The truth will make you free. But, truth hurts. And the truths I’m going to present may hurt a lot. They can shatter misconceptions about ministry. At first glance, they might even make you angry. Though they may go down bitter, once you internalize them they will become sweet.
I am excited that Cornerstone Church has grown consistently during the last 14 years. We’re planting our fourth church, and our first three church plants were sovereign within a year.
The road has not been easy. And the road ahead has some nasty curves. So I’m offering six truths of church growth that are counterintuitive and counter-Church culture. But they’re not counterfeit. I believe they are indispensable steps to church growth.
Put your church junkies in rehab
If your idea of spirituality is just a big church attendance gauge, you’re off base as a church leader.
As a shepherd, you’ve got to realize that sheep are not smart. They’ll wear themselves out. They’ll drag themselves to an activity every night. Then they can end up getting divorces because they didn’t spend adequate time at home with their family each week. Some people would fall over if their pastor came to them and said, “I don’t want you to do a Bible study; I want you to go home and be a wife,” or “I want you to go be a husband to your wife and a father to your kids.”
Some pastors are relying on a kind of manic commitment to the church to power the hundred and one ministries they believe give their church significance. But anytime you have somebody working in four different ministries, you’re not building a healthy Christian. You’re going to use the life out of them, and it’s not healthy.
Administration is more than control. It is the provision that allows the church to produce healthy people rather than people who are out of balance. We have allowed some people in our churches to become addicted to church activity, even to activity that is ministry. They’re not ministering because there is a genuine spiritual need for which they are burdened; they’re ministering to meet a psychological need of their own.
Ministry should do much more than just make people feel good about their Christianity — it should accomplish the expansion of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is why so many of our churches don’t grow. We’re doing ministry that just makes us feel good rather than ministry that is fruitful.
Ironically, people who get overly involved in those interior ministries can also become spiritually introverted and fail to effectively reach nonbelievers. Let’s say that church A has 20 Royal Rangers activities a year. Every other week they’ve got a Royal Rangers activity, but the Royal Rangers group never has a visitor. They have 20 Missionettes activities. They have five ladies’ Bible studies, six men’s retreats. They’re just burning themselves out. They’re always involved in ministry and don’t have time to walk in the community. They don’t ever do anything with unsaved people to draw them into their circle of influence.
There’s a difference between coming out from among the sins of the world, being separate from the world, and acting like the lost don’t exist. Unfortunately, that second variety of separation is what many of our church people exercise. When you balance the life of ministry, you’re focused on reaching the lost, not serving yourself.
Crave anointed administration
Two ingredients produce a perpetually growing church. One is administrative skills. You need technique, methods and application. But all that is for nothing without the second ingredient — God’s anointing.
We can quickly identify those who attempt to administrate without the anointing. There are ministers who are spiritually drier than cornbread on a bad day. They can administrate a herd of elephants, but they have no anointing.
As I’ve traveled, I’ve been surprised at how many of our churches don’t give altar calls, how many pastors don’t personally lay hands on the sick. Many of us have lost one of our fundamental truths that divine healing is part of the Atonement. Anointed ministry wants all that God wants for His church.
We’re much slower to identify those who demonstrate God’s anointing but fail to exercise administrative gifts. It seems unspiritual to even consider such a criticism. Yet, some pastors have incredible altar ministries, incredible preaching ministries, incredible teaching ministries — whatever their motivational gift may be — but they have no administrative skills. People love to hear them preach. They come to their altars and get blessed. But they don’t stay in their churches because there’s no preparation for what happens after the altar call. There’s no follow-up. There’s no assimilation process.
The pastor who diligently studies administration while walking in the Spirit discovers a beautiful reality. Anointing allows you to operate beyond your level of skill, ability, education and understanding. It allows you to operate in the realm of the Spirit, and it’s really where true fruit is plucked from the trees and brought into the kingdom of God. It’s where shackles are broken and people are set free.
The sad truth is that too many pastors fail in both arenas. In many ways, they don’t develop their administrative skills and neither do they develop their ability to function in the role of the anointed man of God. That anointing — coming upon your life and working through your life and flowing like a river out of you — allows you to operate far beyond your skills. The anointing will produce the motivation in your ministry that administration will give you the capability to keep.
Communicate, don’t manipulate
As a young preacher, I did what almost every young preacher does. I tried to find somebody to preach like. J. Don George was my preaching mentor and model. He’s the man who led me to the Lord and discipled me and gave me a job as a janitor in his church. Pastor George tends to hum when he preaches. And so I would catch myself trying to hum when I preached. I kept trying to create my own preaching persona from bits and pieces of other preachers. Whenever you do that, whenever you start patching people together, you end up with a Frankenstein.
Finally, it dawned on me that their preaching persona was part of their anointing and their gifting. God uses different styles of communication to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. And those gifts of communication aren’t limited to traditional preaching.
I try to watch preachers who tell stories. Gene Jackson, our superintendent in the Tennessee District, C.M. Ward, Dan Betzer—these are preachers who have transcended generations because they are storyteller preachers.
Now, that said, the more I have studied communication, the more wary I have become of manipulation. I listen to people spend most of their sermon saying “Glory to God” and “Praise the Lord” and “Hallelujah.” Why do you need a microphone to talk to God? If you’ve got a microphone, talk to me. I believe in public praise and worship, and I believe in all the Pentecostal manifestations, but I cut out a lot of the personal communication with God in the moments when I’m communicating with people.
