How Andy Stanley and a whole generation of churches are exploding with doubling groups and the power of hospitality.

How are we to respond to this last group of churches? How is it that a handful of outliers are able to explode in growth where most churches decline? If everyone was plateaued or declining, we might be tempted to believe that Jesus’ words don’t apply to our setting, “the harvest is plentiful.” For many churches, the harvest seems anything but plentiful. But, for a handful of churches, they are bringing in an unprecedented harvest. How are we to think about these churches? I see four approaches.

Many pastors ignore these churches. This does not seem wise. In a world where we are commanded to make disciples of all nations and most churches are plateaued or declining, it does not seem wise to ignore the positive outliers. There may be many on this list that we could not learn much from because of their theology. They are either so theologically shallow, or so theologically different, that it makes learning from them a challenge. But, this would not be true of all of these churches. And, there are a lot of small and non-growing churches whose theology is suspect. Theological shallowness is not the sole domain of mega-churches. There are small churches and large churches with bad theology.

Many on the fast growing list are rock-solid theologically. #12 on the list is Houston’s First Baptist Church—a church I have been to numerous times. Does anyone have any qualms with the theology of First Baptist Houston? Why aren’t we all standing in line to learn from them? Some pastors do the opposite.

Many slavishly follow. Some pastors follow Saddleback in a way that Rick Warren warns will not work: they imitate every jot and tittle. There are two problems with this approach. First, any imitation and change should be done with a healthy dose of people skills and leadership skills. This is not usually the way these pastors operate. They go off to Saddleback, take notes, read the book, surround themselves with a core of yes-men and announce that things are going to change. These pastors are often unemployed. They leave behind them a bruised and bleeding church. If you talk to them, they will tell how unspiritual the people are.

There is a second reason it is not smart to slavishly follow. Your church is not in the Saddleback Valley. Your people are not from Southern California. You are not Rick Warren. We need to be like the men of Issachar—“who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” 1 Chronicles 12:32 (NIV) We need to understand the time and the place where God has called us to serve. Every place is different. Even franchises know this and adapt to their specific setting. You can often get a Green Chile burger at McDonald’s in New Mexico. In Australia you can get an Aussie burger—with a beet. Yes, a red beet on a burger. Can’t get that in Peoria. But, McDonald’s is smart enough to adapt.

We need to be like David who, “Served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his fathers and his body decayed.” Acts 13:36 (NIV84) Note the phrase, “in his generation.” Many churches are perfectly suited to reach people in 1955.

Rick Warren says that if you follow the purpose-driven process, it won’t make you like Saddleback, or any other church: “The end result in your church will look different from Saddleback and every other purpose-driven church.” Yet, despite Rick’s warning, I have been in many churches that looked a whole lot like Saddleback.

Many rail against. It doesn’t take much work to get a group of pastors talking about how the mega-churches are doing it all wrong. How different the attitude of Paul, “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.” Philippians 1:15-18 (NIV84)

I don’t hear a lot of rejoicing in some quarters. There is a lot of complaining and nit-picking. There is a lot of suspicion and scrutiny. I wonder what is driving that suspicion and scrutiny. It wouldn’t be jealousy, would it?

A man who discipled me when I was in college set me straight about this kind of scrutiny and suspicion. His name was Shelby. One church we were quite critical of was W.A. Criswell’s First Baptist Dallas. We could tell you a hundred reasons why Criswell had it wrong. (I don’t recall any.) Shelby set me straight. “How many people have you won to Christ this week?”

“Uh, none.”

“I’d say Criswell’s way of doing things is better than your way of not doing things.”

I often sit with pastors who complain about how awful Bill Hybels or Rick Warren or Andy Stanley is. I want to repeat Shelby’s mantra, “Their way of doing things is better than your way of not doing things.”

Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church: Growth without Compromising Your Message and Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007).

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