Outreach 100 Consortium: What I’m Learning

Outreach 100 pastors share their thoughts on church growth, discipleship, outreach and faithful ministry.

We asked pastors of some of the nation’s largest churches to share their thoughts on church growth, discipleship, outreach and faithful ministry.

“Know what God has called you to do and stay in your lane.”

Chip Bennett, Lead Pastor
Grace Community Church
Sarasota, Florida

The one thing that has best positioned us for growth is our commitment to our vision: “Grace Community Church exists to reach the unchurched by being intentional neighbors that reflect Christ.” This vision is the grid through which everything we do is viewed. If it isn’t accomplishing our vision, we don’t do it. If we aren’t reaching people by doing intentional neighborly things that reflect Christ, then it doesn’t get done.

Since our vision is to reach unchurched people, it keeps our church focused on outreach and growth, not on self. As a leader, we either lead the church to expect growth or not. Churches that tend the aquarium rather than fish for men will more often than not struggle to grow. Know what God has called you to do and stay in your lane.

Just when we needed more space, God provided. We were recently given 44 acres and several buildings from a church in town that was struggling. They joined up with us, and we have become their church now. We are currently in the process of renovating those facilities to launch our second campus this fall.

Nobody can do it alone. The Lord’s prayer is not “my Father” it is “our Father.” Letting everyone be a part of everything is so much more rewarding, sustaining and multiplying rather than doing it alone.

I wish I had known when I first started in ministry that the church is God’s and not mine, so I don’t have to take things so personally. I am a passionate type of guy and a consequence of that wiring is often taking things very personally. I have a place I stand every week in the church and I have a moment with God. I tell him: “I know this talk really isn’t for you Lord, but this is for me. I need to say this. I need to hear this. We need to have this conversation each and every week and more so for me, Lord, than you. This is your church and these are your people. They are not mine and the church is not mine. If you can bring someone else along who can do better than me, I am in. So, Lord, it’s important that I say these things to you, and I realize you don’t need me. I am grateful you use me, but I understand my place. Thanks for letting me do what I do.”

The church adds to and creates a lot of the polarization in society. We may be well meaning, but we create divisions in areas we don’t need to. Staying away from the non-salvific, partisan issues will open the door to a far greater ministry of healing and change. The church needs to keep focused on the gospel and Jesus, and not get bogged down in peripheral issues that won’t save anyone. The more we can keep the main thing the main thing, the larger the net becomes for our opportunities to see real and lasting change. What we do as the church is the highest-stakes game in town, and we can ill afford not to focus on the one thing we have that changes the world, and that’s preaching Jesus and the Good News.

We have incredible opportunities right now to create massive change in areas of racial reconciliation, societal polarization and the growing gap between the haves and the have nots. To see real and lasting change, we cannot afford to be identified with a political party or partisan movements; we need to simply be the church. It’s not politics or a party that will bring lasting change, it’s a person and his name is Jesus.

Twitter: @DrChipBennet
Website: GraceSarasota.com
Founded: 2010
Denomination: Nondenominational
Locations: 1
Attendance: 1,520
Fastest-Growing: 19

“Ministry moves in seasons, which demands persistent rhythms in the ministers.”

Adam Bailie, Lead Pastor
Christ Church
Gilbert, Arizona

We emphasize a clear, simple and urgent culture rooted in a vertical engagement in every meeting, a relational connectivity to every level of human interaction, a genuine communication in every public leadership moment, and a redeemed ambition that drives the church family forward on mission in our life as a church, in our community and around the world.

God is in the planning just as much as he is in the execution of the plan. With all of the intentionality of our preaching calendar and worship service plans, multiple weekends in the last year were marked by major crises in our church family. The perfectly correlating songs and Scriptures in our services ministered powerfully to our people and our guests.

I have learned that the best spiritual leadership is servant leadership that seeks to give away what has been entrusted and seeks to mobilize the leadership gifts in others. As leaders serve and reproduce, a mosaic of servant leadership permeates the life of the church on mission in the community.

Ministry moves in seasons, which demands persistent rhythms in the ministers. Rhythms sustain leaders through the seasons, when balance is a futile pursuit or pace of ministry changes suddenly. Worshiping in services, living in groups, serving on teams and learning in studies are rhythms of discipleship that must be applied across all seasons and paces of ministry for leaders and non leaders alike.

Leaders are listeners and leaders are readers. I seek to keep my ears and eyes engaged with better minds, more mature disciples and proven spiritual leaders who can help me understand and apply the Word of God to my life and ministry.

The gospel is the supernatural remedy to divisions and hatred. In the gospel every people group, ethnicity, socioeconomic category and unique human creation finds value and precious unity in love. Where the church is informed by the true gospel of grace through Jesus Christ and radically living it out as a faith family, there is a strong counter-cultural testimony of peace, hope and love that we all desperately need.

Twitter: @ahbailie
Website: ChristAZ.org
Founded: 2012
Denomination: Nondenominational
Locations: 3
Attendance: 1,614
Fastest-Growing: 6

“The church is a spiritual entity rather than a not-for-profit religious entity.”

Jeff Bogue, Senior Pastor
Grace Church
Akron, Ohio

One of the biggest initiatives that we have put in place in the last few years is the idea of “praying for our three.” We encourage every one of our people to pray for three of their friends by name every day. They pray that God would give them a “no-brainer moment” in which they can share the reason for the hope that’s within them. That little phrase has caused them to become very aware of opportunities to be evangelistic and the necessity to be continually in prayer for their friends and family who do not yet know Christ.

At our largest campus right now, we have set a goal that over the next three years we would see a minimum of 1,000 people come to know Christ. We invited the congregation to pursue that goal by praying for their three. Right now the members of just one of our campuses are praying up to 7,000 people every day. Not only does this initiative unleash the power of God in someone’s life, it also creates sensitivity and compassion within followers of Christ for those who do not yet know him.

A highlight for us as a congregation this past year was a campaign in which we laid out the vision of building a 70-bed inpatient treatment center for opioid addiction. This plus some additional projects were woven into the campaign with the goal of raising $6 million over three years. The people committed $8.6 million, far surpassing our goal. This incredible response allows us to bring this desperately needed resource to our community and to “love our neighbor as ourselves” in this way.

One of the most important things I’ve learned about spiritual leadership is that God can and does unite the body of Christ. One of our great prayers for evangelism has been that God would work in the hearts of his people and unite them so that we can “contend as one man.” To watch the Holy Spirit move among his people in deep, powerful and profound ways truly reminds me that the church is a spiritual entity rather than a not-for-profit religious entity.

God moving in an unmistakable way to bring his people to a point of focus, compassion and generosity is a powerful and wonderful thing. It has deeply affected me and reminded me that I’m leading people to something greater than just big dreams—I’m leading them to eternal goals that have eternal ramifications in which God is directing his people toward.

When I first started ministry, I wish I would’ve known to spend more time searching out where God was already moving and less time asking God to bless my ideas and plans. There’s nothing more freeing or motivating than when you join the Lord in a work that he has already decided to accomplish through his people.

After being a pastor now for over 26 years, when I look to move the church forward or to take our next step, my first instinct is to see where God is stirring in our community and how that stirring is rippling into the body of Christ. From there I develop plans and vision.

I need to hang out with teenagers and college students. As I get older, I have to work harder to be a student of the next generation. So, even though I pastor a large church, I still help to run a large youth conference for junior high and high school kids because I want to be around them. I enjoy them, and I learn a lot from them. I try to stay closely connected to our college ministry as well for many of the same reasons.

