Immediately the reader searches the faces of those shining stars pictured in the ads. Depending on the reader's experience and bias, various charismatic speakers carry varying degrees of the weight of glory.
First the heavyweights--those who are in greatest demand. Their books are best sellers. Their appearances at conferences draw the largest crowds. Their offerings reach into the highest levels of sowing and reaping.
Next are the lightweights. They are the emerging spiritual warriors who will definitely open the heavens above a city, although not quite as much glory pours out as when the heavyweights speak. Nonetheless, the reader nods in recognition that the mixture of heavyweights and lightweights could definitely provide the breakthrough needed--especially if early registration is paid, space in the actual conference hotel is booked and the reader arrives early to sit as close to the front as possible.
Obviously, I'm being a bit facetious. But with such a variety of leadership conferences and church-growth models, how do we know which paradigm is best?
Admittedly, I have chased both the rising and falling stars of church-growth experts. Early on, I went to Robert Schuller's leadership events. Then followed John Maxwell, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and others. All have great insights and inspirational messages. And books...good heavens, do I have the books!
Based on the number of conferences I have attended both as a participant and a speaker--not to mention my education, all the books I've read and 30 years of pastoral experience--I should now have the largest church in my city. But alas, I don't. Hence, I must still be at least one conference short of my breakthrough!
Let me share what I've observed in church-growth paradigms, and then what works. Every model has an upside and a downside save one. Each prototype does offer us some constructive elements but cannot by itself give a total picture.
Most church-growth paradigms, as much as they try not to, still have some limitations built into their designs due to cultural biases and the creators' blind spots. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Here are some examples.
1. The past-driven church. The past-driven church tries to drive forward by looking constantly in the rearview mirror. The way things used to be done dictate the boundaries for the present. Glory days are fondly remembered. Pictures and memories from the big events of the past are regularly projected before the people.
Strengths: Much can be learned from the past; past successes build hope for the future; a history gives stability and foundation. Weaknesses: The past limits the present; past successes can become idols; history can become a grave.
2. The policy-driven church. The policy-driven church finds itself driving a certain model built and shaped by pioneers. Like automobiles, churches have makes and models. We have the make called "Lutheran" and the model called "Missouri Synod." Or the make called "Pentecostal" and the model called "Assemblies of God." We even have the make called "interdenominational" and the model called "faith," "healing," "latter rain" or "new wave."
The policies of the pioneers, either as oral or written tradition, govern the directions and thoughts of policy-driven leaders. The policies of the way worship should flow, the style people should preach in, or the way structure or governance must be implemented are all essentials for the policy-driven church.
Strengths: Policies, tested and true, provide firm footing; policies provide for needed accountability; policies provide structures for decision-making. Weaknesses: Policies often take priority over people; policies limit creativity; policies inhibit the new thing God is doing.
3. The personality-driven or pastor-driven church. In the personality-driven church, the present leader-visionary drives all that happens, or a past leader's ghost haunts everything. In a pastor-driven church, it's almost impossible for an outsider to succeed the founder. Only an insider who carefully maintains the vision of the founder can assume the mantle of ongoing leadership.
What often happens in the personality-driven church is that a family member or close associate of the founding pastor takes the reins of succession. If an outsider is brought in, the frequent scenario that unfolds sees the successor become an unintentional interim pastor lasting but a few years. Or, the successor slowly "runs off" the old diehards and eventually after five to seven years takes over the church, which by then essentially has a whole new constituency who never knew the founding pastor. Or, the successor so radically changes things that he either fosters a mutiny or leads one.
Strengths: A strong personality gives vision and leadership; dynamic personalities attract followers; decisions are efficiently made by strong leaders. Weaknesses: Strong leaders often surround themselves with weaker staff and laity; sheep often will follow only one shepherd; laity are rarely released into ministry.
4. The program-driven or people-driven church. This church usually has the well-worn philosophy, "Find a need and meet it; find a hurt and heal it." If the need is youth or children's ministry, then the program-driven church builds the best youth or children's ministry program in the area. If the need is to help hurting people, then the church abounds with self-help and recovery programs.
Whenever a new group of people voices a need or hurt, the leaders promptly find the best program, fund the resources and train the facilitators to get the job done. The church grows by fishing with hooks and bait. The bait is a new program to attract people. They are hooked into the church through taking the program bait.
Strengths: Effective programs meet the needs of many people; programs keep people involved in ministry; people make decisions democratically or through consensus, giving many people a feel of ownership. Weaknesses: Ineffective programs die hard; programs segment a congregation and create program "turf wars"; people not having a program to meet their particular needs leave.
5. The purpose-driven church. This paradigm springs out of a mission or purpose statement that comes from a visionary leader or leadership team. That purpose or mission-vision statement has core values that permeate everything the church does. If a program, position or people group is not on-purpose, then it must change or cease to exist.
