By Mont Mitchell
I turned my numbers in to CHRISTIAN STANDARD for the attendance list today. For the last bunch of years we have been on the emerging megachurch list . . . you know, churches with an average attendance more than 1,000 (but less than 2,000). However, for the last several years, our church has been going through some challenges and changes and transitions. (I’ll get to that in a bit.) The result: We’re bumped from the list.
Westbrook Christian Church, Bolingbrook, Illinois, used to be an emerging megachurch. Today, we are just a large church.
Now, don’t get me wrong. From a growth perspective, our church has been on an amazing trajectory since my wife and I planted her 18 years ago. We are honored to serve in a sizable congregation, and honestly, that’s been a pastoral desire since I finished my internship at a megachurch and graduated from Bible college.
Truthfully, all young (and old) preachers want to make it to that list. Maybe it’s completely unholy and ungodly, but there’s a sense of desire, drive, and competition in all of us. Some guys won’t admit it, but when we hear other preachers at the North American Christian Convention or the Catalyst Conference, we secretly wish we were up on that stage—believing we have what it takes to lead a church that size, and that our sermons are just as good, if not better.
Maybe we’re right and maybe we’re not. But most ministers are like most other people in this regard: we feel a sense of competition. When our attendance and ministry growth realities don’t match up with our expectations and dreams, we can be discouraged.
In our case, our fantastic growth seemed to peak about four and one-half years ago. In the intervening years, our staff and leaders have been doing some heavy soul-searching, maddening research, and crazy praying about why this peak was turning into decline. Lately the better description is hemorrhaging.
We’d like to think we’ve figured out some stuff. The downturn in the economy has affected us, some staff turmoil and dissension caused some internal bleeding, and a sense of fear I experienced in leading through these issues no doubt contributed to this trend of decline. Believing that God called me to this ministry, not sensing that I had been released from this work, and knowing that working and leading through it would help me be an even better leader and minister caused me to stick it out.
My agricultural upbringing even led me to research and write a “soil report” for our ministry area. The finding: The “soil” around the church building is much different than when we first planted her. It’s changed from the first 10 years. Ministry in 2015 is just different.
But accepting the fact that it’s different and hard doesn’t diminish or lessen the internal anguish of getting bumped from the list. Nobody likes to lose steam. No preacher wants to admit to being less than what he was. Come on guys, I’m shooting straight, and you know I’m speaking the truth. When this happens, a minister can feel like a failure. He can start to resent the lists. He can begin to avoid the conferences and meetings because he is tired of the constant stories of the superstars who have been on Outreach’s fastest-growing list for the past 22 years. He might secretly journal about wanting to hear from people who are on the “fastest-declining list.” He might long for some faith stories of some guys (like you and me) who are authentically and tirelessly slogging it out . . . guys who maybe aren’t seeing the result in attendance, but are diligently and devotedly staying true to the gospel.
The comparison game is painful, and the fear of being void of God’s blessing is terrifying. Sometimes a minister wants to throw in the towel. Some of us quit. Can I get a witness in the reading section?
If you’ve had any or all of these emotions, I feel your pain, and I’d like to take a stab at bringing some encouragement. With all of the emotionally and spiritually healthy soul searching and visionary transitioning we’ve been through, here are some things I have learned.
1. God delights in me no matter the size or growth of our church.
I feel pretty assured that God is not enamored by the number of my Twitter followers, how many Facebook friends I have, and the ranking of my church on any list. Rather, God is pleased and honored with me because he is my Father, and I am his son.
I am a soldier. I follow his commands and fight on the front lines of the battle. I bravely take enemy attacks, and I courageously stand up against friendly and, often, not so friendly fire. I endure heartache with grace, and I relentlessly tolerate disappointment.
God loves me because he loves me, not because I am a preacher in a big auditorium with an IMAG screen and HDTVs in the lobby. I remind myself nearly every day that my bivocational colleagues who are full-time preachers and full-time farmers will most likely eternally reside in a bigger mansion than me. A lot of those guys couldn’t care less about Facebook.