A statement that we have locked onto for many, many years here at Grace is “if servanthood is beneath you, leadership is above you.” We need to become servants to our communities wherever and whenever possible. Obviously, the church cannot agree with all the priorities and all the current cultural leanings of a given community. However, there are many ways that we can agree and serve that community. For us, combating the heroin epidemic is certainly an example of that. They welcome the help, they welcome the investment, and they even welcome the name of Jesus. They would almost have the attitude of saying to us, “Nothing else works. Let’s try your plan and approach.”

So, we look all over our community, whether it’s sports ministries or single parents or the school systems, and ask the question, “Is there a way that we can serve, a way we can bring finances, facilities and people to bear on an issue?” We’ve found that if we’re willing to serve, we’re often invited to lead.

Twitter: @TakingOneStep
Website: GraceChurches.org
Founded: 1960
Denomination: Grace Brethren
Locations: 9
Attendance: 5,874
Largest: 81

“Spiritual leadership is almost always connected to some sort of pain.”

Aaron Brockett, Lead Pastor
Traders Point Christian Church
Indianapolis, Indiana

We’ve really put a high value on developing a richer and healthier culture among our staff and volunteer leaders. We’ve put several years of greater intentionality into this area, and now we’re experiencing its benefits.

We’ve also worked hard at thinking through and anticipating some of the barriers and hang-ups people have for coming, connecting and growing within our church. We continue to take what we learn and implement it, helping people take clear and simple next steps to get engaged in the mission/vision God has for our church.

As pastors, we all probably know what it’s like to see that person in the lobby after service that you’d like to avoid because you know they’re going to be critical, mean or weird. I’ve had a few occasions this past year when I was bracing myself for one of those conversations, only to have the person share with me how God had been at work in their life through our church and how excited and on mission they now were. Amazing and humbling.

Spiritual leadership is almost always connected to some sort of pain. Now, that pain takes on various forms and can be more or less intense than other times, but it’s usually a factor to any sort of spiritual growth process.

Enjoy each season and experience more. There’s always something to be learned when working in ministry, even from the tough stuff, and it all goes by way faster than I could have imagined. As much as possible, I try to remember that when I have a tough day, six months from now I won’t even remember the details, so I don’t let it rob me of joy.

Stay connected to people. Ask more questions in a conversation than give declarations. Find out how God is at work through people and churches that are different from yours and learn from it.

As different as we all are, one of the primary things everyone has in common is that we’re looking for hope. The gospel is the greatest message of hope. The culture is drawn to hope. We need to give it to them. We need to tell—and more importantly show—them the hope that only Jesus can provide.

Twitter: @AaronBrockett
Website: TPCC.org
Founded: 1834
Denomination: Independent Christian
Locations: 4
Attendance: 8,135
Largest: 43

“It’s consistency that makes us most like Christ.”

Aaron Burke, Lead Pastor
Radiant Church
Tampa, Florida

We have been intentional about creating an invite culture where people are comfortable and expected to bring their friends to church. While every week is a good Sunday to attend Radiant, we do put three “big Sundays” on the calendar to really encourage people to reach their lost friends.

I went on a 21-day total juice fast last January, and it was during that season of prayer that I came up with the idea to rent out the local convention center for Easter. We had over 6,500 attend and hundreds gave their life to Christ.

Public promotion is the result of private perseverance. Every battle I have won physically was the result of private victories that no one else saw.

Be patient. Great things do not happen in a day. They happen daily. It’s consistency that makes us most like Christ. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. When we stay consistent, we eventually will win.

Jesus is still wildly popular in our culture. The church has had its struggles, but if you keep the focus on Jesus, you will win. Radiant Church has been intentional to keep our focus on Christ instead of on the drama of the news, politics and pop culture. Jesus is still the answer to whatever people are going through.

Twitter: @aaronrburke
Website: WeAreRadiant.com
Founded: 2013
Denomination: Assemblies of God
Locations: 3
Attendance: 2,978
Fastest-Growing: 4

“Small is the new big, and simple is the new complex.”

Jeff Clark, Lead Pastor
Venture Church
Hattiesburg, Mississippi

Continually clarifying the vision, which makes it easier to say “no” to good things that rob our church of resources, such as time, money and human capital. Develop a clear pipeline for people to serve, You need easy on-ramps that funnel new partners into the system and cultivate them to become key volunteers. Develop well-documented and streamlined systems. If it isn’t written down and streamlined so that basically anyone can learn to do it and it can’t be measured, it probably isn’t achieving the things that matter to us as a leadership team.

One big victory that I’m personally really thankful for is that for the first time, I don’t feel like we’re struggling to keep up. Our systems and teams are healthy, and it allows us to enjoy the growth without panicking.

One of the most important things I’ve learned in the past year is that I have to be approachable and transparent with everyone who works or serves at our church. My role is to create heroes and fight the temptation to be the primary focus of attention because I’m on the stage.

I wish I had known that ministry is not that complex. The early church was simple; but fast-forward, and the reason ministry seems so difficult today is because we make it harder than it actually is. What drove that point home for me was Acts 15:19. James, said, “We shouldn’t make it hard for [people] to come to God.” Also, I wish I had known that building a large building was going to be a mistake—that small is the new big and simple is the new complex.

I read business books on entrepreneurship; the business world is more serious about money than the church is about the gospel. I read two blogs each week that cause me to think. I periodically visit the greatest churches I can find and ask all the questions I can think of.

The biggest thing I’ve learned, in the present culture, is to stay away from hot-button social or political themes that can be harmful and divisive. I’m finding that sticking with the gospel is equally offensive to both sides of the political malaise. And I repeat over and over, the answer to our social and cultural problems is through the gospel and the local church, not through political parties and the government.

Twitter: @pastorj96
Website: VentureChurch.org
Founded: 1884
Denomination: Southern Baptist
Locations: 3
Attendance: 4,233
Fastest-Growing: 29

“You can’t legislate compassion.”

Aaron Cole, Senior Pastor
Life Church
Germantown, Wisconsin

Over the past 18 months, we launched two campuses, which is a large reason for our growth and momentum. Beyond the best plans that we make, God sometimes surprises us—reminding us that he is at work. Both campuses we launched were struggling churches that came to us wanting to close their doors and open up as a LC campus. And both were in areas we already wanted to go. It was an answer to prayer.

God is looking for our obedience and hard work. He will bring the increase.

I wish someone had told me in my 20s that nobody expects you to have anything figured out in life until your 30s and 40s.

You cannot legislate compassion. That’s why the church exists—to lead the way in compassion.

Twitter: @aaroncolelc
Website: LifeChurchWI.com
Founded: 2000
Denomination: Assemblies of God
Locations: 4
Attendance: 2,191
Fastest-Growing: 17

“We can become blinded by our own personal perspectives.”

Justin Dailey, Pastor
Action Church
Orlando, Florida

Some practical contributors to our growth are transparency and stewardship. Our leadership has consistently proven to be trustworthy. We are transparent with our plans, intentions, resources and goals. This transparency has given people the ability to trust us with their time, finances and talents. The second practical contributor of our growth is stewardship. We operate on a strict budget that allows us to be ready for all growth opportunities. We also put significant time and resources into developing our leaders. We realize stewarding resources and people open opportunities.

Spiritual leadership starts with personal discipline. Getting more personal time with God is the best thing any leader can do to increase their effectiveness. When you’re leading a large church or organization, it is easy to get sidetracked on strategy, staffing and other organizational issues. God wants our heart, and we all have been guilty of just giving him our head.

