By Aaron Brockett
Six months after the grand opening of our church plant, I hit a wall. The combination of seeing the last of the “well-wishers” depart, watching our first disillusioned family leave the church, and experiencing the drought of summer attendance was too much. I’d given everything I had to get this young church started, and now the needle of my emotional tank was firmly planted on empty. I wanted to bail.
To be honest, I was irritated with the stories of church planters turned megachurch pastors who made it look so easy (or so I thought). On paper, we’d done everything we were supposed to do. We had hit our marks, raised the funds, developed a launch team, and I was preaching my guts out. The results, from my perspective, weren’t matching the effort we were investing.
That’s right around the time I received a phone call from the search committee of a megachurch looking for a new lead pastor. I’m not sure why my wife, Lindsay, and I decided to drive down one weekend for a visit. We knew there was no way we could leave our church plant when it was only six months old. Looking back, I think we were lonely enough that a weekend away together sounded really, really good. So we went.
And we were tempted to take the job. Man, were we tempted. All right, I was more tempted than she was. I kept thinking, If only I had this facility . . . this staff . . . these elders . . . these people, then ministry would be so fruitful and fulfilling.
Everything within me tried to figure out a way to make it feel as if God were calling us away from the church plant and into a megachurch. You know, this role fits my gifts better. Maybe God used the last six months to prepare me for another challenge. Paul didn’t stay at any of the churches he planted very long—now I know why!
I can spiritualize cowardice with the best of them, but it was to no avail. God wouldn’t let us go, and I wasn’t very happy about it. I couldn’t believe I was hearing myself tell that search team, “No, we’re going to stay” as I hung up the phone.
For the next four years, we labored to establish that young church, all the while looking a bit disdainfully at the “mega-boys” in the big churches around the country. Their success made me feel like a loser at times. I know it wasn’t healthy, and I was aware of it, but that didn’t make the feelings any less real. I actually grew somewhat disenfranchised with the large church as a result.
We gave the church plant all we had, and God worked in and through the lives of people, one at a time. As it turns out, my heart needed those challenging years more than God needed me to plant a church.
Several years later, through a series of unexpected events, I found myself following a well-loved, long-tenured pastor at one of those megachurches I’d looked upon with suspicion and envy from a distance. We weren’t looking for the opportunity; God led us to it. I went from leading a church plant of 125 people to leading a church of 1,600 within the span of a year and a half, which felt a bit like jumping onto a speeding Amtrak train. I really had no idea what I was doing and was thrown into a steep learning curve.
And yet, by God’s grace, the church has grown rapidly over the past five-plus years. It has been unreal and even perplexing at times.
Before you get all uptight thinking this is just another piece on “how you, too, can grow a megachurch!”—calm down. Seriously—relax. Ask anyone who knows me well and they’ll tell you I’m not a hard-driving, ambitious, type-A kind of guy. In fact, most people get annoyed with me because I’m too quiet. (Geesh, extroverts drive me crazy!)
The reason I mention this is because a couple of years ago a friend who helps plant churches asked me, “What are you doing now that’s different from what you did then?” Honestly, I’d never really stopped to consider that. From his perspective, I had to be doing something different from my days as a struggling church planter to be experiencing this kind of growth in a megachurch. Here was my honest answer: “I have no idea.”
I don’t mean to imply I was walking around the hallways of the church like a bumbling idiot, completely clueless about what I was doing (although I’m sure there are some days my staff and others in our church would say that description sounds about right). What I meant was there hadn’t been a day when I declared, “I’m going to change this and that about the way I’m leading,” and once I did that our church really took off. There wasn’t a formula, conference, or book that changed anything. (I’m not opposed to any of those, and I’ve certainly grown from each of those tools and experiences.) I’m just saying, “There was no secret sauce.”
Serving a small, struggling church plant as well as serving a growing megachurch have taught me more about what Paul was talking about than any particular method of ministry or leadership philosophy.
I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are coworkers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building (1 Corinthians 3:6-9).
This passage means a lot to me because I’ve been both a planter and a “waterer.” Hear me, church planter, the community or culture you are ministering in is the soil, the seed is the gospel, and God is the one orchestrating the growth (or lack thereof). Growth isn’t always (nor should it be) linked to numerical increase, but instead to the myriad of ways God desires to grow us as his people.
This picture should be incredibly humbling and freeing to those of us who have the honor of leading a local church (whether it’s mega, mini, or somewhere in between). So with that backdrop, this is what I would tell church planters (and it probably applies to you, too, whoever you are).
Be careful not to assign moral value to the size of a church. That’s an easy thing trap to fall into. People have strong opinions about the “right” size a church should be, whatever that means. The truth is, some churches are small because there isn’t enough vision, love, or structure. And others are big because they are overhyped and overaccommodating to culture. However, this isn’t true for every small or big church!
In the New Testament, the church in Corinth appears relatively small, and the church in Jerusalem grew quite large. Size isn’t spiritual. It’s a by-product of a variety of factors, many of which we simply have no control over. It is a sin to generate numerical growth for anyone’s glory other than Jesus’, but it is an equally grievous sin to limit numerical growth due to our own comfort or bias. As a church planter, you plant the seed of the gospel within the community you serve. Focus on knowing Jesus and making him known and leave the results up to him.
The church will prevail, not the particular style of church we prefer in the moment. French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte once said the best way to understand someone is to discover what was happening in the world when he or she was 20 years old. There is a lot of sobering truth in that statement.
It amazes me how much “friendly fire” one must endure within ministry today. By no means am I saying we cannot or should not learn from the thoughtful, direct, yet redemptive critique of other godly men and women. I’m just saying if we aren’t careful, the conversation can degenerate into a tone that indicates we are more interested in winning the debate than advancing the kingdom.
When Jesus told Peter that the church would prevail, he didn’t put any adjectives in front of it. Since the church is Jesus’ bride and not yours (Revelation 2 and 3), let him deal with her imperfections, inconsistencies, and flaws. He’s been looking at her without her makeup on for 2,000 years! He doesn’t need you or me pointing out that nasty mole on the back of her neck. He’ll deal with it.
I don’t care what style of church you prefer; make sure in your gathering Jesus is the focus, your Bible is open, and the gospel narrative is your refrain. And don’t be surprised if God decides to bless that gathering with growth—then you can deal with your own critics.
Recognize that Jesus is the true lead pastor of your church. First Peter calls Jesus our chief shepherd. We ministers tend to take ourselves too seriously and Jesus not seriously enough. We never set out to do this, it just happens with the pressure we experience. When you realize Jesus cares more about the condition of your soul than the success of your church, it is a freeing reality that sets you up for years of fruitful service for the kingdom, regardless of your circumstances.
Plant relentlessly. Water faithfully. Then go take a nap. I am.
Aaron Brockett serves as lead pastor with Traders Point Christian Church, Whitestown, Indiana.