Nothing comes close . . . if the church is working right. But that’s a big if. In the mid-eighties, when I began to travel more, I couldn’t ignore the gap that existed between churches that were living out their purposes and flourishing — reaching seekers, growing up strong believers, putting their arms around the poor, lifting broken lives — and those that seemed to be on the verge of failure, going through empty motions that appeared to impact no one.
Flourishing or failing? Everywhere I went, I found myself asking, What makes the difference? What is the key to the vitality of thriving churches? I know that ultimately the beauty and power of the church flow from the mind of God and depend on the blessing of God. But on a more human level, what do prevailing churches have in common?
Is it location? Church growth experts claim that location is crucial, and in my head I agree with them, but time and again I have discovered thriving churches in the most unlikely places.
I’ve visited vital, growing churches in Northern Ireland, located in the middle of communities grievously touched by what locals call “the Troubles.” I preached recently in a thriving church located in the heart of Soweto, the impoverished South African township that boiled over into revolution before the end of apartheid. On the other side of the spectrum, in places like Newport Beach, California, where everyone is so affluent you might think they never sense their need for God, I’ve seen churches packed with people whose hearts are aflame with devotion to Christ.
Affluent or ghetto, serene or war-torn, tropical or alpine, congested urban or sleepy rural, American or otherwise, location seems to impact the vitality of a church far less than most of us think.
Well then, I thought, maybe denomination is the determining factor. Maybe I can discover a particular denomination that has a corner on the market.
But my travels did not confirm that. I learned of a thousand-year-old Anglican church in the United Kingdom that baptizes scores of people every year, a Kansas City Episcopal church that recently purchased a hundred acres to accommodate its growth, and a Lutheran congregation in Phoenix that is using its resources to address the needs of the unemployed and senior citizens in remarkably creative and effective ways. Baptist, Methodist, Evangelical Free, Quaker, non-denoms, inter-denoms — it doesn’t matter. Within every denomination, and beyond, I have discovered prevailing churches.
If not location or denomination, perhaps an ideal facility is the key to success. But no. Most certainly not. In barns and theaters, hotels and doublewide trailers — in every imaginable kind of inadequate facility — I have discovered wonderfully thriving churches.
Perhaps, I thought, I have overlooked an obvious factor. Maybe the key to thriving churches is great preaching. But I didn’t have to look any further than the United States to debunk that theory. Although many preaching-centered churches attract large crowds, their impact on the community is often negligible. The church is packed for an hour on Sunday, but empty during the week. Sermon junkies tend to stay in their comfortable pews, growing ever more knowledgeable while becoming ever less involved in the surrounding community. Conversions are rare because there’s little outreach. Community experience is shallow because there is no infrastructure of small groups. The body is being fed and satisfied in a corporate teaching setting, but that’s about all that’s happening.
I don’t mean to minimize the importance of effective teaching and preaching; the church withers without them. But good teaching and preaching alone do not ensure ministry vitality.
There are probably other assumed keys to church vitality I could also debunk, but being the impatient person I am I want to leap to the punch line. So here it is: What flourishing churches have in common is that they are led by people who possess and deploy the spiritual gift of leadership. Whenever and wherever I have found a high-impact, Acts 2, prevailing church, I have also discovered a little band of brothers and sisters who were humbly and prayerfully providing the vision, the strategy, and the inspiration that enabled an entire congregation to bear fruit abundantly. Please understand, it’s not that I believe the gift of leadership is more important than other gifts. It’s simply that people with the gift of leadership are uniquely equipped to come up with strategies and structures that provide opportunities for other people to use their gifts most effectively. Leaders see the big picture and understand how to help others find their place of service within that picture.
Through the years I’ve met a wide array of leaders. Some were in their later years while others were surprisingly young. Some were college educated while many lacked formal training altogether. Some had seminary backgrounds while others came out of the marketplace. I know of a thriving church in Tijuana, Mexico, that is led by a doctor. In Rockford, Illinois, a stockbroker formed a team that gave birth to a church. A dentist in New Jersey did the same. The common thread connecting all these leaders was that they recognized and developed their leadership gifts, submitted them to God, and used them as effectively as they could. The result? Prevailing churches.
Hybels, B. (2009). Courageous leadership. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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