God never called us to be successful—he called us to be faithful. God never intended for church growth, speaking platforms, success or local notoriety to fulfill us in the same way obedience to him does.

What I have learned about learning is that it never stops; we are always a student. The challenge with personal growth is you don’t always pick the teacher. At Action Church, we make it a goal to learn from every situation. Every constructive conversation or even the harshest criticism is an opportunity to reflect, learn and grow.

We can become blinded by our own personal perspectives. The church today is known way more for what we are against than what who we are for. In a world that picks sides, agendas and platforms, we try and see the people representing all of these in an attempt to prioritize their life and eternity over personal opinions. God loves people, and I’m committed to lead a church that is committed to people.

Twitter: @JustinDailey
Website: TheActionChurch.com
Founded: 2014
Denomination: Nondenominational
Locations: 4
Attendance: 4,328
Fastest-Growing: 8
Largest: 100

“Being ‘this gen’ led and creatively planting churches has brought great growth.”

Joshua Finklea, Lead Pastor
The Rock
Conway, South Carolina

For us two major factors (from a human perspective) have lead to growth. One is we are “This Gen” or this generation led. We believe that kids, students and young adults are not next, they are now. They aren’t the future of the church, the church of tomorrow or even the next generation—they are kingdom workers today. They need to be empowered and released to lead today. While many people are looking at how to reach millennials, we are empowering Gen Z now.

That means we do everything we can as a church to reach them. The services are built and the church functions with their needs in mind. We place kids, students and young adults in positions of leadership and influence. We hire them and differ to them when making decisions.

Many find this approach risky, thinking it means we will only reach young people as a church, but the bottom line is by focusing on them, we reach all generations. Parents and grandparents want to see their kids and grandkids in church. Non-Christians love what we do because it is fresh and young.

Secondly, growth has come by creatively planting churches. One way that we have done it is through the opening of public coffee bars. We currently have two coffee bars that are open six or seven days a week, and we are in the process of opening a third. We stumbled on this by accident when we remodeled an old restaurant that was on our property and turned it into C3 Coffee Bar. The majority of our customers don’t realize that the church owns it, but as we love people and serve them well, they become regulars. The marketplace ministry worked so well in one location that we opened a second location across from the local university. Now college students and faculty come daily to get caffeinated and to study. On Sundays we transform the space and do church in the bar with about 60% of the attendance is college students. Because of the success of these two bars, we are going to downtown Las Vegas and planting our third with the faith that God will do it again.

Another way we are being creative is we have partnered with a small Baptist church 20 miles from our largest campus. They continue to do what they do on Sunday morning and then allow us to come in on Sunday nights to do church the way we do to try to reach Gen Z. When we were talking through this idea, one of their leaders said, “We have been able to reach people, but we have never been able to reach young people. I believe God is going to use our church to reach young people through The Rock Church.” I love the kingdom heart that I witnessed in this leader. By working together and being creative, we have seen God do some great things in this community and in both churches. Another creative aspect of that is that from the time we got the approval to do it and the launch of the campus was 40 days. You have to get creative to launch a campus in 40 days.

Another creative way we have planted churches is by having a jail campus. We partner with our local jail, which houses between 600 and 800 people a week. They asked us if we would livestream into the jail and we jumped at the opportunity. Because of this we have seen God do amazing things. Just last week we baptized 43 residents and had about 20% of the population in one of our services.

Twitter: @joshfinklea
Website: RockC3.com
Founded: 2005
Denomination: Nondenominational
Locations: 5
Attendance: 2,263
Fastest-Growing: 50

“We need to tell the truth without apology, but we must tell it with grace in love.”

Michael Fletcher, Senior Pastor
Manna Church
Fayetteville, North Carolina

As odd and counterintuitive as it seems, planting new churches has been a key in our continued growth. It turns out that God is a kingdom-minded God—his kingdom, not ours—and he will bless our efforts to cooperate with him and his plan. We planted three churches in an 18-month period, “gave away” (as if they were ever really ours) tons of people and hundreds of thousands of dollars—and the church continued to grow.

When delegating responsibility and authority, clarity is king. People need to know exactly what the goal is, what they are responsible for and how to obtain the assets necessary to accomplish the goal.

There is a huge difference between tactical problems and strategic problems. Tactical problems have answers; strategic problems do not. As a church grows to become a megachurch, the senior leader needs to train staff on how to recognize the difference between tactical and strategic problems and then delegate the solving of tactical issues to top staff. The only problems on the senior leader’s plate should be the strategic ones.

My journal is a crucial part of my devotional rhythm. My devotional life is the key to continued growth spiritually and, really, in every part of my life since literally everything is connected to it. I am constantly reading something—biographies, secular leadership stuff as well as theological, biblical and current church-related books.

Jesus was full of grace and truth. In this day, more than any other in my 40 years of ministry, we need to tell the truth without apology but we must tell it with grace in love.

Twitter: @mpfletcher
Website: Manna.church
Founded: 1972
Denomination: Nondenominational
Locations: 12
Attendance: 7,508
Fastest-Growing: 46
Largest: 54

“The church is at its best when the buildings we occupy are empty.”

Kevin Geer, Lead Pastor
Canvas Church
Kalispell, Montana

Several factors have contributed to the growth of our church, but one key would be consistent gatherings. We work very hard to make every weekend as consistent as possible. We believe the more consistent we are from week to week, the more open our people are to invite their friends. They know what to expect and can invite a friend on any weekend. They know and trust the experience. For Canvas this requires out of 52 weekends we never have an off weekend. The worship has to be heartfelt and engaging, the speaking needs to be relevant, practical and biblical. The kids ministry is safe, fun and Jesus focused. Anytime we create a hard cringe moment in the gathering that is not typically Canvas, it will take five weeks of consistency before people begin to invite friends.

We often say we run out of words to describe all that God is doing to draw people to Canvas. One story that captures this is a hairstylist who was talking to her husband one morning about maybe trying church out. That day at work six appointments in a row invited her Canvas Church. She and her husband came the following weekend and both gave their lives to Jesus. Another couple awoke on a Sunday morning and decided to try church for the first time in their marriage. In a short four weeks after coming to Canvas, they and six of their extended family gave their lives to Jesus. The simple truth is that when Canvas is faithful to communicate the good news of Jesus, he will draw people to hear it.

The No. 1 spiritual principle I continue to learn is to hold onto everything loosely. When church people hold on with closed fists to preferences and style, they cannot receive all that God is wanting to do. This first happened in Kalispell when the church transitioned from a choir, orchestra and annual Christmas musical to a focus on consistent, simple weekend gatherings. While there was a good group that was not happy with the changes, a majority of the core of the church held open hands to follow where God was leading, and unchurched people started walking through the doors on a weekly basis.

One truth I would like to have known before starting ministry is the complexity of people’s lives and the importance of long-term counseling required for some to reach the point of healing. I would have nurtured relationships with professional counselors much earlier in my ministry years. They are a gift to many in the church.

In a fast-growing church I have realized the pressure to keep growing and learning at even a faster rate. The role I did as pastor when I first started is much different than the one I do now, but my position has not changed. To keep healthy and growing, I have people that I trust to speak into my life. I have a few pastors on my staff that I ask a few times a year to point out what are blind spots in my leadership. That can be hard to hear and easy to justify away, but every time I have listened and made changes, I have seen the fruit from it. I also do a yearly retreat with three pastors from different churches for a week to just talk life, family, ministry and football.

