How I dumped the mega-church model and found something bigger

Each year, the “nones” in our society (those who check “none” for religious affiliation) grow at an astounding rate. Some have used those statistics to declare the end of the American church. And while this fear of secularism is a bit overblown, the stats do raise an essential point: Churches that want to reach ‘nones’ read to retool. “Nones” do not saunter their way back into church because a particular pastor is super-engaging, the music is cool, or the guest services are Disney-esque. “Nones” feel like the church is a separate world in which they have no part.

A British friend of mine, Steve Timmis, cites a study in Great Britain in which 70 percent of Brits say they have no intention of ever attending a church service. For any reason. Not at Easter. Not for marriages. Not for funerals or Christmas Eve services.

Seventy percent! Great Britain may be a few years ahead of the United States in the progress of secularization, but judging by the rapidly increasing presence of “nones,” this is where we are headed, too.

That means that each year, the “pie” of people in our communities who will wander into our churches is shrinking. Thus, if we don’t equip our people to carry the gospel outside of our gatherings, we will lose all contact with the unreached people living around us.

God builds his kingdom as we let go, not as we hold on.

Without a new strategy, the future looks like a few flashy megachurches fighting for larger pieces of a shrinking pie.

But that doesn’t have to be the future of the Western church. We can reach the culture, but we need to think about growing the pie. And that means teaching our people to engage people with the gospel outside the walls of the church.

This is what, as a megachurch pastor in North Carolina, I had to learn the hard way.

I emerged from seminary with one goal as a pastor: to grow a great big church with big conversion numbers and a big budget, and—to be honest—hopes of even bigger attention for the guy behind it all. I thought I was doing God’s work. Isn’t “big” what he wanted?

God confronted my self-centered ambition one afternoon when I was praying for our city. I was praying for a massive spiritual awakening in our city—the kind that would change the shape of our city for the next two hundred years. In the midst of that prayer, it seemed as if the Spirit of God asked, “And what if I answer this prayer… but I don’t use your church to do it? What if another church in Raleigh-Durham leads the way? Would you still want it?”

I knew the right answer to that question. I was supposed to say, “Oh, yes, Lord! You must increase and I must decrease!” It may have been the right answer, but it was not the real answer. I wanted to see my church succeed, my kingdom enlarged, my name magnified. In that moment I realized that somewhere along the way, “thy kingdom come” had become all jumbled up with “my kingdom come.”

I went back to our church and told them I had been leading them wrongly. “Our goal,” I said, “is no longer to build a great big church. It is to reach our city, and to take the gospel to places in the nation where Jesus is not known. If God grows our church in the process, so be it. But if he takes from us some of our best resources and people and sends them out to start new works, that’s ok, too.”

It was during that season that we tapped into a completely new stream of spiritual power. All of Jesus’ promises about the greatness of the church, you see, are tied to sending out, not gathering in.

Jesus once promised his disciples that they would do greater works than him (John 14:12). Greater works than Jesus? How is that even possible? How many pastors claim to do greater works than Jesus? To do greater miracles, preach greater sermons, or pray greater prayers? But “greater” does not mean greater in the quality of the works we do. It means that the reach and extent of his works would be greater when Jesus’ Spirit rested on every believer then when that power was concentrated upon one person.

Churches that understand this will devote themselves not to gathering and counting, but empowering and sending. Sending capacity, not seating capacity, ought to be the measure of success for any New Testament church. And in a society like ours, as the “nones” become less the outliers and more the norm, this sending capacity can only become more vital.

It’s time we, as pastors, returned to Jesus’ strategy for reaching our nation. To do that we’re going to have to first die to ourselves—to our ambitions in ministry, to our dreams, to our hopes of a comfortable life. We should remember we are called by one who came not to be served but to serve, who, though he was rich, for our sakes became poor so that we through his poverty might become rich, and beckons us to follow him. He said, “Except a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, it abides alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

Living comes by dying; gaining comes by losing. His call was not to “come and grow,” but “come and die.” He calls us first not to a platform, but to an altar.

This won’t be easy. I recently sat at a table with our four church-planters-in-residence for the year, listening to them give a final report to our executive team before being sent out from our church to plant churches in strategic cities across America.

Just nine months prior, we had brought them onto our staff with only one assignment—to plan for their church launch and take as many of our members with them as they could.

These four had done what we asked: they were taking 200 of our active members.

I knew I was supposed to be excited, and I was… sort of. I was also feeling an involuntary lump form in my throat—a mixture of sadness, fear, and, quite frankly, panic.

Their lists included personal friends, favorite musicians, key volunteers, and leaders. People I did not want to lose. Leaders whose absence would leave significant gaps. This was going to be much harder than I had thought.

That afternoon, listening to our church planters, I put my hands under the table and literally forced them open to God. Opened in surrender. Opened as a sign that I must take my hands off of one of the most precious earthly things to me—my church. Open as on offering of praise to Jesus’ worthiness and faith in his promise. Open in the belief that God builds his kingdom as we let go, not as we hold on.

Are you willing to do the same with the “grain of wheat” God has given you? With your time, your treasures, and your talent? With your ministry or your church? With your life?