If I Were a Denominational Worker
by Josh Hunt
I love my job. My job is helping Sunday School teachers double every two years or less. It is helping churches double every two years or less. It is helping Southern Baptists reach 20 million in Sunday School attendance by the year 2020 and the church in America and around the world double over the next 20 years. I am praying for a billion people to come to Christ in the next 20 years. What a job! But this article is about something else.
I got an email from a friend asking me to consider a position on a state Sunday School staff. One thing led to another and I ended up spending a week on site at this state convention office and doing a lot of thinking about how I would approach the job. It was a tempting offer, but, at the end of the day, I didn't have a peace that God was in it. It did cause me to think about what I would do if I were in such a position. That is what this article is about: how I would attempt to help a State Convention, or other denominational group if it were my job to do so.
I know it is the height of presumption for me to write this article. I also know that if I ever did take such a job I would totally rewrite this article after a year. With those limitations in mind, here goes.
Get a goal
The first I would want to do is to establish a goal. Here it is: my goal would be to double the number of people attending Sunday School in the next 7 years. (1) I would first work to get ownership of this goal throughout the state staff and then throughout the state. I would want the state Executive Director or the Convention president to come before the convention and formally adopt the goal of doubling every 7 years.
Goals are an expression of faith. Jesus said it would be done for us according to our faith. As I was talking to people in this state convention, someone told me to be realistic. "Don't set a goal that is unattainable or it will just discourage people." I agree. Only I think doubling a state convention in 7 years is possible. I think it is possible for Southern Baptists to double 2.25 times in the next 20 years and reach 20 million in Sunday School by the year 2020. I think we can see a billion people come to faith in Christ, world wide, in the next 20 years. I think it is possible because we have a great God with whom all things are possible. I think it is possible because I have doubled a class and taught others to do so. I have helped double a church and helped others to do so. I think we could double a state convention. I think we can double the church in America and around the world over the next 20 years through Christ who strengthens us. But I don't think we well do any of that until we believe. And believing, faith, expresses itself in a goal.
Jesus said it would be done for us according to our faith. Whether we think we can double the church or we think we can't, either way we are right. I choose to believe. I want to ask you to choose to believe. If we believe it, we will see it.
Someone commented to Walt Disney's widow when Disney World opened, "Isn't it a shame that Walt wasn't able to see this." "He was," was her flat reply. "That it is why it is here." Walt Disney believed and so we have Disney World. How much more we who believe in a holy, powerful God.
Faith must come first. Faith comes when we don't see. That is why they call it faith. There is a verse somewhere that says, "It isn't hope if you have it already." The same is true with faith. It isn't faith to believe what you already have. Faith has to doing with seeing what you can't see. I can see a billion people coming to Christ in the next twenty years. I want you to see it too. God sees faith and forms it into reality. Because we have never seen a state convention double doesn't mean it can't happen. It might mean we haven't believed. Or, it might mean we believed, but did not have the effective strategies to get it done.
People often fall off on one side or the other on this. Either we are so heavenly minded we are no earthly good, or we have no spiritual gumption and think this church stuff is really just another business. We must be both. We must be deeply spiritual, faith filled people, and we need to be deeply practical. That is why I love Nehemiah. It says somewhere of him that he "Prayed to his God and posted a guard." (2)
We have plenty who want to do one or the other. They want to pray their way into doubling a church, or, they want to work their way. We need both. We need to work and pray.
The strategies would be based on the assumption that if we keep doing what we have been doing, we are going to keep getting what we have been getting. God has hard wired the law of sewing and reaping into the universe. We sew certain causes and we get certain effects, every single time. There is a certain predictability in the world in which God has created.
I would assume that I don't know at this point-and nobody knows at this point-how we could double the convention in seven years. But, by faith I would assume that we, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, could figure it out.
I would expect to fail a lot. You learn by failing. You learn to walk by trying to walk and falling. If you are falling, you are not learning. You learn to rid e a bike by getting your back side in the saddle of that back and riding. And falling. And getting back on again. And learning from mistakes. From debriefing success. It is God's grand formula and it works in nearly every arena including church. We learn by doing.