This is not the first time the message of Jesus has gone through a polarized and divisive culture. The message of Jesus seems to thrive in these times because nothing can bring life change and hope like Jesus. He is the hope of the world. He became incarnate and walked among us. We must not hide behind our church walls or political agendas but instead be part of the communities we are placed in. Canvas’ greatest resource to our community is our people. One way for our church to be incarnate is to engage current community programs and help them succeed. The church is at its best when the buildings we occupy are empty. The reason we gather is to be encouraged, developed and discipled so we can scatter to be incarnate in our communities letting our light shine so that they may see God.

Twitter: @LifeNGeer
Website: Canvas.church
Founded: 1929
Denomination: Assemblies of God
Locations: 3
Attendance: 3,815
Fastest-Growing: 24

“Christians are not always the easiest people to lead, or even be around.”

Tim Harlow, Senior Pastor
Parkview Christian Church
Orland Park, Illinois

Remarkably, I think our growth can be attributed to how we’ve focused on the ones outside our walls. I say remarkably because in our early years, focusing on the one lost sheep meant making the 99 pretty angry. The math was hard to work out when it came time to pay bills and frankly even keep my job. And yet, as we kept our focus on the lost sheep, we ended up finding so many of them that at some point the scales tipped. Of course, the lost ones who get found quickly can become the complacent 99, so constant vision focus is crucial.

I’ve recently spent time meeting a ton of new people, and they all have the same story: “I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind but now I see.” I am not surprised at how messed up so many people are, but I am constantly amazed at how easy it is for God to meet their needs when they realize that he actually loves them and has the power to help them. All we have to do is make the connection.

I was frustrated in the early years that people didn’t want to follow my leadership. I think I’ve definitely developed as a leader, but there is just no substitute for life experience in relation to spiritual leadership. Don’t be discouraged if you are a young leader and it doesn’t feel like they trust you yet. They will. Keep doing the right things and leading them well, and stay humble as you go. One day you will have to start getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and you’ll realize that a lot of people trust you.

Christians are not always the easiest people to lead, or even be around. Just because they show up and serve or give doesn’t mean they are the people who are going to help you with your mission. The religious people were Jesus’ worst nightmare.

I am taking the first sabbatical I’ve ever had in 35 years of ministry. I had several mentors encourage me to do this, so that I can have the strongest final decade. Three months to disconnect. They tell me that it’s good for my soul, and for the church to work without me there. Then again, some people get fired, so we’ll see.

We need to look to Jesus. I know that sounds quaint, but how did he deal with a divided society? Talk about a polarized culture. What did Jesus do? He went to the marginalized while he yelled at the church leaders for being so polarizing. As soon as the church becomes about us and our ways, and we close our ears to the culture around us, we have failed. It has continued to happen throughout the past 2,000 years. Why can’t we provide healing and love to those people who don’t agree with our version of how society ought to live and look? Jesus did. We live in the same culture. It’s post-Christian, and we have to get over it.

For me, it’s the difference between the preaching of Peter to the “insiders” in Acts 2, and the preaching of Paul to the “outsiders” in Acts 17. Paul went in and started where they were, instead of expecting them to understand and believe his version of theology first.

I also had to realize that my perspective is flawed. It’s my perspective. I have never walked in someone else’s moccasins, no matter how much I wanted to try. I have to realize that my preaching and leading is skewed because of my own biases. I had that experience after a bout of racial tension in our country. I got up and paused my sermon and taught strongly about racial reconciliation. All of the other middle-age white people I asked thought I did a great job. When I asked one of our nonwhite staff about it, they told me I probably didn’t go far enough. I can’t not be me, I just need to realize that “me” is not “they.”

Twitter: @tlharlow
Website: ParkviewChurch.com
Founded: 1951
Denomination: Independent Christian
Locations: 3
Attendance: 9,488
Fastest-Growing: 59
Largest: 30

“To have an incredible culture the pastor must set the culture.”

Dean Herman, Senior Pastor
5 Point Church
Easley, South Carolina

I am convinced that a church’s culture creates an atmosphere of growth. It starts the moment visitors enter our parking lot. A first-time guest will be greeted and have their hand shook a dozen times before they even enter our worship service. We want everyone to know that 5 Point Church is serious about loving people. It has been said that we are overly friendly, but I’m OK with that. We would rather love people to Jesus than push them away.

As a guest walks into our lobby, the first thing they will see is a large “Welcome Home” painted on the wall. We have worked hard to create this culture, and I am so proud of our staff for pouring this into all of our volunteers.

In order for a church to grow you must have first-time guests. To have those guests, your people must invite. As the pastor, I am an inviting machine. I invite everything with breath to 5 Point, and I have stressed the importance of this with our people. Our biggest asset for growth is our people inviting their unchurched friends, family and coworkers.

I work with a lot of pastors with smaller churches, and it amazes me how many do not invite people to their own church, and then wonder why they aren’t growing. I am convinced that to have an incredible culture, the pastor must set the culture. I invite constantly and expect our staff and people to do the same. If you are part of a church to which you are embarrassed to invite people to, it might be time to find a different church.

Just a few years ago we bought and renovated an 80,000-square-foot building. We started with a 700-seat auditorium in August 2017. This past June we finished renovations that allow us to expand to 1,200 seats. During this year, we have averaged 500 more people every Sunday than the same Sunday in 2018. What is amazing about this is 5 Point Church is located in a city of only 25,000 people. I’m blown away at how the Spirit and presence of God is falling among our people.

After pastoring for 14 years and talking to or training other pastors, I am totally convinced that one of the biggest barriers for any church is if the pastor can handle the pain and suffering you must go through to take your church to the next level. The pain is real. The suffering is real, but it is expected. My pain in crossing our 2,000-attendance barrier was much tougher than when we hit 200.

Comparison will kill you. I remember comparing our church to others and wondering why we weren’t growing as fast as they were. I doubted my leadership style, my teaching style and even my pastoral calling. But after a lengthy fast and a lot of time with God, Colossians 3:3 came alive in me: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

My destiny was inside of me, and not to be found in just imitating other pastors. I began being the man of God that he created me to be. Once I felt comfortable in who I was and my leadership style, our church truly began to grow. It is hard for anyone to lead others when they don’t even know themselves.

I am constantly reading leadership books or listening to leadership podcasts. I like to talk leadership with other leaders. Also, I surround myself with people who are at a level I am trying to get to. I ask what they did or how they achieved success. I also love talking with people who think differently than me because it stretches me. Any leader who wants to go to another level and take their organization to another level must continually learn from others, regardless of their methods.

The church likes to make things incredibly difficult. It needs to get back to the basics of loving people regardless of where they are. At 5 Point Church, we don’t look at people for who they are but for who they can be. The majority of broken people walking into a church are not seeking an incredible message or the performance of a talented worship team. They are looking to be loved through their hurt. They do not need to be told how sinful they are and how much they need to change. They already know that, which is why they came to church in the first place. Churches are full of self-righteous religious people who just want to point out others’ sin. We need people who are radically in love with Jesus, hurting for broken people as Jesus hurt, with a desire to help them through their sin and not condemn them for it.

We allow any hurting or sinful person into our doors. In fact, we’ve had people leave us because they disagreed with some of the people we allowed in. That is called religion. We are not about that—we are about loving people to the cross. Often times Christians forget what being lost felt like. I know it seems simple, but the church must be the one thing that remains the foundation for our cities. Our foundation is built on loving people regardless of where they’ve been. Until we as a church are willing to love people like this, how can we expect to change our communities and our cities?

Twitter: @5PtDeanHerman
Website: 5Point.tv
Founded: 2004
Denomination: Southern Baptist
Locations: 1
Attendance: 2,352
Fastest-Growing: 21

“Seminary does not prepare you for reaching people far from God.”

