Spiritual Adrenaline

How do churches grow anyway?

by Ron E. Elrod

The article can be read in order by using the scroll bar, page down or the arrow keys. It may also be reviewed by use of the links below and by passing the mouse over the model at left which hyperlinks to the subjects shown on the model. Clicking on any illustration or title returns to this point.

What was your approach the first year?

How did you introduce change?

How did you handle crisis?

How is power dealt with in the church?

Church Growth Concepts

Successful Turnabout Summary

Closing Illustration - Driving Poles


Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing four pastors whose churches had seen significant growth. In this article, these pastors will be referred to as Pastor A (began with two families), Pastor B (began with forty-five people), Pastor C (began with 175 people after ten years of decline) and Pastor D (began with two hundred and fifty people after twenty-six years of decline). These four pastors have been chosen because they have each gone through the paradigm shift from a traditional church to a rapidly growing disciple making church. The churches are located in two states, one major city and two small towns. They began at very different stages. I have given these stages names to reflect the changing sphere of influence necessary to motivate the church. The healthy church growth stages, are person motivated, huddle motivated, circle motivated and crowd motivated. Each phase will be explained in greater detail later.Click to return to Hyperlink map

The interviews were conducted in the pastor's offices. They were simply asked to tell their own story and to go over their own pastoral approach to change and growth. They taught me their philosophies and they told their unique stories. It was in the midst of these rehearsed expressions that the four questions of greatest interest to me were slipped in. What was your approach the first year? How did you introduce change? How did you handle crisis? How is power dealt with in the church? The questions were not introduced. They were not necessarily asked in the aforementioned order. Answers to them were sought when the timing appeared to be right in the midst of the pastors repeating the things they have said so often to so many seeking methodological answers. My interest was in knowing their attitudes, their hearts. After all, is it the methods chosen or the heart of the person that makes a good pastor? The answer seems obvious.

The purpose of this article is not to tell the marvelous stories of four growing churches. It is to investigate the answers to these four questions in an effort to discover the pastor's attitude toward change and discipleship. To that end, a model has been developed that illustrates very different starting points for each pastor, the change in the sphere of influence, the issues involved for each pastor in the paradigm shift itself and the changing administration style necessary to continue empowering the disciple making church.

First, an understanding of the healthy stages of church growth is necessary. The stages are named to reflect the size of the sphere of influence required to implement change. A developing graphic model will be used to illustrate this writer's findings concerning the four pastors' comments as a whole.

Most churches begin as a mission of a larger church or sponsored by an association as a church plant. They are person motivated. (see right). That is, a founder begins to plan and recruit others to join in the work. That founder may be an influential member of the laity or a pioneering pastor. Either way, the founder is, at best, part-time. Unless he is independently wealthy, his living is earned some other way. Until the church reaches about twenty or so in attendance, this founder diplomatically directs others toward goals.

Click to return to Hyperlink MapOnce a number of families join in the work, the church becomes huddle motivated (see left). Key families meet in a huddle (often in the parking lot) and they cast the primary sphere of influence within the church. The pastor or founder becomes what might be called "semi-paid." He works almost full-time even though he is still on minimal wages. "Directing" no longer is a viable option for his administration style. He now must be more of a coach, watching, teaching and kibitzing.

As the church continues to grow, the sphere of influence continues to increase (circle motivated - see right). At about seventy-five or so in attendance, the church is able to hire a full-time pastor or pay the founder full-time wages. It is at this point that a very important distinction is made in growing churches today. The Latin for administer means to "lead toward ministry." Will it be the pastor who leads the church toward ministry or will it be the church who leads their pastor to be the church's only minister? In the traditional church, a deacon "board" has often been the answer to administration. This can be a healthy situation. In the disciple making church, the deacons or others are a body of servants. The leaders of a disciple making church are purely interested in being disciples by making disciples. They most often empower and serve the ideas of others, not their own.Click to return to Hyperlink Map

It is important to note here the reason for shifting from the traditional church to the disciple making church. The issue is not worship style nor is it whether the pastor or deacons are "in charge." The issue is whether the church can and will continue to meet the demands of the great commission: disciple making, teaching all things the Lord commanded. In recent decades, people have generally been drawn either by programs or by preaching. Either case represents people gathering to be served, not to serve. As someone said, "What you do to get them is what you have to do to keep them." Disciple making churches build an infrastructure that is not an organization so much so as an organism, a culture in which disciples of Jesus Christ want to make more disciples.

