianity is, what my friend, pastoral coach Dave Jacobs calls, “a mile wide but only an inch deep.”
My friends, once again, it’s time for a shift in the way we measure “success” in church life. In my own life, I’ve had to be gut-honest with myself. In 2008, when I had over 350 people coming to my church, I was really thrilled with that fact. My wife and I started our little church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with 5 couples in 1998. As I was working as fast as my fat-little butt would go, pushing for more church growth, so we could break the 500 barrier, the Lord finally stopped me in my tracks and began dismantling the church I thought was a “church.” In 2008, when I was believing myself to be “successful” as a church growth guy, I had 350 people attending my church, but in fact, all I really had at the time was a “crowd” sitting in the seats with a small group of “disciples” doing a lot of the work. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the 350 people in our midst in 2008 were only there for selfish reasons. Actually, what I’m saying is that the problem was inside me! It was me, quite honestly, who was looking at these 350 people as a “crowd” and not truly interested in caring for their souls nearly as much as I was building a bigger church on their backs!
So what about you and your church?
Are you caught up, like I was in 2008, with what I previously described as the 3-Bs, where all I really needed to feel “successful” was victory in the 3-B components of (B)uilding size, (B)ucks in the offering, and the number of (B)utts in the seats? If that’s you, my friend, I might suggest that you take your own “Reveal” study, like our friends at Willow Creek, and honestly evaluate what you’re doing in the name of Jesus. For me, I know it’s time to return to some of Wimber’s comments that remind me about what’s really important when it comes to true “evangelism and church growth” as Jesus sees it.
I invite you to join a reformation in the way you are doing pastoral ministry for the cause of Christ.
Father, as a pastor who truly wants to find “success” in the ministry I do, help me to take my eyes off “church growth” for “church growth’s” sake. Allow me to re-visit the biblical components of what truly makes a church “successful” as seen through the eyes of the Master. Let me love each person Jesus adds to the church I shepherd and may I be faithful to my call to love and equip. For your name’s sake. Amen!
QUESTIONS FOR YOU TO PONDER
- How am I allowing “church growth” to rule the way I “do” church?
- Am I consumed with growth to such a degree that I’ve lost perspective on what actually defines a “successful” church?
- What needs to change for the “crowd” I lead to become a “church” I shepherd and equip for Jesus’ ministry?
So what is God speaking to you today as you ponder the Wisdom of Wimber?
Between Easter 2016 and the end of August, we are sharing with you a blog series we call The Wisdom of Wimber: As I See It. In order to keep all 64 blog sessions organized, we suggest you bookmark our Wisdom of Wimber page for ease of use. Might we also suggest that you order a copy or two of our book by the same title! It’s available in both paperback and e-book formats…and will soon be available in Spanish! Click here for more info. ENJOY!
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