Jonathan Herron, Founding Pastor
Life Church Michigan
Saginaw, Michigan

The old formulas don’t work any more. We’re losing ground in North America because we’re doing ministry out of memory, trying to fit in and please men. That was Peter’s problem in John 21:21—he thought ministry equaled uniformity. Instead we need more mavericks like John to simply listen to God and do what he says. At Life Church, we stopped doing Walter Cronkite-style of ministry and started Netflixing our discipleship process.

First-time guests are looking for a reason to not return to your church. People must feel environmentally secure before they become theologically aware. Laughter is universal: It breaks the ice, and it’s a wink to your audience that everyone in the room is on the same page. If you want to reach Gen Z, stop trying to enforce the rules and instead become an outpost of grace.

As our church has exploded in growth, our staff team has literally shrunk by 50% due to bad hires and sending out church planters. Goodbyes always hurt, so laughter and levity heal. Jesus did promise that leading a growing church will always get harder, not easier.

Do not believe the lie that you’ve arrived or are entitled. That’s the beginning of the downward spiral. Leaders are learners. You have got to keep your edge by remaining hungry, humble and willing to hustle.

Seminary does not prepare you for reaching people far from God; it only shows you how to exegete ancient languages (which is important!) and how to maintain a small group (which is antithetical to the Great Commission).

I’m always reading three books at a time. I’m always listening to podcasts in the car. Vacations are my favorite because I’ll research a church I want to visit and study.

Choose what your church will be known for and amplify that. Example: Protesting at abortion clinics does not work. You know what does work? Caring for single unwed mothers, throwing parties for foster care families, and practicing what you preach. Do you really believe in taking care of orphans? Prove it. We’ve adopted five times, and it’s awesome. If every Christian family in North America would adopt just one child, the world would have no more orphans.

Twitter: @HighFiveJon
Website: LifeChurchMichigan.com
Founded: 2013
Denomination: Nondenominational
Locations: 3
Attendance: 1,232
Fastest-Growing: 11

“Great leaders learn to receive criticism by seeking it out.”

John Hill, Senior Pastor
First Church
Wheatfield, Indiana

We use a book called Share Jesus Without Fear by William Fay and Linda Evans Shepherd. We have seen hundreds of people far from God give their lives to Christ and then lead their friends to Christ through this process. We also have people who give their lives to Christ text a number and subscribe to a specific set of follow-up texts so we can track their progress through our discipleship programs.

Some of the biggest God moments for us have been at our jail campus. We started it as an afterthought but have seen seven baptisms. The sheriff was skeptical but has since said the jail’s atmosphere has changed. We are helping the inmates line up jobs and are caring for their families while they are doing time. Instead of our community hating them, our church is leading the way with loving and rehabilitation. It was supposed to be a side thing, but it has become one of the most exciting parts of our ministry. The whole community is reminded that no one is perfect, everyone is welcome and we serve the God of second chances.

As we have grown it’s been really important for me to practice hearing criticism and looking for truth without getting defensive. It’s easy to surround myself with people who love me and tell me I’m awesome. But I think great leaders learn to receive criticism by seeking it. The more the church has grown, the harder I have to work to get the truth out of people about my spiritual weak points. It’s kind of a new spiritual discipline I’ve begun.

The best leaders build consensus. They bring different people together with dignity and grace by leading the way in humility. Jesus was right when he said he came to serve not to be served. That’s what being a great leader is. I always thought leading a big church would mean I “made it,” but now I think I need to up my humility and serving game.

My favorite question to ask people is “What was the most confusing, boring or difficult-to-follow part of my message?” A lot of times I won’t get honest answers, but when I do, it really is a big deal. I had an unchurched friend visit our church. I asked her my question, and she said, “The message was great, but you keep talking about God’s Word being so important. What is ‘God’s Word?’”

We have been focusing on the gospel. So much of conversation is now off limits, but everyone knows that we need deeper answers, and Jesus offers that. The political divide is healed only by the love of Jesus and repentance from sin.

Twitter: @JohnJuroHill
Website: First.church
Founded: 1893
Denomination: Reformed Churches in America
Locations: 1
Attendance: 1,258
Fastest-Growing: 70

“Politics and pundits aren’t going to save us. Jesus can. Let’s focus on him.”

Mark Johnston, Lead Pastor
The Journey
Newark, Delaware

The most helpful focuses in sustaining momentum for our church have been constantly going back to our critical measures of spiritual growth (when the numbers feel good and when they don’t) and nuancing those to see what’s really driving or not driving them. For example, beyond the number of sign-ups for groups, what is group participation like? How do group members break down by age and gender? What percentage of people in a group also serves? We also require a few staff to empower a lot of people, rather than hiring a bunch of staff to do ministry.

A guy on our facilities team described the literal redirecting of his family tree as a result of finding Jesus at our church. The ripple effect of the gospel is extending to family members he never thought would be open to faith. My staff needs me to show them what it looks like to chase after Jesus relentlessly, passionately, honestly and imperfectly. There are mountains that can’t be moved without Jesus intervening, people that can’t be reached without the Father directly drawing them, and spiritual formation that can’t take place without a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. But when God stretches out his hand…

This is a marathon, not a sprint. I am responsible to steward my time and gifts well but not in charge of the ultimate outcome.

I live like a professional. Professional athletes spend an inordinate amount of time working out; amateurs work out primarily when they feel motivated. I spend an inordinate amount of consistent, weekly time developing my leadership, when I need it and when it seems like I don’t.

Politics and pundits aren’t going to save us. Jesus can. Let’s focus on him.

Twitter: @Mark.Johnston
Website: YourJourney.tv
Founded: 2007
Denomination: Nondenominational
Locations: 1
Attendance: 2,127
Fastest-Growing: 15

“Faithfulness over a long period of time in the same direction is the best mode of operation.”

Josh King, Lead Pastor
Second Baptist Conway
Conway, Arkansas

Second Baptist has a focus on the next generation and on campus small groups. This combination is embodied in our new mantra of being a church of/for the 2NDFAM. We are constantly inviting people to “Make 2ND Baptist their 2NDFAM.” This means that people of every generation will find a group of people to connect with, from the oldest to youngest, college students and empty nesters. The campus small group approach provides a distinction between us and other similarly cultured churches and lays a strong foundation on which to build gospel-centered relationships.

We gave away a record offering week, and we are still at a record level of giving year to date. We have seen an increased impact and reach of our children’s ministry on and off our campus. One of the top things that we’ve seen God do is the path he made for us to redeem a 75,000-square-foot property. Since the beginning of the year we have been able to leverage that space for ministry and mission. We now have two churches thriving in it, as well as a handful of other ministries. They are able to lease the space for a small fraction of what it would cost to be in downtown, and our church is able to maintain the property to benefit all involved.

We have become obsessed with the culture of the staff and leadership. We have distilled our values into principles we seek to live out daily and weekly. By adopting a culture focus, we are concerned primarily with developing the kind of people (disciples) we feel called to make instead of only focusing on programs and systems. While we have spent a great deal of time on the programs and systems, our primary effort is leveraged toward culture.

This is a long ball game. There are very few decisions or transitions that will derail the entire thing. Christ established the church a long time ago, and faithfulness over a long period of time in the same direction is the best mode of operation. Practically this looks like me not getting concerned or fearful or upset so easily. You play the cards you are dealt with grace and compassion. We like to think that the next hire or the event or program will either make us or break us, but usually it will not. So, calm down, lead forward and stay faithful to Christ and Scripture. As my mentor says, it will all come out in the wash.