That brings us to the next healthy stage of growth, crowd motivated (see left). As the church approaches and passes two hundred in attendance, it is able to secure a full-time minister of music and possibly one other full or part-time staff member. At this stage, a fairly large number of individuals must be influenced who will, in turn, motivate the church at large. It is at this stage that the most patience and steadfastness is required if a pastor hopes that he and the church will move on together. This is the infamous committee stage of the traditional church where most ideas are swallowed up never to be seen again. It is also the stage at which many churches begin to decline. They decline out of frustration. "All we do is meet. We never actually do anything!" Click to return to Hyperlink Map

In the disciple making church all groups are "doers" led by leaders who are not nominated but emerge. It is not the purpose of gathering groups or teams to sit over decisions concerning the church as a whole. Rather, each team is made up of voluntary doers. The team only concerns itself with its own area of ministry and in making more disciples in that area of ministry. Decisions made by the group only involve themselves. After all, they are the ones with the knowledge to make decisions. They are the ones who will have to do what is decided. The leaders of these teams are identified naturally. The leader is simply "the one others follow." There is no need for elections, nominations or appointments. Besides, if a leader is elected and then God's leader shows up, what happens? Like Saul and David, one tries to kill the other.

Likewise, the pastor's administration style must have changed again by this time. Rather than being the coach who watches, teaches and kibitzes, he finds his input less than welcome in functioning teams who have not asked for it. Instead, he must become a mentor to whomever desires his help. That is, he becomes a consultant to his members. Unless he spots major catastrophe about to happen, he answers questions and gives advice only when requested to do so. He still teaches in group settings (to be discussed at next stage below). The change in the pastor's administration (leading toward ministry) style is a lifting of his hands from direct control. The pastor has so far moved from directing to coaching to mentoring. The pastor who does not recognize the changing sphere of influence and his own changing role will not be able to lead beyond his personalized stage of understanding.

Click to return to Hyperlink MapAs the church moves beyond the simplified staff of pastor and music minister, the sphere of influence begins to gather. It becomes circle motived once again (see right). The number of committees or teams has grown large enough that some central place of influence is sought. In the traditional church, the committee chairs, the deacon chair and some of the church officers often form a church council (it may have formed much earlier but that is a mistake).

The disciple making church is made up of groups of disciples (teams) in specific areas of interests who seek to make disciples and minister in these areas. The leaders of these groups then form the circle of primary influence in the church. They coordinate their intersecting activities in leadership conferences usually taught by one of the pastors. By this stage, there is normally a senior pastor, music pastor, education pastor, youth pastor and possibly others.Click to return to Hyperlink Map

With a full staff in place, the church grows to the state of being huddle driven (see right) once again. The huddle meets in a conference room, not in the parking lot. Yet, its functioning is much the same as the huddle of key families earlier on in the church's life. Staff members work with key leaders of the church council or of the ministry teams. The pastor's administration style must change once again if the staff is allowed to work freely. He becomes more of an overseer in the biblical sense. He is still the center of all planning but he does not go around his staff. In a traditional church, this is often the stage at which many are saying, "They run everything." The reason for this is that more "meeting" than "doing" is going on.

In the disciple making church, the staff is not attempting to control so much as lead and guide. The goal is to keep the opportunities to be discipled and to disciple others before all the people. Ministry teams continue to work led by leaders who have emerged from within them. The huddle of staff members take on the mentoring role formerly owned by the pastor and become consultants to the ministry teams.

Click to return to Hyperlink MapVery large churches are person motivated (see right) by a senior pastor. Like the founding pastor mentioned earlier, they direct or delegate but in a much different way. The senior pastor must consider the church's health beyond his ministry. His role as overseer seeks to build leaders whose abilities may even exceed his own. These leaders are his staff and others. He also continues in his preaching and teaching to seek out disciples for Christ in the church at large hoping that they too will want to make disciples.

THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THE TRADITIONAL CHURCH. However, in the traditional church, often the members have become the "add-ministers" and the pastor and staff have been "hired" to do the ministry. The result is that few traditional churches grow. Those that do, often, have a nationally or regionally known pulpiteer whose hypnotizing rhetoric draws large crowds. The traditional church with its committees and councils can and has produced results even though the majority of traditional churches see little or no growth.

Click to return to Hyperlink MapThe disciple making church assumes that the staff are the administers (leading toward ministry) and that the church is made up of disciple making ministers. In this way, people are drawn to the church by the members themselves. That brings us to our four pastors. The figure to the right sums up our thoughts thus far.

Pastor A began with a person motivated church. Pastor B began with a huddle motivated church. Pastor C began with a circle motivated church. Pastor D began with a crowd motivated church.