Recently, I was on a three week Double Your Class tour of Australia. While there, I heard the exciting story of how God is blessing in New Guinea. The entire church in an entire country in an entire denomination had doubled in about the last 4 years. WOW! From one perspective, God blessed and that is that. But, there is more to the story than that. If you push the "God blessed and that is that" idea too far, you have to say, "God isn't blessing here and that is that and in the long run, it is his fault we are not seeing similar results." I am not prepared to say that and it is not true to the facts. Facts are, the New Guinea situation can be seen in a different light. From a different perspective, God's people found a system that worked, they reproduced it in the power of the Holy Spirit, it had a self reproducing cycle so that it built on itself and walla, they doubled in four years.
Here is the nitty gritty. They church was in a mess. It had been in New Guinea for about 75 years and was going no where fast. Attendance was plummeting and so was giving. They were having to lay off preachers. Then someone (inspired by God, no doubt) came up with an idea. They designed a six week training school to train laymen to pastor churches. Everything you always wanted to know about pastoring in six weeks. Surprise, surprise, the plan worked. These guys were so good at growing churches they were able to grow and reproduce and grow and reproduce and plant churches and grow people and send people back to the six week training school and get more leaders who continued the cycle. There are some things unique to New Guinea that made this possible there, where it may not be reproducible elsewhere. The economy is so bad that it was easy to find lots of would be pastors who could take off for six weeks to go to school because they didn't have much work anyway. That plan may not work in other countries, but I believe we can find plans that do work.
People tend to look at an innovative, successful organization and concentrate on all the new and wonderful things they are doing. What we need to concentrate on is the process by which they found those new and wonderful things. They found them by trial and error. They found them through failure. Everyone who is at the helm of an innovative organization would tell you that they have tried hundreds of things that didn't work. The thing that sets them a part is not their successes-anyone could get those if they were willing to fail. The thing that set them a part is their failure. Their willingness to fail and keep trying and fail and keep learning was a process where innovative breakthroughs could be found.
What I would not do is exemplified in a report I used to hear at a denominational meeting every year. "We had a good year in our Sunday School this year. Attendance was down. Enrollment was down. Baptisms were down. Giving was down. But we had some wonderful meetings. We had some nice training events. And next year, we have some more good meetings planned. We hope you will come." I exaggerate only slightly to make my point.
I told my would-be boss that if I sat in that chair and made that report and we didn't have good news to tell my report will go like this. "This year in our Sunday School we were corporately disobedient to our Father's commands. Some of our churches grew, but overall, we are at a stand still. God has asked us to take the greatest news ever to hit planet earth and make disciples out of people with this news and this year we have not gotten the job done. We stand in a posture of repentance. We also bask in grace. I know in many cases we meant well. Perhaps in some other cases we were bored or we were bickering or we were distracted. But, for whatever reason, at the end of the day, we did not get the job done. We did not do what our Lord told us to do. We stand in a posture of repentance. We bask in grace. Next year, we have a new strategy that we think will help us to be obedient to what God told us to do. We ask you to follow us as we attempt to follow God. It might fail too. We hope not. We think it will do better. We have prayed hard and done our homework carefully. But we have no guarantees. We believe faith is about risk. We invite you to follow us without guarantees."
Strategy #1: Go after the low-hanging fruit
When churches think of growth, they inevitably think first of evangelism. Usually, they think only of evangelism. I think this is misguided. We do not need to think first about evangelism. We need to think first about going after the low hanging fruit. We need to think first about going after Christians who are not involved in church.
Eighty percent of the unchurched can point to a time in their life when they used to go to the church. Most of the unchurched used to be churched. We need to go after the majority market. It doesn't make any sense to go for the 20% and neglect the 80%. This group is far more reachable than the 20% and there are far more of them. But, the reason we ought to go after the low hanging fruit first is not merely because of the math (the are more responsive and there are more of them) but because of a deeply theological reason. We are told to do good to all men especially of the household of faith. (3) Especially to those of the household of faith.
Church leader often thumb their noses at churches that are growing rapidly but are not baptizing according to some pre-defined formula for success. "Oh, they are just reaching Christians," someone bemoans. Don't bemoan. It is good to reach Christians. We are commanded to restore those who have fallen away. Look at this pointed verse:
Ezekiel 34:1-6 The word of the Lord came to me:  "Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: 'This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?  You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.  You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.  So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals.  My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
God is commanding us to bring back the strays and we need to do it. Can you think of any other verses that speak of restoring the fallen brother?