A few circles of friends spur me on and keep me on track. These constant conversations celebrate wins, call out silly and challenge me to think differently. As we all collect wisdom from books and leaders, we pass it on and apply it to each other’s context. It is a lifelong, doctorate-level cohort that focuses on my church and my leadership.

People don’t actually want to be divisive. I mean, in our sin nature we enjoy it at times, but we don’t like it all the time. People gravitate toward the ones and the groups that will speak truth in love. To shine light in dark corners and bring people together. Being attractive is attractive. I have found that simply stating what the truth is and allowing for disagreement and even difference in preference allows for everyone to feel a valid place and sense of belonging. We don’t hide from the differences—we embrace them and see the beauty in that stained glass we call the church.

Twitter: @JoWiki
Website: MySecond.family
Founded: 1922
Denomination: Southern Baptist
Locations: 1
Attendance: 1,025
Fastest-Growing: 69

“What you celebrate in your church is what gets repeated.”

Tom Lundeen, Senior Pastor
Riverside Church
Big Lake, Minnesota

This past year our growth was impacted by the start of our first multisite campus, where this past Easter 43 people accepted Jesus as their Lord. But primarily our growth comes because 15 years ago when God called me to this church, our prayer was for God to give this older, established church a grace awakening. This helped turn our church from being inward-focused to outward-focused and passionate about the mission of Jesus.

When people genuinely experience God’s grace, they want others to share that experience. We understand that most of the people in our church do not have the spiritual gift of an evangelist. We want to help them do the work of an evangelist by following the example of Andrew and Philip, who invited those close to them to “come and see” about Jesus with them. We encourage them to pray for lost people in their lives, share part of their story if the opportunity arises, and invite these people to come to a service with them. This engages the vast majority of our church in doing Jesus’ mission.

We are continually amazed that God uses us to help accomplish his mission when we are frail, faulty people with spiritually defective DNA. But then we remind ourselves that God only has imperfect people to work with.

Never underestimate the power of God’s Word through the working of the Holy Spirit. Recently I saw it in a new way as I sensed the Lord leading me to do a series on Proverbs 6. I didn’t sense huge enthusiasm for it from my team, and even I wasn’t sure just how impactful it would be. But after we wrapped up the series, we received some of the most significant feedback and response of any series I have done here. God’s Word is living and active, and his Spirit works powerfully in people’s lives and hearts and minds as we faithfully communicate his truth.

What you celebrate in your church is what gets repeated. Twenty years ago I started lighting a candle in our services for every person who shared that they had said yes to Jesus. This practice has become a constant source of celebration in our worship services whether there is one candle or 300—and it keeps the mission and passion of Jesus at the center of everything.

I am part of a great team that loves to learn. We have a culture of learning as much as we can from other churches, including designing our own “un-conferences” where we meet with other church leaders to glean whatever we can from them.

We haven’t had to navigate as much of the ethnic diversity as churches in a more urban context do. But we are seeing other aspects of our culture quite clearly (sexual issues and identity, racial issues and dealing with bigotry, socioeconomic challenges, etc.). We recognize that not everyone attending our church has the same political affiliations and that we are serving people of all political stripes. What binds us together is not the outcome of any election but Jesus Christ alone.

Twitter: @RiversideMN
Website: MyRiversideChurch.com
Founded: 1931
Denomination: Christian and Missionary Alliance
Locations: 2
Attendance: 1,795
Fastest-Growing: 93

“I don’t think ‘spiritual leadership’ is a phrase that helps us.”

Joby Martin, Lead Pastor
The Church of Eleven22
Jacksonville, Florida

We are very serious about the gospel. We consistently and clearly present the gospel, not just for the nonbeliever but also the impact of the gospel on the life of the believer. I think the seeker has changed in the last decade or so. If someone is going to take the time to come to church, they want you to simply be transparent about what you really want from them.

We have partnered with our people to see their friends and family come to Christ. For years, we have challenged our people to identify, pray for and invite their “one more.” We identify and publicize “one more” weekends where a gospel invitation will be given.

When our Sunday morning service times reach 80% capacity, we are not slow in offering new service times or new service locations.

The Church of Eleven22 is a movement for all people to discover and deepen a relationship with Jesus Christ. For us all means all. God led us this past year to expand what our reach to all people really meant. We started our fifth campus in Baker County Correctional Institution, where nearly 200 inmates attend one of our two weekly church services each week. We have seen over 100 of those men surrender their lives to the Lordship of Christ.

I don’t think “spiritual leadership” is a phrase that helps us. Leadership is about building teams that are equipped to accomplish goals. It’s primarily about doing. I think spirituality is primarily about being. Our spiritual life is primarily about abiding in Christ. The “goal” is Christ, not a task. I am learning that “spiritual” and “leadership” are parallel tracks, and neither can be neglected in the life of the pastor.

I’m really glad that when I started I didn’t know what I know now. If I would have known how much God was going to bless the ministry and church that I get to serve, I probably would’ve had a really hard time being patient and persevering in ministry.

To continue to be in a position of learning, I had to dismiss the myth of the magical mentor. I thought for a long time that I needed to be near one mature individual who was 10 years or so ahead of me and learn everything from that one person. Now, I seek a multitude of teachers from all walks of life.

The gospel is our only hope, and I believe that in this increasingly polarized culture the church is perfectly positioned to share the hope of Jesus. Imagine for a second, if the church were unified in this season of humanity. I promise, if we were, the entire world would be looking to us for the answer to this world’s problems. I know that we have a long way to go, but it will be the gospel that unifies us.

Twitter: @JobyMartin
Website: COE22.com
Founded: 2012
Denomination: Nondenominational
Locations: 5
Attendance: 10,146
Fastest-Growing: 74
Largest: 27

“We have to be satisfied with leading people into very small steps repeated over a long time.”

Josh Mauney, Pastor
NewSound Church
Wellington, Florida

We believe that the church is the only organization in the world that exists for its non-members, so we have worked incredibly hard on keeping our main focus people in our community that are near to us but still far from God. We invest a lot of resources in marketing, but that wouldn’t make a difference if we didn’t also invest a lot of energy in creating weekend services that lost people can understand.

God brought together quality people to launch our church. We had entire families move across states, many of whom were basically strangers. It’s been clear to us since Day 1 that God was speaking to people and that he was the one building this church.

We cannot control outcomes; we can only control output. We can’t make people take steps; we can only create paths. In a world that is consumed with instant gratification, we have to be satisfied with leading people into very small steps repeated over a long time.

People are not yours to hold, but yours to release. I spent too many years hurt by people that left or frustrated by people I couldn’t get to stay, but they were never mine to hold. It doesn’t mean that you don’t get to love well, it just means that you have to learn to release well.

I think the trick is remembering that the greatest hindrance to future success is previous success. To keep that motivation I don’t have to look further than my own house. As my wife and kids continue to grow, I can only lead them if I’m always moving the needle in my own life.

We have to quit pretending that the divisiveness in our culture isn’t there, so that means moving past the reluctance to have the conversations. The church must avoid the glaring narrative of our culture, which is more interested in enforcing what they stand against than what they stand for. There aren’t many things that can’t be solved with two people in two chairs in a room. Change can only happen when we stop hiding behind our keyboards and start looking each other in the eyes and having the hard conversations.

Twitter: @Joshua_Mauney
Website: NewSound.church
Founded: 2018
Denomination: Nondenominational
Locations: 1
Attendance: 1,039
Fastest-Growing: 9

“It takes 15 years to become an overnight success.”