Pastor A (see left) began as the founder of a mission of a larger church. The pastor was the person motivator. A few unconnected families dreamed of a work in the east end of a major city. With the pastor, two families began. The paradigm shift was in the early key families. They moved from a traditional church mind set to a discipleClick to return to Hyperlink Map making mind set. In addition, the church would have a different worship style as it concentrated on the young white-collar families who dominated the area. The church grew to over one hundred in six months and constituted in the second year. Within ten years, the church had a regular attendance of over four hundred and fifty.

Pastor B (see right) began his first pastorate in a small rural town in a poor low-lying county. The town has 70 homes. It was a typical huddle motivated church of about forty-five people. The church was founded in 1857. Pastor after pastor of this church had seen a very short ministry in recent years. The church matriarch and the church patriarch and their families held the key. The next step would be to broaden the sphere of influence. The paradigm shift would result if the key families convinced themselves to serve as makers of disciples, not as administrators of a church. By the second year, additional key families had been recruited. Nine men were chosen for training. They could stay in leadership or opt out after the training. Two opted put. The other seven formed a body of servants. The church is now circle motivated by this body of servants. As the result of a flood and a new servant attitude, the church's reputation, once marred, has improved greatly. The church has grown to one hundred and ten in attendance in five years.


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Pastor C (see right) entered a typical deacon driven (circle motivated) church located in a rapidly growing area on the outskirts of a major city. The church had declined from two hundred and fifty to one hundred and seventy five in less than two years. Attendance had been declining for ten years. The next step would be to broaden the sphere of influence away from administrative deacons. At the same time, the new influence in the church would have to see themselves as "doers" not "meeters." The paradigm shift was accomplished after the first year by deacon training and careful deacon nominations. The level of integrity among key leaders rose. The paradigm shift was to move to disciple making team ministries away from administrative deacons and committees. Even so, there would be a blurring of influence between committees and ministry teams for a few years. The church increased in attendance to over one thousand in twelve years.

Pastor D (see right) entered a typical committee driven (crowd motivated) church. The former pastor had successfully led the deacons away from administration. The church is a traditional county-seat-town church. Twenty-six years of decline had taken place. The church's peak was about six hundred and fifty when a popular pastor resigned. Five more pastors followed with an average time of service of about four to five years each. Click to return to Hyperlink Map

The key leaders of the church earned their places the biblical way, by service to the church. Those who would have stymied growth had died, moved away or grown too old to influence any longer. Those with primary influence in the church had made a conscious decision to change. "We may not agree with this one thing or the other, but we see the church as growing under the leadership of our new pastor." They were looking for leadership and accepted it. Obviously, this pastor was able to affect more change in the first year than is normal. The next step was to begin to narrow the sphere of influence once again. A church council was already in place. The paradigm shift involved allowing ministry teams to form anew and out of "doing" committees while other committees fell away. At the same time, leader training was established and the church became motivated by key leaders in concert with the pastor. The church is now huddle motivated. That huddle is a professional staff of five with several secretaries and volunteer office help. In seven years the church has grown from two hundred and fifty in attendance to nearly six hundred.


Notice that each paradigm shift passes between the traditional church structure and the disciple making structure. There is a blurring of the motivating influence (see above). Pastor B saw a blurring of the roles of traditional deacons and the new body of servants formed. Pastor C saw a blurring of influence between committees and independent ministry teams. Pastor D saw a blurring of leadership between a church council and team leaders in leadership training he at first called worker's meetings and now calls Leader Life. This blurring of influence cannot be avoided and it is what prompts our four questions.

Keeping in mind the very different ministerial contexts, the remarkable similarities between the answers to our four questions may be investigated. It is their attitudes, their heart, throughout the paradigm shift that made change possible.

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What was your approach the first year?

(1 Cor 13:1-2) If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have {the gift of} prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. (NAS)

No matter how much these pastors might know about what needed to be done, none of them wanted to be just a lot of noise to their parishioners. Each of them expressed the need for first learning and establishing relationships. "The first year, I just loved em!" "I didn't change anything I didn't have to!" Pastor B and Pastor C spoke at length about gathering chips, gathering yes's and making as many friends as one possibly could during that first year.

Pastor A said, "I spent my first year just learning. I had to relearn ministry." His unique approach to worship and the unchurched left him unable to depend upon the methods of his former eight hundred member church. He talked about the church becoming a family during that first year.

Pastor B said, "The smartest thing I could do the first year was to play stupid and get those people to fall in love with me." While this writer may have chosen different words, the emphasis is clear. There had to be time to form relationships.