Why are so many who used to go to church not attending? One reason is that two-thirds of those who do attend church say they do not normally sense the presence of God when they attend, according to the research of George Barna. Bruce Wilkinson's research is that 80% of Sunday School teaching is boring. This is a problem. It is not a marketing problem; it is a content problem. It is not a perception problem, it is a reality problem. An obvious need is to improve the quality of the churches's worship services and Sunday Schools. We don't want people visiting until we improve the quality of our churches. Let's pray they don't visit until we improve. From one perspective, we can be glad people are not visiting else they would find out what we are like. There is a saying in the seminar business: make sure you get good before you get famous. If you get famous first, you very quickly show people that you are not good. I think you can make the application to church life.
How do you improve the quality of the worship services? By improving the quality of leadership. Everything rises and falls on leadership. How do we do that? By quadrupling the amount of training we provide to leaders and by providing training that is interactive rather than top-down, lecture-oriented. We will get to that later. Let's assume we have done that and we do want the low hanging fruit to visit our churches. What do we do?
What do we do to cause the low hanging fruit to visit our churches? Well, here is a surprise: they already are! The problem in most churches is not lack of visitors, it is the visitors are not joining. In most churches, only 10% - 15% of people who visit join. 85% - 90% do not join. Probably in part because two thirds of those who attend church say they do not sense the presence of God when they attend. Still we have a powerful strategy for raising this 10% - 15% "velcro factor" (the relationship between those visiting and those joining) to at least 33%. We simple ask pastors and staff to be obedient to the command of God to "Offer hospitality without grumbling." (4) We remind them being hospitable is part of the job requirement of being a pastor. (5) This one thing could cause a huge difference in our churches and could spell the difference between plateau and growth. Many pastors have told me that when they do this, 90% of the visitors join.
Talk about low hanging fruit! Let's picture this clearly in our minds. Many (although not all) churches have plenty of visitors. I know one church that has 100 visitors a week and has been on plateau for years. If we will have these visitors into our homes and be their friends, 90% of them will join and become active in our churches. Suppose we want to get even more visitors, quickly and inexpensively.
One idea for getting more visitors
Put your place into the house slippers of a typical unchurched person. You used to go to church as a kid. You lived your wild years. You got married. You had kids. You got a job. It feels like something is missing. You are bored with the wild life. You want some spiritual nurturing for your kids, and, truth is, for yourself. The thought crosses your mind, "Hmm, maybe I should get back in church." What happens next? This is a picture of what I call the low hanging fruit. How do we take advantage of that interest and translate it into a family living the disciple's life active in church? I trust the Holy Spirit is doing his job and this really is happening. What is our job? How do we help this guy find us?
Here is an idea. What if the State Convention, the Local Association and the local church were to work together on a strategy. We put up billboards all over town that say, "39 churches want to tell you about God's love this weekend." The name of the association, a phone number (it would be really slick if we could get a phone # like "Dial, GOD - LOVE" A web address is given. (Again, something like www.dallaschurch.com not www.cybernet.com/dallas/churches/bla.bla.bla. Then, in big bold letters, "FREE VIDEO" We prepare a video that gives and overview of each of the churches in the association. The pastor gives a little talk. There is video footage of the church. A map shows where it is located and so on. We give this video to everyone who calls in. This way they can try out30 churches in an hour in comfort of their living room. They can begin to narrow the search to a church that might work for them. If the individual churches wanted to, they could provide a promotional video on just their church. They could have an entire sample worship service and highlight key programs of the church. Church members could be interviewed to say why thy like this church. Once again, we are making it easy for people to try church. Most pastors have not been in the "church shopping" mode and have no idea how difficult it is, especially if you have kids.
I am hear to bear witness that if you have kids, church shopping can be a first class hassle. Kids don't like being awakened early on Sunday morning and dressed up in their Sunday best and carted across town and pushed into a room full of kids they don't know or sit through a worship service designed for adults. It takes considerable spiritual strength to fight your kids to try church after church week after week. Considerable spiritual strength. And that is the one thing this typical unchurched person does not have is spiritual strength. He has casual interest, but he has no spiritual conviction. He doesn't have what it takes to fight his kids into trying a half a dozen churches before the find one they like. And he doesn't have to. We need to make it easy for this crowd to find their way back to church.