Larry Osborne, Pastor
North Coast Church
Vista, California

I wish I had known that it takes 15 years to become an overnight success. I tended to judge ministry outcomes way too quickly. I almost always overestimated what we could do one year and greatly underestimated what God was doing over 10 years. Faithfulness has no shortcuts.

Twitter: @LarryOsborne
Website: NorthCoastChurch.com
Founded: 1978
Denomination: Evangelical Free
Locations: 6
Attendance: 12,521
Fastest-Growing: 95
Largest: 18

“People need to be clear where you are taking them and why.”

Steve Poe, Lead Pastor
Northview Church
Indianapolis, Indiana

Too often fear of failure keeps churches from taking the necessary steps to grow. They are so worried that people will be upset with them or might leave the church. But what we have found is that God wants us to be men and women of faith and to be bold with our strategies and not be afraid of failure even if it comes. I don’t mean we should be presumptuous or foolish with our actions, but we need to take bold steps to live out the Great Commission. One of our church values is that we will do anything short of sin to reach those who are far from God. And if we fail a few times in that process, that’s OK. It’s not about us but Christ, and he wants us to do everything we can to reach those who are far from him.

Our primary strategy for growth is around multisites, microsites and mergers. We are soon to be one church in 13 different locations. Four of those locations are actually in correctional facilities.

We were looking for both a permanent building for one of our portable campuses and an office to house our central staff. Unable to find either, we decided to build new office space and close the portable campus. A building we had wanted was tied up in a lawsuit and didn’t seem likely to ever be available. The very week we decided to close the portable campus, we got word that the lawsuit had settled. The lower level of the building was large enough for the campus, and the upstairs was exactly the size we were planning to build for our central team. This was a real “God thing.”

Clarity is the most valuable thing I have learned about spiritual leadership. People need to be clear where you are taking them and why. You can’t assume that just because you lead, they will follow. They need to know why they need to go there. I have found that to be true not just with your congregation but with your staff as well.

I have been in ministry for over 30 years, and it becomes easy to think you have already learned all there is to learn about leading a church, but I have found the more you learn, the more you realize you need to learn.

Serving the community is the best way to bridge the gap and tear down the walls that divide us. Once a year we have a Good Neighbor Weekend where we close the church doors and over 8,000 of us go out and serve our community. Serving is one of the best ways to love our neighbors. I often ask our people if Northview picked up and left town tomorrow would anyone notice. And if the answer is no, then we are not loving our neighbors like Jesus instructed us to do.

Twitter: @PastorStevePoe
Website: NorthviewChurch.us
Founded: 1980
Denomination: Nondenominational
Locations: 11
Attendance: 11,364
Fastest-Growing: 3
Largest: 20

“Don’t ignore your family for the applause of people.”

Robert Riedy, Senior Pastor
Church of the Open Door
York, Pennsylvania

Our church grew, in part, because we sought to pay attention to church health issues. In 2006, the church hadn’t grown for 30 years. We began to root out weeds and disease that were causing the church not to thrive. When the church got healthy again, it began to grow and has quadrupled in attendance since then. We also worked on making sure our staff and lay leaders were aligned, not just biblically, but also with our DNA and values.

Due to our growth, we were planning to relocate and invest in a new facility. When another church approached us to merge, we were challenged to think about multisite. It wasn’t on our radar at all, but God led us to start our East York Campus with 200 people. A few years later it has 550 worshipers.

If you’re going to be in spiritual leadership, there will be some pain. But if you are putting into place emotional and spiritual healthy practices, by God’s grace that pain will translate into growth.

The kudos of people means a lot and is appreciated, but you can’t live for or by them. Don’t dwell on them, be motivated by them or live for them. Don’t ignore your family for the applause of people. When you leave a church, your family goes with you.

Something that has really helped me is taking July off from preaching and administration to read, reflect, go on vacation, study and envision the future. I’ve been challenged by Peter Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Leadership to pursue emotional health by taking a weekly sabbath. I also take a day each month to get away and read, journal and reflect. These practices have helped me stay healthy and be committed to lifelong learning.

It’s very important that the church not take sides in the polarization of politics. We’re called to minister to liberals and conservatives alike. As a church we’ve sought to minister to the practical needs of our city through our #forYork initiatives. Personally, I’m involved in a group of pastors and police chiefs that meets regularly to listen to each other, support each other, learn from each other and speak to our community. It’s been a very healing endeavor.

Website: CODYork.org
Founded: 1951
Denomination: Nondenominational
Locations: 2
Attendance: 2,121
Fastest-Growing: 41

“We can love people whether we agree on life issues or not.”

Jeff Simons, Lead Pastor
Rolling Hills Community Church
Franklin, Tennessee

Since the beginning of Rolling Hills, we have made our Worship One Serve One initiative a priority. We encourage our partners (church members) to attend one worship service and volunteer during another. This has really empowered our church body and created a heart of service that people notice.

This past year I was blessed to see two guys in my weekly men’s Bible study come to know Christ. It was incredible to see not only their lives change but also the lives of their families and the impact on the church as they shared their stories.

It’s God who brings the harvest—we’re just called to be faithful. He’s the one who draws people to himself. Our call is to stay in the center of his will and he will grow and bless his church.

When I first started in ministry, I wish I had known how much joy there would be from seeing life change through Christ, and how it gets deeper and richer over the years. It’s all about God’s unfailing faithfulness and blessing.

Reading, podcasts and conferences are all great, but my personal time with the Lord is so essential every day to stay in tune with the Holy Spirit.

Twitter: @_JeffSimmons
Website: RollingHills.church
Founded: 2003
Denomination: Southern Baptist
Locations: 4
Attendance: 1,678
Fastest-Growing: 42

“We are a better church without my hands in everything.”

Vern Streeter, Lead Pastor
Harvest Church
Billings, Montana

We identified the things that produce growth (getting visitors to return, moving people into the next steps of belonging, serving and giving) and focused our intentional effort on effectiveness over efficiency. And then held our team accountable.

I have released some responsibilities and empowered the recipients, and they are doing a great job. I am more relaxed and focused. They are bearing much fruit. We are a better church without my hands in everything.

Sometimes the most spiritual thing I can do is release it, be a cheerleader and trust.

I wish I had known when I started ministry how many friends I’d lose being a pastor.

I am submitted to a small group of like-minded leaders who are working on our emotional and mental health. Whatever longevity I get will be sourced in vulnerability, support and healthy structure.

What should the church do about our current political climate? Bemoan the fact that politics is a driving maelstrom, and then relentlessly divert attention and focus to the beautiful kingdom of God.

Twitter: @VernStreeter
Website: HarvestChurch.tv
Founded: 2000
Denomination: Nondenominational
Locations: 1
Attendance: 1,824
Fastest-Growing: 34

“Culture changes while truth does not.”

Chris Stephens, Senior Pastor
Faith Promise Church
Knoxville, Tennessee

This last year, we took purposeful steps to emphasize a more intentional approach of apprenticeship. We did this through launching a beta model for leadership development that will hopefully materialize into a strategy that will “build our bench” and spread out ministry and personal care.

This movement is multiplying our span of care across all our campuses and ministries, and is creating greater buy-in across the board. As an added bonus, we are beginning to “close the back door,” addressing the issue of anonymous masses passing in and back out of the church without so much as an acknowledgement of the pain and problems they are facing.