Pastor C says, "One in the Bible stands for unity. Just do what they expect. No changes you don't have to." The first year was for building unity.

Pastor D changed much in the first year. While this may seem a contradiction, we must remember our context. Pastor D had a very good relationship early on with determined church leaders who had earned their leadership the Biblical way, through service to the church. He developed a fellowship with the church that included allowing him to be stupid. He quoted them saying, "Well, that was really stupid pastor but we know you didn't mean to be so stupid." The inference is obvious. He spent time loving and building relationships like the other three pastors.

In addition to building relationships, there is a second matter each of these pastors found important in the first year. Pastor A was involved in a church plant. His first year was a major learning project for himself. He regretted not having started slower and not having spent more time preparing his people. Pastor B and D spoke specifically about forming a study group within the church that would bring back answers concerning why the church was not growing. In this way, the pastor was not the one pointing out flaws in his first year. Leader training and raising the integrity of leaders was important to all of these pastors.

How did you introduce change?

(Mark 4:20) "And those are the ones on whom seed was sown on the good soil; and they hear the word and accept it, and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold." (NAS)

Pastor C uses this teaching of Jesus to say that "the key to change is leadership based upon gifts and abilities." "We hire pastors because they can preach and fire them because they cannot administrate," he says. Some are able thirtyfold, some sixtyfold and some hundredfold. Often the limiting element is the pastor's ability to change with growth himself. The first noticeable common trait of these pastors is that they are strong in leadership and administration.

Pastor D expressed that you do not surprise your leaders. They are on board with you. They want the same thing you want, for the church to flourish. "Be sure to sizzle before you turn," says Pastor A. He advocates doing things and pulling back a little when resistence is met and then going forward again. He says, "You have to be flexible, responsible and attentive." Pastor B sounds a little arrogant when he says, "I play chess very well, play stupid, don't assert authority." but the message is the same. Change must be accepted as much as possible and forced as little as possible.

Pastor C said, "We never talk about change. We talk about choices." In this way the people are bringing on change themselves. "Don't tell em about it til you've done it." What Pastor C meant by this is that many changes may be introduced through special times and special events. He says, "say nothing about gonna happen, say nothing when its happening or after it happened." Just back off and listen and learn how the people really feel and how the change may be best implemented. "Sixteen percent of Southern Baptists would be opposed to free water in the desert." Pastor C recommends against trying to line people up in agreement with you. Just work with your key leaders. Avoid voting.


How did you handle crisis?

(1 Cor 11:18-19) For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part, I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, in order that those who are approved may have become evident among you. (NAS)

The number two stands for division and the second year is the year of crisis, says Pastor C. When Pastor A's church moved into their first building, many wanted to move away from the unique worship style. This caused a crisis. When Past B's church decided to use the parsonage for something else and give him a new home, a crisis ensued. Likewise, when Pastor C fired the minister of music late one night for causing so much strife in the church, crisis occurred. When Pastor D and his key leaders spent all of the church's savings ($60,000), a minor crisis was the result.

These four pastors described many crises, the details of which are not important to this article. Rather, it is the latter part of our scripture above that is important. "...there must also be factions among you, in order that those who are approved may have become evident among you." Crisis produces those defining opportunities when real leadership becomes evident.

When Pastor A found himself with frustrated families in the new facility, he began going to them and trying to explain. He found this ineffective and stopped doing it. Each of these four pastors have come to the same conclusion regarding the handling of a crisis. While there are minor inroads which may be made into solving specific member problems through key leaders, pastors cannot run around defending their actions. They cannot do it in person, in their news letters or especially not from the pulpit. It should be understood that apologies for indiscretions may still be required but not for the direction of leadership.

Pastor C says that when Joseph died the people of Israel mourned seventy days. He asserted that people can stay really mad at you for about three weeks. They will possibly be miffed for seventy days. Very few turn to bitterness. "Even your closest allies won't defend you for a while. They're waiting to see if you'll rip your britches." These comments may seem tough but in this writer's opinion, they are valid because the direction of a church requires leadership and it cannot be maintained by a leader who is begging for the privilege. Given the comments of these pastors concerning the care with which change is implemented, the crisis is usually occurring with those few who desire their own way over the church's wishes.

Pastor D said he asked his most key leader, in the midst of a crisis, "Are you getting a lot of calls about this?" The reply came, "They know not to call me. People know where I stand. I support you." The pastor replied, "What if I'm wrong about this one?" The key leader said, "I still support you." Leadership does not mean always being right but it does mean always being the leader. Pastor C says that his main help in avoiding and/or managing a crisis has been the support of his key leaders.