This strategy could be further enhanced through the Internet. Each church could be trained to set up a web page and an associational web page could display a map with locations of all the churches and links to their web page. The nice thing about the Internet is there is no limit to how much information you an make available. Most programs today are able to translate quickly and easily to HTML so that the church's newsletter, a sample bulletin and such can easily posted to the web. People get a feel for the culture of the church this way.
A lot of creative ideas come to the table as soon as you start thinking this way. But if the only way we think of growth is in terms of teaching our people to be evangelist we miss a huge opportunity. In addition to teaching our people to share their faith, we need to develop strategies that make it easy for interested people to find us. We need to go after the low hanging fruit.
This whole strategy is based on the assumption that the Holy Spirit is doing his job. We believe that all over our city God is working in people's hearts. He is bringing some of them to a point of ripeness to God. God is softening people's hearts to himself. And when he does that, he asks us to join him in providing a path for them to find their way to the joy of Christian Discipleship.
Strategy #2: Let the top 2% teach the rest
The best people to teach church growth are leaders of growing churches. This is true for several reasons. The obvious one is that they are doing it. They normally are students of church growth and know a lot about it. Often the are up on all the latest reading and have read the latest gurus on church growth. In short, they are growing for a reason. But the are the best teachers for the opposite reason.
Church growth is complex. Sometimes, people are growing for reasons they do not know. Sometimes, the best athletes are not the best coaches. Excellence comes so easy for them that they have little patience for the rest of us. But they can be good coaches if we can simply observe them. Watching them in action helps us to jump to a higher level. This is true whether or not they can tell us how they can do it.
Pastors of growing churches cannot always tell us the real reasons they are growing. They may be growing for completely different reasons than what they think. But, if we can watch them from the front row, we have some chance of figuring it out.
If I were a denominational worker I would find the top 2% fasted growing churches in my area and I would get me a big light. I would shine the light on those top 2%. I would print graphs. I would tell stories. I would listen to them and hear what makes them tick. I would ask them to stand up on a pedestal and tell their stories. Even though they are busy, I am guessing they won't mind spending some time on a pedestal. This is Ok. The Bible commands that we honor certain men. (6) These men are worthy of us honoring.
I would provide a curriculum by which these men could teach the rest of us. I would buy video series like John Maxwell's 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. I would ask them to host a viewing of these videos and lead a discussion about how they see it. I would write the study guide so as to make it as easy and as possible for this pastor to help me and help fellow pastors to learn.
I would pay for further training for the fastest growing churches. This is biblical. (7) We don't invest in the struggles. We invest in making the fastest horses run faster. We invest where we are seeing a harvest. We have a bad habit of rewarding the wrong things in church life. We reward the people who are not getting the work done. We need to reward the people who are. We need to do all we can to invest in these "star performers" so they can go still higher and continue to teach the rest of us. We buy them tapes, send them to conferences, buy them videos, and help them to network with other fast growing churches.
I would encourage a kind of training that is interactive. Too much of our training of pastors is top-down, lecture-oriented. I think we need training that is interactive. Training where people can ask questions. Training where people disagree. Training where people can apply the principles to unique situations. Training groups where pastors can get to know one another and the walls can come down. Training groups where we can become get to know one another and become friends. Groups where people pray together and weep together and laugh together.
I am estimating that if we took this approach, we could create 4 times as much training as is done in the traditional model. (I will spare you the math on how I figured this out.) The key is thinking like a Minister of Education rather than thinking like a Pastor. A Pastor has a message to deliver and he thinks of standing on the pulpit and proclaiming for all to hear. A Minister of Education thinks of gathering a core of leaders and getting them to lead discussion groups. We have too much of the former and not near enough of the later. The great need of the hour is to lend faith and confidence to the discouraged and depressed.
Strategy #3: Encourage the Discouraged
I suspect that at the end of the day the reason we are not getting the job done has little to do with lack of training. I myself have spent more than one afternoon in bed because I was too depressed to get out and face the day. I didn't need training. I didn't need how-to. I didn't need a new book or concept or paradigm. I needed a friend. I need a hug. I needed someone to tell me that it was going to be OK. Someone to tell me that I was not aweful, that I had something going for me. If I were a denominational worker, I would do all I could to encourage the discouraged. It is a big job, I know, because there are a lot of discouraged.