For over three decades I’ve had a personal growth plan that includes many different areas in my spiritual and personal development, but in the last 10 years I added a word for the year. Typically, God reveals this word through my devotional time. The word always comes from an accompanying verse or passage of Scripture, and is something I pray through and over every single day for that year.

The challenge moving forward will be the same that there has always been when it comes to the church and culture. Culture changes while truth does not. Where the church can be a true agent of healing and change comes down to how we plan to introduce the grace and forgiveness and transformational truth to the culture.

We must take care to remember that our calling is first and foremost to mirror the King of kings and the Lord of lords—not the agendas of a political party, socio-economic ideology, denomination, or any other philosophy or organization of this world.

Twitter: @drchrisstephens
Website: FaithPromise.org
Founded: 1995
Denomination: Nondenominational
Locations: 8
Attendance: 6,132
Largest: 78

“Stop asking lost people to act like Christians.”

Steve Stroope, Co-Lead Pastor
Lake Pointe Church
Rockwall, Texas

Keep heating up the fires of relational evangelism. Keep asking, “Who are you praying for daily? With whom are you intentionally building relationships in order to share the love of Christ? With whom are you sharing your story, and did you bring someone with you today?”

I have come to value trust as an indispensable component of leadership. I wish I had understood the importance of small groups and of a strong elder board made up mostly of lay leaders when I first was getting started.

Stop asking lost people to act like Christians, and be willing to meet needs even if it doesn’t lead to conversions.

Twitter: @StroopeSteve @HowertonJosh
Website: LakePointe.org
Founded: 1979
Denomination: Southern Baptist
Locations: 9
Attendance: 12,377
Fastest-Growing: 84
Largest: 19

“I don’t know as much as a need to, but I can if I stay on my knees and open my ears.”

Mark Zweifel, Lead Pastor
True North Church
Fairbanks, Alaska

From a systems perspective, our evangelism and assimilation system are both robust. We call our evangelism system the Gospel Road System. It has what we call a strong attactional element (Come & See lanes) as well as missional/incarnational element (Go & Tell lanes). Our people are so good at bringing others to our church. We have a considerable visitor volume. From there, we follow-up and assimilate people to our church. We keep close to 25% of our visitors.

We hosted a coffee and doughnut break for our school district’s staff orientation day, and it was a huge win. We flew Krispy Kreme doughnuts in from Anchorage and blew the mind the entire district staff.

We started to livestream our Sunday services into three correctional facilities in our state. We are seeing people come to know Christ in powerful ways. At our local facility, our team has prayed the prayer of salvation with over 60 people since Easter this year.

I have learned that no matter how hard it is to take the high road, if you take the low road, you get muddy.

When I first started in ministry, I wished I would have understood systems better. I wished I would have known what metrics to focus on earlier.

I ask a lot of people a lot of questions. I take the posture of humility that says, “I don’t know as much as a need to, but I can if I stay on my knees and open my ears.”

Twitter: @markzweifel
Website: TrueNorthAK.org
Founded: 1944
Denomination: Assemblies of God
Locations: 3
Attendance: 1,530
Fastest-Growing: 16

“Leadership is the echo of your soul.”

J.J. Vasquez, Lead Pastor
Journey Church
Winter Park, Florida

From a human perspective, a major factor for our church’s growth has been an intentionality toward the shaping of our culture and the system we’ve put in place to develop and reinforce it. Culture, or the way a space feels, is largely determined by the way people are—for example, kind, sincere, passionate, helpful, etc. When our church’s attendance was at its lowest, the first thing I had to do was realize I was not who I wanted our church to be. Once I had a vision of who that was, I made the necessary changes to become that person. Once I became a model of our church’s culture (still working on it, to be honest), I created a system where I could spend intentional time with key leaders. Once those key leaders caught the Journey culture, then it was just a matter of time before it cascaded throughout our church.

In December of last year when we wondered if our church would ever reach more people, somehow Journey caught the attention of a statewide newspaper. The reporter was writing a story about how millennials were leaving structured religious institutions like the church. After attending one of our worship services, she was so impressed by the environment and the people (the culture), the story changed to how our church was an example of millennials engaging with their faith. The story ended up on the front page of the paper. We had a ton of first-time visitors after that, and the reporter and her family now attend our church. Only God could’ve done that.

Leadership is the echo of your soul. Who you are resonates. There is time to fix systems, fix strategies, build environments, but there’s no time for an unhealthy soul. When that is right, the rest will get right. When that is off, nothing will align.

You need a target and you need self-awareness. I’m not trying to grow a ton in the areas I’m not gifted in or called to. Once I identify those areas, then I am intentional about being around the resources and people who can help me grow. I listen to 7-10 sermons a week because I feel called to preach. I meet with someone monthly who’s ahead of me in the leadership journey and ask questions because I feel called to lead.

Jesus has never been more relevant. The gospel is divisive no doubt, but it’s also restorative. The more the church preaches and exalts Jesus, the more healing and change we will experience.

Twitter: @JJLVasquez
Website: JourneyORL.com
Founded: 2016
Denomination: Assemblies of God
Locations: 1
Attendance: 1,079
Fastest-Growing: 10

“I needed to be who God made me to be.”

Ron Vietti, Lead Pastor
Valley Bible Fellowship
Bakersfield, California

We have changed focus from getting people into the seats of the big sanctuary to bringing the message to people in their preferred comfort zone. We are doing this and growing. We have been asking ourselves some hard questions: Do we need to establish more neighborhood-style campuses? Make more of a community out of the online audience and take some seats out of the auditorium? It seems to be working.

I was speaking on a Sunday morning and was really tired. In my mind my sermon was horrible. I immediately went home and told God how sorry I was and that I would not let that happen again. I was just so sure that we would lose people. The next week the attendance was larger than ever. I felt God say, “I am building my house and there is nothing you can really do to mess it up as long as you are correctable.”

I have learned that a deep love and personal concern for every leader is what matters the most. If that is not present, everything else I do and say is just noise.

When I first started out, I wish someone would have told me to pray and study more, and to stop trying to emulate the pastors that I so much admired. I needed to be who God made me to be. The same Holy Spirit who was guiding them and anointing them would do the same for me, but using my own personality.

I read a lot because I need to know what the world is thinking as well as the church. I constantly challenge what I have been taught to make sure it is in sync with what the Bible actually teaches.

We must love one another before we can love the world. In order to do that, we must be willing to agree to disagree. The church has really been bad at that. I know it is so cliché and out of fashion to say, “Love the sinner and hate the sin.” But I think this statement has too much truth to be ignored. It needs to be a regained mind-set of the church.

Twitter: @RonVietti
Website: VBF.org
Founded: 1975
Denomination: Nondenominational
Locations: 8
Attendance: 11,089
Largest: 21

“Speak the truth in love.”

Douglas Walker, Senior Pastor
Fellowship of the Parks
Fort Worth, Texas

A clarified and expanded mission statement, which resulted in the launch of another campus plus the launch of both a marriage ministry and an orphan care initiative, has led to church growth.

The cumulative stories of life change in our church that we communicate every weekend inspire hope.

I’ve learned that perseverance through personal difficulty coupled with faith and risk equal growth.

I wish that when I first started in ministry I had had a tool like Culture Index to better understand, place and empower volunteers and staff in more effective roles.

To be a lifelong learner, I have conversations with leaders and mentors, ask good questions and allow myself to be vulnerable and honest in answering their questions.

Be apolitical, welcome and love everyone, and speak the truth in love.

Twitter: @FOTPchurch
Website: FOTP.church
Founded: 1993
Denomination: Nondenominational
Locations: 4
Attendance: 2,945
Fastest-Growing: 72