By Mark A. Taylor
Everyone serving the Lord struggles sometimes with tension between external actions and internal motives.
Am I singing or preaching or teaching because I love to be in front of people, or because I love to communicate God’s Word?
Do I give out of guilt or out of gratitude?
Do I approach Bible study, prayer, or weekly worship solely out of duty, or are they a delight to me?
And when it comes to ministers who lead growing churches, the tensions multiply. Am I seeking church growth to build the kingdom or to build my ego? Am I more concerned about my reputation or the needs of those we’re serving? Who’s glorified most because of our ministry, those leading it or God?
Ministers with the three largest Christian churches/churches of Christ in America talked about this in my Beyond the Standard discussion with them May 15. I asked them, “How do we balance concern for numerical growth with attention to spiritual growth?”
Dave Stone, minister with Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, said, “I prefer to talk about church health as opposed to church growth. When an organism is healthy, growth is a natural by-product.” But he pointed out that seasons of plateau or times for pruning are sometimes natural or necessary. And he admitted that he had his own struggle with ego when church attendance dropped by 1,500 in the first year of his ministry after longtime Southeast minister Bob Russell retired.
Don Wilson, who serves Christ’s Church of the Valley in Peoria, Arizona, looks at three external indicators of internal spiritual growth for any Christian: Are you generous? Are you serving in ministry? Are you sharing your faith?
And Jud Wilhite, minister with Central Christian Church in Henderson, Nevada, referred to 2 Corinthians 5:12, where Paul speaks about external success contrasted with internal sincerity:
Are we commending ourselves to you again? No, we are giving you a reason to be proud of us, so you can answer those who brag about having a spectacular ministry rather than having a sincere heart (New Living Translation).
Wilhite’s interpretation: “Paul’s alluding to the fact that people in his day were bragging about numbers, if you will. If you just look at the numbers, he wouldn’t have a spectacular ministry. But he has a sincere heart.”
Each of these three fellows has what could be called a “spectacular ministry.” (Their three congregations are reaching a total of more than 60,000 worshippers every weekend!) And not everyone is comfortable with their success. Questions from those who called into the program all hinted at skepticism or concern about why and how megachurches achieve their numbers.
But as each of these leaders offered gracious answers to those questioners, I heard indications of humility and concern that underlie every ministry led by someone with a sincere heart.
Listen to the whole discussion with Wilhite, Stone, and Wilson, including how ministry has stayed the same for them, no matter the size of their congregations. Find the hour-long program here.