Everything in the purpose-driven church fits neatly together like a complete jigsaw puzzle. From the parking lot workers to the greeters, from the part-time volunteers to the full-time pastors, from the Sunday morning bulletins to the new members' packets, everything looks, feels, talks and implements the church's purpose.
Strengths: Everyone and everything stays on-purpose; decisions are facilitated by understanding everyone's purpose and core values; unity and cohesion emerge from team ministry. Weaknesses: Specific purpose or mission statements may tend to exclude some; important decisions may be ignored if their tangency to the purpose is not immediately recognizable; new purpose is difficult to birth.
All of these paradigms have something to contribute to congregational life. Still, no one paradigm encompasses all of these models. Each model tends to exclude the others and demands a church's ultimate loyalty.
However, it is possible to envision all of the above as parts of a car. Each part or paradigm fits as an important part of the whole. The windows might be purpose. The doors might be the programs. The steering wheel could be the personality or pastor. The past could be the body or frame. The policies may be the engine.
But what makes it go? That which powers the vehicle must come from outside the structure. It must constantly flow, be renewed and be replenished.
That power is God's Spirit. It is God's presence continually birthing new people into the kingdom, constantly healing and delivering the hurting and bound, and creatively birthing new purposes that build on the solid foundations laid in the past through biblical principles, persistent prayer, and powerful signs and wonders. This is the presence-driven church.
AUTHENTIC CHURCH GROWTH
The presence-driven church may encompass some or all of the above paradigms. However, God's presence precedes and permeates all other models of church growth. Without His presence, church growth is simply a menagerie of methodologies doomed to temporality. A method may work for the moment, but shouldn't our desire be to do only that which has eternal impact?
Radical? Absolutely! It's time we return to our roots. Church growth is rooted in what God does rather than what we devise. Too often we are so busy with good ideas on how to get people through the door that God's ideas get lost in the shuffle.
Going back to our roots in Scripture, being presence-driven literally derives from Ephesians 5:18, where Paul instructs us to "be filled with the Spirit" (NKJV). The filling referred to here projects the image of a sail being filled with the wind (the ruwach, or wind, of God). The breath of God's Spirit must fill the church, empowering it to move forward into God's destiny.
God's Spirit births every movement of the church. Without being Spirit- or presence-driven, the church sits listlessly in time, like a sailboat going nowhere in a calm sea. We can use our paradigm as paddles and row as hard as we like, but the forward progress is negligible. Or, we can hoist our sails of worship, catch the wind of His Spirit and move forward into His purpose, plans and productivity (fruit) in ministry.
Two concerns dominate our attention in considering what a presence-driven church looks like: (1) the process--by what birthing process does God's presence impregnate us with both the vision and power to bear lasting fruit for His glory? and (2) the proof--what does the DNA of a presence-driven church contain? What genes mark the church that any discerning believer can observe without a Th.D. or a lifetime of pastoral experience? What evidence can we see by which we know that a church's growth is rooted in God's presence?
God's presence always births. From the beginning, God's presence created something out of nothing. God is the only One who creates something from nothing.
His creative process begets that which is radically new (see Is. 43:18-19; 2 Cor. 5:17). As such, we can always expect God to be doing a new thing in our midst. Therefore, the irreducible constant of a presence-driven church is change.
Presence-driven churches are constantly having babies--literally and figuratively. God's presence shows up, and the impossible is birthed.
Remember the example of Abraham and Sarah? They were going to have a baby (see Gen. 16-17). Both laughed. Both tried to birth an Ishmael--their own idea and creation--instead of Isaac, who was God's answer to the future. How many human driven churches find that they are constantly birthing Ishmaels instead of Isaacs?
Let's take a closer look at the process that takes place in a presence-driven ministry.
1. Presence births purpose. Every purpose goes through a gestation process requiring time, trials, tests and tribulations. Birthing never happens immediately after conception.
Human-driven churches, however, are constantly trying to achieve a purpose too soon, and that always results in miscarriage. God's purpose is always for an appointed time (see Eccl. 3:1; John 12:27). Presence-birthed purpose cannot be thwarted or nullified (see Is. 14:27).
Some advocate that God just has one purpose, or one plan, for a church. Such a mind-set limits the limitless God. In a presence-driven church, the church flows in a river of the Spirit moving from one purpose into the next as God's Spirit directs. Each Spirit-breathed purpose builds on the previous one and leads to the next.
A prophetic word may come to a church, discerning a coming purpose. Leadership must be careful to discern the hour of the heralded purpose. To rush into it prematurely can wreak havoc in a church. To procrastinate may bring decay, or even death, to a body. God's given purpose for a particular time requires implementation at the right time, in the right way and with the right motivation.
2. Purpose births plans. The presence-birthed purpose implemented by a church in "the fullness of time" births a plethora of plans. Why? Because of the prodigality of God. God never creates just one star, one wildflower or one snowflake. The God with cattle on a thousand hills always births a purpose explosive with possibilities, potential and an abundance of plans.