On the other hand, a little encouragement goes a long way. In the world of encouragement, a little means a lot. A call on my birthday. A note. Perhaps an inexpensive gift. It really is the thought that counts. Or maybe, they could notice I have had some success and ask me to tell my story on a stage some where. Stroke my ego; I am really a simple man. Or maybe they notice that, statistically things aren't going so well. There is a good chance I am discouraged about that. If they know me at all, they know I am a bit driven and I like success. Perhaps this would be reason to call.
Denominational workers ought to do what I tried to do when I was a Minister of Education. I tried to provide training and encouragement. I tried to improve the skill set of my teachers through training and I tried to encourage them by sipping coffee. I asked about the kids and we talked about the weather. Small talk. Trivial stuff. And, at the end of it all, we all felt encouraged. This is what I want denominational workers to do for me. Training and encouragement.
I would try to set up groups so that pastors could encourage one another. This doesn't happen nearly enough. We have a lot of posturing and bragging and button-popping when we get together. Not near enough honesty. Not near enough sharing burdens. Not near enough telling how we are discouraged. If I were a denominational worker, I would try to fix this. This is how I would go at it.
It is related to the idea above. I would get the fasted growing churches to be church growth training centers. I want the groups the set up to interactive. I want people to talk to each other. Week by week, I want pastors to get to know one another. I want them to study books together and pray together and talk about the trivial things of life. I want them to do this because this is the stuff of relationships. Relationships are built as we share ideas, pray together and talk about the trivial things together. I only talk about the trivial part of my to the people who really care about me.
Strategy #4: Buy lots of tapes
Bang for buck there is no better investment than tapes. If I were a denominational worker, I would carve out a big budget for tapes. I would buy tapes of the Saddleback Church Growth Conference and, working through Associations and the Church Growth Training Centers I would see that every pastor in the state had access to them. I would see that every pastor in the state had access to John Maxwell's Top 100 Laws of Leadership. I would see that every pastor in the state had access to Bill Hybels latest stuff. I would have all my church planters listen to Bob Logan. I would require that everyone in the state office listen to tapes constantly while the drive and I would provide them with more material than they know what to do with. I would tap every major conference held around the nation and get those tapes to anyone who wanted to listen to them. I would provide tapes to preschool workers from the latest conference. I would buy lots of tapes because bang for buck there is no better learning investment than tapes.
You can buy the tapes for a conference for 5% of the cost of what it might cost to attend the conference. Now, I am not suggesting you can learn as much from listening to the tapes as you could by actually attending the conference. I am suggesting you can learn more! You can learn more because you digest them over time. You can learn more because you can listen to them more than once. You can learn more because you can have your key people listen to them and you can dialogue together about how you can implement those ideas in your setting.
I would dream of state conventions where ever pastor would come with a passel of tapes that he was ready to swap out. Some tapes we had bought him. Some tapes he bought for himself. He could swap them from us, or he might swap with one of his pastor buddies.
Strategy #5: Kick my feet up on the desk
I read a book once where a CEO said that unless he could kick his feet up on the desk and, with an uncluttered mind, dream about what the future could be for that organization, he couldn't lead it. I would like to paraphrase this to say that unless I could kick my feet up on my desk and with an uncluttered mind pray and dream about what could be, I could not provide leadership for the organization.
Work can be over done. Too many trips. Too many meetings. Too many phone calls. I need an uncluttered mind. A mind free to pray and touch the mind of the father. A mind free to pray. A mind free to dream.
My last strategy would be to do less and thing more. Fewer meetings; more time in prayer. I got the impression this crowd at this state convention was working too hard. Too many trips. Too many nights in motels. Not enough time with their feet up on a desk dreaming and evaluating and praying about what is working and what is not.
1. For those churches that have Home Bible Study Groups instead of Sunday School, I would count that.
2. Neh. 4:9 But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.
3. Galatians 6:10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
4. Romans 12:13 Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
1 Peter 4:9 Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.
3 John 1:8 We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth.
5. 1 Tim. 3:2 Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,
6. Philip. 2:29 Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him,
7. Matthew 25:29 For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.