2. My personal worth as a pastor and servant of God is not contingent upon the disheartening fluctuation of attendance.
I hate to admit that a great deal of my personal worth as a preacher, and even as a person, has been tied up with my measures of success. It’s been a process to come to terms with it, and an even greater feeling of freedom to disclose it. Honestly, even writing this article speaks to it. Most of my congregation couldn’t care less what our weekend attendance was.
My wife loves me regardless of the nitty-gritty in our church’s annual report. I’m pretty sure my friends will still love me, no matter what our church’s ranking. I feel pretty confident that Tim Harlow will still meet me for lunch. I’m pretty sure Dave Ferguson will still stop and chat over a cup of coffee. I have a surefire belief Barry Cameron, Cam Huxford, and Dave Stone will give me huge bear hugs the next time they see me.
My point in thinking through this is not simply to drop the names of friends who are some of the biggies in the brotherhood. My point is this: I am blessed to have a lot of these big dogs as my friends, and I’ve got to believe it’s not just because my church is on some list, or used to be on some list.
What I’m learning from being bold enough to submit our “we are down this year” numbers is this: God honors faithfulness in the ups and downs of life, regardless of our attendance position. There’s an even better chance that Christ couldn’t care less about reports, since he cares more about disciples.
So take heart, comrades! Whether you are at a church of 25 or 25,000, we are all servants of the Most High. The fields are ripe unto harvest, and God calls us all to take his gospel to the world! There, I feel better! I hope you do too.
Mont Mitchell serves as lead pastor with Westbrook Christian Church, Bolingbrook, Illinois.
We asked three ministers, one from a “Large Church,” one from an “Emerging Megachurch,” and another from a “Megachurch,” to respond to Mont Mitchell’s essay. Their reactions, below:
MOST PEOPLE FIND it easier to “weep with those who weep” than to “rejoice with those who rejoice.”
The drive to excel, grow, and succeed is good as long as our motive is anchored on directing honor to God. Our adversary would prefer diverting that motive into honor for self.
This struggle with our carnal reflex leads us to compare, rather than to commend kingdom advancement by others. Celebrating the progress of others with genuine encouragement is the best antidote.
—Jeff Stone, senior minister Bright (Indiana) Christian Church
I AM NOT SURE. . . . It sounds a bit like a bizarre dream a preacher might have: List the size of your church. Now list your name beside it like you were the one most responsible for its rise—or for its fall! Now order the list so that you, and our global readers, can clearly see how you compare to others.
It does give me pause. If alms and prayers are dangerous in public, is there a chance that memberships and baptisms and comparison lists and preachers’ names publicized about our churches might also be dangerous?
I am confident this may be our most popular issue, but I am not sure it may always appeal to our better nature, either for reader or church reporter.
I have wrestled with this every year I reported. And to be honest, I don’t know that the years I knew we would look good were any better for me spiritually than the years I turned in our duds!
I know the numbers and demographics are not only interesting, but actually important for understanding trends. Numbers are not the problem. I like that I know there were 3,000 on Day One in Acts. I like knowing that it grew to 5,000 men very soon. Those numbers help me set expectation for kingdom growth.
Maybe it’s not the numbers, but the “street corner” manner in which we add them up. Maybe there is a better way.
—Randy Gariss, preaching minister, College Heights Christian Church, Joplin, Missouri
AS A PASTOR of a megachurch I agree with Mont’s observations. I have gone through those same feelings when our church plateaued for three years. I had to take a close look at myself and determine whether my identity was in the growth of our church or in Christ.
Looking back, I am thankful our church plateaued. It forced me to look closely at what was causing our church to grow in the first place. It also made me realize that the devil’s primary strategy is discouragement.
Restarting momentum is one of the most difficult challenges for a leader, but it is also the most rewarding. No matter what size church you lead and no matter what difficulties you face, remember James’s counsel. “You know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:3, NIV ©1984).
So stay strong and keep making a difference.
—Don Wilson, senior pastor, Christ’s Church of the Valley, Peoria, Arizona