At an annual growth rate of 65 percent, Real Life Christian Church of Clermont, Florida, was the fastest-growing megachurch in Christian Standard’s survey a year ago. Justin Miller came to Christ at age 9 at First Christian Church, as Real Life was formerly known. As Justin describes it, he came into ministry “through the ‘doggie door’ of church leadership.” Asked to serve the youth of the church as a volunteer, he eventually was called to serve as senior pastor in 2002. Since that time the church has grown from about 200 to its current attendance of about 3,500. (The report on page 12 shows that the church averaged above 2,700 in weekend worship in 2010.) Justin and his wife, Robin, have been married 14 years and have four children.
You didn’t go too far from home to find a ministry.
I grew up going to this church. Then I strayed away from my relationship with the Lord in my late teens. It was the last year of college that I had the crisis of faith that brought me back to the Lord. Every Sunday I would drive back home 45 minutes to go to church. It was what I knew.
How did you get plugged into ministry?
As I was coming back to the church I was asked, “Could you teach high school and middle school?” So I agreed. Then, after a couple months, they approached me about being the “part-time interim youth minister . . . until we find a real minister.” It’s probably the best title I’ve ever had!
God had plans for you that you apparently didn’t anticipate.
As I was becoming this part-time youth pastor, I thought, I need to make a lifestyle change. I was ordained by the church in January 1996, and started taking an occasional class at Florida Christian College. I was youth pastor for six years, then became the lead pastor in 2002. We had gone through a couple of lead guys in that time, with the church fluctuating from 200 to 250.
How did you make the transition to lead pastor?
The minister of our church at the time was looking to transition into mission work. I was looking to transition out of youth ministry, at least at our church. I was praying about church planting, and even had a couple interesting offers; but in a roundabout way, God showed me my heart was really for my hometown, my home church. With the senior guy moving out, the elders asked if I was interested in stepping in. I really didn’t want to, but felt the call was pretty clear.
What were the biggest challenges?
Jesus weighed in on that when he said, “A prophet in his hometown. . . .” [This is my home church, and] you have relatives and friends in the church who don’t respect you as a leader, and now they’re a little resentful or jealous. And then you have friends who may want to leverage their influence, and they find out you’re not willing to let them. Then some of the old guard is not excited about seeing a young guy come in—especially when he’s holding his ground on the things God’s called him to fix. Paul told Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you . . . but set an example.” That’s what I had to do.
How did you see your role as a leader?
The leader’s commission is to bring change, hopefully the right kind and in the right way. Change is the job of the leader. If you want someone to manage the status quo, you don’t need a leader, you need a manager. Even if you don’t want change, you’re going to get change if you hire a leader. Leaders bring change. We’re always in motion with God individually and corporately, and when we cease to change we cease to grow.
How did you initially approach change?
The first wave of change was repentance. Growth in Christ, new life in Christ, always starts with repentance. What is true for the individual is true for the group. My first job as a leader was to convince the elders that God wanted his church back—that Jesus wanted to be the head of his church. The vision was to get on my knees and ask Jesus to lead his church, ask what he wants of us, and ask forgiveness for things that offended him, and I asked the elders to join me. I got on my knees and they got on their knees and we started praying. Unless the Lord builds the house . . .
Why wouldn’t that be the natural approach?
The thing that keeps us from doing it is pride. We usually think we know what’s best, and we presume to lead from our power, position, and pride. My job was to model humility, be the first to repent, and ask people to follow my example rather than saying, “You people need to repent.”
Where did you go from there?
I felt like God showed me the concentric circles of change. Change starts with the individual. The thing that needed to change first was me—my heart, my mind. My will needed to be conformed to his. The next circle out is where we find the most influential leaders (beside yourself), the elders. So we brought the elders along in this journey of repentance. From there we took it to the deacons, the ministry staff and team leaders, and then to the church. We had a lot of changing to do, but the real job was building unity and alignment so we could make those changes. That’s the hard work of leadership, and it doesn’t happen overnight.
What was at the heart of the church’s repentance?
Jesus said a house divided cannot stand, and we were divided for way too long. One of the things we had to repent of was our divisions. We had to repent of pride in leadership. We had to repent for not really loving the lost. We also had some clear sin issues in leadership that we had covered up. We had to bring those out into the open.
So the key action was spiritual change.
Yes! The right order is to address the spiritual issues before you address the practical issues. What we do way too often in the church is change the outward things, try to address the outward style—methods—but we fail to address the spiritual issues involved in why God is or isn’t moving in our church. In the Old Testament, God would send prophets to address the spiritual issues. It moves from the spiritual to the practical.
What’s an example of practical change?
Voting is a great example. We decided that congregational votes on leadership positions and decisions weren’t biblical. When the people voted, they usually voted against God’s will. God, in the Bible, would appoint leaders. God works through a man or group to accomplish his will. You’ve got Moses, Joshua, David, Jesus, Peter, Paul—God would say, “This is what I want to do, go do it.”
Shouldn’t you get input from the congregation?
Survey and talk to people, sure—you have to build consensus—but sometimes I think we abdicate responsibility to lead by asking people to vote. The [average churchgoer] doesn’t meet the qualifications of a person who leads, and yet we’re asking them to lead. Some of the most important decisions in the church are made that way, and it’s scary. We stopped voting and started leading.
How did the growth begin to ramp up at Real Life?
It took awhile. We didn’t do any external marketing for a while. We realized new people were coming all the time—they just weren’t coming back. We realized people are coming to our house, and we asked, “Shouldn’t we at least be ready when they come?”
How did you make yourselves ready?
We began to address systems. I had two part-time staff members and they asked, “What’s the vision?” Honestly, I didn’t know what the vision was yet, but I knew historically we stunk at a lot of things. Our music wasn’t that great, our welcome and guest services game was off, our children’s ministry wasn’t something you would want to bring your kids to. If we’re going to do something for God, let’s make it good. It was like the “anti-statement” of what is now a core value: excellence.
What makes Real Life unique now?
The one thing that jumps out is authenticity. We’re putting the “real” in Real Life. People come here and they sense right away this isn’t a church you go to, it’s a family you come to and become a part of it. They know they can trust leaders here to be honest with them. We answer the questions that need to be answered; people don’t feel like we’re sweeping anything under the rug. Many people in our culture have had negative church experiences. We’re reaching people who have run from church for various reasons.
How do you assimilate people when they’re coming at you so fast?
I wish I knew. I can humbly suggest that you do it strategically; by that I mean there are a couple of times a year that you share the needs and opportunities at the church and encourage involvement. All of your departments are on standby: “This is the weekend he’s going to talk about that, and when he addresses service, he’s going to motivate people to be involved and we need to be ready.” Also, have an Ephesians 4 mind-set—it’s our job as God’s leader to prepare people for the work of service. So we have that mind-set, philosophy, and value, along with being strategic about asking people to be involved.
Does someone coordinate volunteers?
We have an involvement pastor, but really we try not to rely solely on the involvement pastor. Every pastor’s job description is “involvement pastor.” “I’m not here to do the job for you; I’m here to get you equipped for ministry.” Structuring the church so that there are low-level serving opportunities is huge. I don’t have to be a fifth-grade teacher, but I can be a fifth-grade helper and, as such, I’m being trained to be a teacher.
Brad Dupray is president of Church Development fund, Irvine, California.