I emerged from seminary with one goal as a pastor: to grow a great big church with big conversion numbers and a big budget, and—to be honest—hopes of even bigger attention for the guy behind it all.
Like most young pastors, I thought I was doing God’s work. Isn’t “big” what He wants?
It took me a while to realize that my self-centered ambition was blinding me to God’s true purpose for my church. I was missing out on something—my church was missing out on something—but we didn’t even realize it.
Ministry is a great place for leaders with the idol of success to hide, because we can cloak our ambition in the garb of “I’m doing this for Jesus.”
God opened my eyes one afternoon as I was praying for our city. I was praying for a massive spiritual awakening in our city, when in the midst of that prayer, I felt the Spirit of God ask, “And what if I answer this prayer… but I don’t use your church to do it? What if another church in Raleigh-Durham leads the way? Would you still want it?”
I knew the right answer to that question. I was supposed to say, “Oh, yes, Lord! You must increase and I must decrease!” It may have been the right answer, but it was not the real answer. I wanted to see my church succeed, my kingdom enlarged, my name magnified. In that moment I realized that somewhere along the way, “thy kingdom come” had become all jumbled up with “my kingdom come.”
I went back to our church and confessed that I had been leading them wrongly. “Our goal,” I said, “should not be to build a great big church. It is to reach our city with the Gospel and get the Gospel into places around the world where Jesus is not known. If God grows our church in the process of that, so be it. But if He takes from us some of our best resources and people and sends them out to start new works, that’s OK, too.”
It was during that season that we tapped into a completely new stream of spiritual power, something that had been available—but missing—the whole time.
All of Jesus’ promises about the greatness of the Church, you see, are tied to sending out, not gathering in. Jesus once promised His disciples that they would do greater works than Him (John 14:12). That’s a staggering promise. How many pastors claim to do greater works than Jesus? But Jesus didn’t mean that our works would be greater in quality. He meant that the reach and extent of His works would be greater when His Spirit rested on every believer than when that power was concentrated upon one person.
Churches that understand this will devote themselves not to gathering and counting, but empowering and sending. Sending capacity, not seating capacity, ought to be the measure of success for any New Testament church.
This attitude is something a lot of churches are missing. It’s easy to get caught up in drawing people into our churches instead of sending members out into the world, on building audiences instead of multiplying disciples.
But in our day, the act of sending has become more important than ever. Even those in our own backyards will likely have to be reached outside the church. The “nones” in Western society (those who check “none” for religious affiliation) grow each year at an astounding rate. “Nones” don’t casually make their way back into church because the pastor is engaging, the music is cool or the guest services are Disney-esque. They have to be reached outside the Church.
It’s time we returned to Jesus’ strategy for reaching our nation. To do that, those in Christian leadership especially are going to have to first die to ourselves—to our ambitions in ministry, to our dreams, to our hopes of a comfortable life. We should remember we are called by one who came not to be served but to serve, who, though He was rich, for our sakes became poor so that we through His poverty might become rich, and beckons us to follow Him. He said, “Except a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, it abides alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
Living comes by dying; gaining comes by losing. His call was not to “come and grow,” but “come and die.” He calls us first not to a platform, but to an altar.
This won’t be easy. Dying never is. Recently, I sat at a table with our four church-planters-in-residence for the year. These are guys we brought onto our staff nine months before with only one assignment—to plan for their church launch and take as many of our members with them as they could.
These four had done what we asked: they were taking 200 of our active members. I knew I was supposed to be excited, and I was … sort of. I was also feeling an involuntary lump form in my throat—a mixture of sadness, fear and, quite frankly, panic. Their lists included personal friends, favorite musicians, key volunteers, and leaders. People I did not want to lose. Leaders whose absence would leave significant gaps. This was going to be much harder than I had thought.
That afternoon, listening to our church planters, I put my hands under the table and literally forced them open to God. Opened in surrender. Opened as a sign that I must take my hands off of one of the most precious earthly things to me—my church. Open as on offering of praise to Jesus’ worthiness and faith in His promise. Open in the belief that God builds His Kingdom as we let go, not as we hold on.
In the Christian life, gaining only comes by losing.
J.D. Greear is the author of Gaining By Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches that Send and Jesus, ContinuedÉWhy the Spirit Inside You is Better Than Jesus Beside You. He is lead pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, and he and his wife Veronica live in Raleigh with their four children.