How is power dealt with in the church?

(Eph 6:12) For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (KJV)

Pastor C says we forget who the enemy is. "If a person does not know his enemy, he will start treating flesh and blood like his enemy." Satan works within the power structures of a church. According to Pastor A, that power structure does not exist in his church. Yet, he spoke of having a difficult time letting go himself. Pastor B also said there was no power structure in his church. Yet, he spoke of the matriarch as the power in the church early on. Then he said she now must just "do as you're told," referring to key leaders in the church who deal with her.

Pastors C and D seemed to have the only conscious awareness that power structures do naturally exist in the church and that these are not necessarily unhealthy. Only if we allow Satan to work within them are they destructive. Christ IS the head of the church.

In the traditional church, Pastor C observes power as naturally moving from the founder of the church to key families as the church grows, then to deacons and finally to committees. Once the church is large enough, staff assumes the role as the primary power group. He saw each stage of growth as removing power from one group and adding it to another. This, he says, is healthy.

Pastor D talked primarily about the key leaders of the church. He called them the key "influencers." Perhaps that is where pastors need to concentrate their thoughts. The words influence and motivation do not offend us like "power." We think of dictators (pastors or laity) as making a "power play." We think of good leaders as casting influence or providing motivation.

The two pastors who dealt with this issue in terms of power and yet denied its existence seemed to own it themselves to some degree. The two pastors who recognized power for what power is used rhetoric that was more tempered. Also, those two pastors saw the power as moving through the church as growth occurred but not as residing with them. Still, all four pastors saw their churches as pastor driven. Management of power is not the holding of it. This seems to be a key to good leadership.

The popular concepts of church growth were evident in all four pastors. Each believed in the church growth axiom, "voting divides." All four pastors have slowly reduced business meetings to very seldom or not at all. Each spoke of losing a few folks early on, but not many. The principle here is "short term losses for long term gains." Each saw leadership as emerging, not elected. The concept of volunteer team ministry is present in each church. The leader is simply the one others follow in each of these teams (Pastor A is having difficulty allowing this to happen). All have eliminated committees as a way of the future. None seek a consensus before implementing change. All four are sensitive to the people as change is introduced.

Each pastor has assembled and is teaching a membership class. All have used Rick Warren's materials at least as a starting point. Two have successfully required the class for membership. All have moved from traditional worship. Two have moved to purely contemporary music. The other two to a blended service still using some hymns.

Church growth methods have been mentioned only briefly here because they are not the reason for the successful paradigm shift in these four churches. The apparent reason for success has been Godly leadership and not just the pastor's.

The common successful church turnabout story seems to go like this: An understanding pastor began a prayerful first year by seeking to first understand the community, the culture, the church and its leadership. He employed the influence of key church leadership and raised the integrity and knowledge of it. The change that was introduced did not come out of a box from California (Saddleback) or Chicago (Willow Creek). Instead, change was an adaption of means and methods (some from the aforementioned) which appeared to have promise to specific discoveries concerning the specific church and community in which the pastor found himself.

Change was implemented by means of attentive and caring actions on the part of leadership, not by voting. As this change was introduced, crisis befell the church. The pastor and key leaders reacted to this crisis by remembering who the real enemy is. Using the opportunity afforded by crisis, Satan was routed out of existing power structures. The church grew and flourished by making disciples and teaching them all things Jesus commanded.

(Matt 28:18-20) And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (KJV)

All power resides with Christ. Pastors need to go where the people are, in their maturity, in their understanding and in their worship. In the midst of becoming disciples, many are saved. We bring them into the church by baptism. The disciple making process continues as we teach them all our Lord commanded. In the doing of all of this, He is with us always. He is our spiritual adrenaline. We thus will remember who the enemy truly is, Satan, not each other.

Let me leave you with an illustration: This writer has personal experience with it. During my engineering days, I worked on the coast. Certain structures were held up by poles driven deep into the sand. As the tide rose and fell, these poles would deteriorate until the integrity of the structure's support was in danger. If one simply removed the damaged poles, the structure would collapse into the sea. However, if new poles were driven in other places beneath the structure, the structure would be saved and the old poles would eventually fall away. Even some of the new poles would not bear up under testing. They too would fall away.

Pastors need not tear down that which no longer functions in the church. Rather, they will find it much more productive to build new and allow that which serves no purpose to simply fall way. Likewise, church members need not reject the new. They will find that the Lord's church makes the perfect testing ground. Either the new will function and add to the church's support or it too will fall away.