Since we humans often defile, destroy or desecrate that which is holy, God has a built-in, fail-safe method of growth for us. We cannot fail because if we "kill" one plan, another immediately replaces it.
Whatever we touch, we can potentially mess up due to our flesh. However, God has such an abundance of plans (see Jer. 29:11; John 10:10) that we cannot fail for lack of plans. Our job is to be persistent in prayer, patient in planning and prepared to apply biblical principles at every turn. Tragically, some churches fail to grow because they give up on God's plans right before a breakthrough.
3. Plans birth productivity. The bottom line for every ministry is fruit (see John 15): people saved, healed and delivered. If a plan ceases to be productive, discard it. When a purpose ceases to birth plans, its season is past. Be still. Rest in God's presence as the new purpose is birthed.
To sum it up, the process in a presence-driven church is God's presence, which births purpose, which births plans, which births productivity.
What marks the presence-driven church? Should we examine the matrix of its DNA, what genes would we uncover as proof that, in fact, the Spirit of God is actually driving or propelling the church forward?
What the world and some liberal theologians deem extraordinary and singular or unrepeatable in history is quite the contrary. Acts 1-2 is both normative and indicative of what the presence-driven church looks like in the 21st century. While the various church-growth paradigms mentioned earlier are in operation all around us, they cannot become the foundations on which we build. While they may be the parts of the vehicle, they will never be the power or petrol that drives the vehicle.
So, what are the ingredients of the petrol? Or, what are the genes of the presence-driven church's DNA? The following proposed list is not exhaustive, but it is, at the least, a beginning point for assessing whether or not the church being grown is presence-birthed and on-purpose or simply an Ishmael posing ever so weakly as an Isaac.
These genes mark the church growing in the Spirit for our times. Each gene identified is evidenced in Acts 1-2. The 21 marks of the presence-driven church are:
1. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. Not just a touch, but total immersion in the Spirit.
2. Holy Spirit power. Not just any power, but authoritative power that works miracles.
3. Expectation of Jesus' return. Not just lip service about His presence, but an expectation of His return.
4. One-accord unity. Not just a superficial consensus, but an indivisible covenant.
5. Prayer and supplication. Not just vain repetitions, but intercession with groanings that cannot be uttered.
6. Apostolic leadership. Not just leadership within a local body, but bold leadership for the church in a city or region.
7. Filled with the Spirit. Not just led by the Spirit, but driven and empowered by the Spirit.
8. Tongues with Spirit utterance. Not just a loud cacophony, but a river of language flowing under the Spirit's guidance, accomplishing seemingly impossible spiritual breakthroughs and massive conversions.
9. Signs and wonders. Not just to impress the saved, but to witness to the lost.
10. Prophetic witness. Not ministering the prophetic to the saved, but releasing the prophetic to persuade the lost.
11. Bold proclamation and preaching. Not just preaching to the choir, but proclamation from the Word with boldness to please God, not to tickle human ears.
12. Exalting Jesus. Not just a motivational message, but an exaltation and passionate adoration of Jesus of Nazareth, the risen Lord.
13. Repentance with water baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Not just transfer growth, but true conversion with spiritual babies being born frequently.
14. Many being saved daily. Not just rededications, but the lost daily being snatched from hell by the Good Shepherd through bold, unashamed witnessing. Not just adding to the church, but moving into multiplication (see Acts 6:7).
15. Sound doctrine. Not just teaching for knowledge, but for impartation and equipping the saints to do the work of ministry.
16. Fellowship. Not just meeting as strangers in a service, but body ministry one to another.
17. Breaking of bread. Not just a ritual of the Lord's Supper, but a deep communion partaking of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus.
18. Holy fear of God. Not just reverence and respect, but a holy fear akin to the fear that moved Noah to build an ark of salvation for his whole household.
19. Faith together. Not just faith trusting Jesus as Savior and Lord, but faith together to hear the incredible, see the invisible and do the impossible together as His body.
20. Sharing to meet needs. Not just a benevolence fund, but a substantial sharing that could meet the deepest physical needs of people.
21. Joyful gladness, simplicity, favor and praise. Not just a warm, fuzzy feeling generated by a great service, but a simple, heartfelt joy that praises God no matter what the circumstance.
Should you boldly dare to go where few churches have gone before, prepare yourself for stringent challenges posed not just by the world or the enemy (though their attacks will be furious). First, brace yourself for attacks from within your church. Those wedded to a human-driven model will fight hard to hold on to it. Those professing to be with you through thick and thin may be the first to take flight when the Spirit is given full liberty to change the church from organization to organism, from institution to instituting, and from internal revival to reconciling the world to Jesus.
Where do you start? The transformation from a human-driven to a presence-driven church begins with the pastor, pastoral team and congregational leadership. The presence-driven church emerges from the presence-driven life of a pastor and leadership team who are totally, radically, irrevocably surrendered to following Jesus. Such a presence-driven life says what Moses declared: " 'If Your presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here'" (Ex. 33:15).