And what about this thing of, “You people aren’t hearing me. You’re not hearing me. You’re not ready for this yet.” That is not the Spirit of God; that is man manipulating for personal response. Preachers who throw that at their congregations are trying to operate in the image of the anointing, but at the level of human emotion. You must communicate with people in a way that changes their lives, not just stirs their water.
Some tend to want to make the saints shout while they preach, rather than make sinners repent.
Preach the truth, plain and simple
To change lives, we must remember that we live in a non-Christian society. The words that we use must communicate the life of the gospel.
Just as an example, take the word “tithe.” Practically every pew-warming Christian knows it means 10 percent of your income and that it belongs in the local church. When my dad started going to church, he kept hearing that he needed to pay a tithe. But nobody told him what the word “tithe” meant. He had quit drinking when he got saved, so he just put his beer money in the offering plate. He did that for about a year, until one day the pastor taught clearly that the tithe is 10 percent of your income. So he went and added up his money and he discovered that his beer money was 10 percent of his income.
Whatever the concept, you must break it down into today’s language. I don’t say the word “tithe” in Cornerstone Church without explaining that it means 10 percent of your income.
Cornerstone Church has grown consistently for more than 14 (15?) years. It has not grown because I’m politically correct or emotionally sensitive to what people are going to think. Our growth is fed on truth and honesty and realism. This applies to the plain truth of the gospel. This applies to the hard facts of a lost culture.
We have people all over my church who have had divorces before they ever got here. Some were saved and backslid, some were saved and in rebellion, and some had never been saved. So I have to deal with divorce and remarriage, and we have to deal with blended families. You can’t act like they don’t exist, nor like there’s not a place for grace to work in their lives.
When I address divorce, I tell the story about the woman at the well. She was married five times and living with a man. And she was probably still living with somebody when Jesus sent her out to preach a sermon. In a third world country like that, she probably went home to that man. Otherwise, she would have been on the street that night. It wasn’t like she could kick him out and keep the house.
At what point this woman got the details of her life all right, I don’t know. The Bible doesn’t say. The Bible simply focuses on God’s miraculous grace. Jesus gave that woman an opportunity to be valuable in life, and sometimes all people need to straighten their lives out is to discover their worth in God’s sight.
The gospel is controversial. When I preach a sermon about Jesus being the only way to heaven, I clearly say that means every Muslim, every Buddhist, every atheist, every person who believes in an Eastern religion is going to hell. People may not like it, but they don’t misunderstand what I’m saying.
There is no room for political correctness in the church of Jesus Christ. You have to be spiritually truthful. Jesus did not say the gospel would be popular; He said it would polarize people. You’re either on God’s side or you’re not. You’re either in or you’re out. You can’t be on the fence.
We have to be painfully blunt. Jesus was.
If we’re not that truthful, we’re not as relevant as God wants us to be. We must preach what’s in the Word as a light shining in the darkness. It may hurt some people’s eyes.
Shed your sainthood
I have been called by an almighty God to preach the gospel that is beyond description. And yet, sometimes, we don’t give an honest life picture of who we are. We put forward a façade that discourages the people we should be loving and encouraging by being real. They look at our polished and prepped exterior and think they could never live that good. There are poor people out there who are going to hell, and they think if they get saved they will have to be just like some fake they’ve seen.
Does this mean I have to display my faults and parade my sins before the world? Of course not. But I need the people I shepherd to see my own total dependence on God and my desperate hunger for His touch and His transformation.
Let’s consider the challenges men face in our culture. The majority of men in America are either into drink or pornography; they have one of those two habits. More than 50 percent of men have those habits and they are both addictive. And that doesn’t count smokers, adulterers, fornicators, and homosexuals—.
As a minister of the gospel, I have to crucify those things that try to plant seeds of sin in my spirit. And those seeds can come in the midst of an activity I thought was acceptable. I am honest with my church about my humanity. Being called to preach does not keep me from needing to deal with the flesh.
Nullify the naysayers
Years after I was out of prison, I started to attend college. One professor I started out with was so negative. “This is going to be a very difficult class for you,” he told me at the outset, “and if you don’t pay attention, you don’t have any chance of passing. As a matter of fact, the majority of people last semester didn’t pass.”
I got up to walk out the door.
“Mr. Davis,” he said, “where are you going?”
“Back to work,” I told him.
He said, “I’m not through teaching.”
“You’re through teaching me,” I said. “I’m never going to sit under someone who is as negative as you are.”
I never went back.
God has a huge plan for each of us. We’ve just got to take our blinders off and we cannot listen to those who would try to put them back on.
When I came to Cornerstone, the attendance started at 220, and then it went down. Some people thought I was getting what I deserved. But then we began to grow. When we got to about 600, they began to say, “Well, you know, we’ve had flashes in the pan before. It won’t last.” The growth rate has only increased over the last decade.
It’s hard to understand the perpetual negativity of people who have not accomplished growth in their churches when they see others experience the kind of growth God wants to bring.
I’ve got to see growth in my church. I don’t see God giving me any other option. Jesus looked at the fruit tree that wasn’t bearing fruit and He said, “I’m going to curse you into outer darkness.” When I meet with a departmental leader or pastor, I tell them that anytime their ministry discontinues growing we’re going to evaluate it and give them 12 months. (Check) And our church has grown for 14 (15?) years in a row, because unfruitfulness is not an option.
Truth hurts. But it will also set you free. Free to blow away the husks of doubting preconceptions, stunted faith and empty self-sufficiency. Free to grow to proportions that please the mind of an ever-creative God.