Are these things—large groups of people in big buildings with more money—inherently bad? Could they also be a sign the church is doing something right?
No, they aren’t [inherently bad]. In fact, the thing I frequently point out is that Pentecost resulted overnight in a megachurch. But then Paul scattered the church. Even before he was saved, he was a church planter. He was spreading the people of God on mission, against his will, really, through persecution. But that’s what God had to use to bust them up. So being big is no problem as long as you’re a sending church.
I hold to the Rick Warren theory that you’ve got elephants, tigers and rabbits, and each one does things the other can’t. That’s good. I don’t want to be misunderstood, but I do want to say that there are churches that exist to make themselves bigger and churches that exist to spread. Having a big church isn’t bad. But if you make more money, it’s so you can give more. If you have more people, it’s so you can send more out.
What has your own experience taught you about how God chooses leaders—and how leaders should raise up other leaders?
This is the thing I’ve learned most recently and is the most exciting to me. As a serial church planter, I used to identify ministry hopefuls as future leaders: the seminary grad, the guy who could preach well on a Sunday. But I got to Long Beach (California) and we sent out our first church-plant team, and then the second team went, and the third went. All my ministry hopefuls and best people had left three times. I thought I was out of people, and I was ready to leave the Long Beach plant. I needed people to hold down the fort.
But I was looking at leadership wrong. I was identifying people ahead of the curve and pouring into them. When we ran out of ministry hopefuls, I looked around and didn’t recognize these people as leaders. I felt the Lord whisper in my heart to pour into them, because I had no one else to pour into. So I did. They were chain-link-fence salesmen. My wife poured into stay-at-home moms. Now they’re the leadership team of that church—and no insult to the core team, but they’re the best leadership team that church has had, and I can’t believe I didn’t see the potential in them before.
My whole philosophy of leadership has changed. What I now believe isn’t that people are created ordained leaders that I, as a pastor, need to identify. I now believe leaders are just people who have been discipled well. That’s a game-changer. It means everybody has something in them that’s powerful, that just needs to be awakened.
These people would have never been developed in my church if we hadn’t run out of ministry hopefuls. I just wonder how many churches out there have this same exact thing, where there are people who are just powerhouses, gospel animals, God’s commandos—but they’ve never been poured in to.
Because mission is naturally messy, you’ve had some failures along the way. What have you learned about failure?
I’ve never been the guy who pretends to have all the answers. That’s one of the cool things about leading serial church plants: You don’t have to be the expert. In fact, in that environment, you allow for failure. Business people say this, too.
The theology of failure needs to be sanctified. The only failure is the guy who never tries. So even in Acts, Paul goes into towns and he preaches the gospel, and then it just says he moved on. You know what happened? Nothing. Paul was like, “I’m not staying here. This isn’t fertile soil.” I would imagine there were tons of places like that where Paul went, but nothing took. He didn’t see it as a failure. He just knew the parable of the sower. He had to eat some of the seeds.
We didn’t allow a fear of failure to stop us. We had fun and we prayed. Prayer is a confession, saying, “I don’t have all the answers.” For me as a leader, the number one message my people get from me is that I’m a knucklehead. If I can do this, they can do this, because it’s the same Holy Spirit. Who’s the guy who God used the most in the book of Acts? Peter, who was the biggest screw-up. He embodied grace. That’s who he was.
It can be scary to approach and build relationships with people who are different from you, or, as you’ve experienced, to go into dangerous neighborhoods to reach them. How have you overcome those fears?
This is what I’m trying to get at in the book. I’m not weird. You know how you meet people who do crazy things, and it’s because they’re kind of off? I’m normal. And I think that about Paul. I don’t think Paul liked people very much before he was saved, and I’m not sure he was crazy about them afterward. But he said the love of Christ compelled him, and he gave Jesus the credit for that love that was driving him. He still wasn’t a people-person. It was Jesus’ love pouring out through him.
I feel this way. I’m an introvert, and I don’t naturally like people. But my gifting has forced me to be an extrovert. And what’s weird is that I feel love for people come on me, because it’s so different. I relate to Paul so much because he was so human. This is hopefully the biggest message of the book. This is what I want to come through more than anything: I’m not different from anyone else. I can tell all these stories and have people think I’m some gospel legend, but I’m just not. I don’t want to give that impression. I don’t think it helps motivate or mobilize others.
I think it’s helpful to read the words of Paul where he says, “Pray for me brothers, that I may be given boldness to speak the gospel boldly as I should.” And he prays that at the end of almost every single epistle. That was Paul’s default. That wasn’t the exception for Paul, like, “Hey, I’ve been going through a rough time and have been out of action.” Paul was saying constantly, “Pray for me.”
It’s the same with Gideon, with David. All these guys needed a supernatural boldness and a faith they didn’t naturally possess. But stepping out in risk is the practice of faith. That’s why Eleanor Roosevelt told people to do one thing today that scares you. As I’m stepping out to do something scary, I’m putting myself in a position where I need faith. And if I’m not doing that, then I don’t need God.
Jessica Hanewinckel is an Outreach magazine contributing writer.