Bob Merritt: ‘Truth and Love Must Go Together’

“The day we give up the truth—and are afraid to speak the truth—is the day the church dies and society is lost forever.”

We asked pastors of some of the nation’s largest churches to reflect on the wisdom they’ve gained along their ministry journey. There’s a lot we can glean in the words that follow, regardless of the scope and circumstances of our own ministry.

Eagle Brook Church in Centerville, Minnesota

A lot of church leaders look for a “silver bullet” that will make their church grow. While a new program or special cause can stimulate growth, I don’t think that’s what sustains it year after year. For example, I know of a church that brings in three or four popular Christian bands each year, and they sell out for the concert, but then everyone goes home. That’s not growth—that’s a concert. Same with special speakers—drawing a crowd is not growth.

When it comes to growing a church year after year, nothing will ever trump great teaching. The music is important, the children’s ministry is critical, but nothing grows a church like consistent, great teaching. And online church has changed the landscape forever. Nobody can get away with mediocre teaching because people can just stay home and watch someone else online.

Far too many pastors don’t get that. They seem to want to do everything else but spend the required time to prepare a solid message. Great messages don’t write themselves and can’t be dreamed up on Friday afternoons. Today you have to have a team of researchers (could be your spouse and kids) and be willing to ask for input and feedback from other teaching pastors. Make teaching your top priority, do the work, and your church will grow.

Eighteen months ago we decided to do online church, but the $5 million price tag was daunting. We cast vision and then challenged our congregation to raise the money in six weeks. After week one, we were at $2.7 million and panic set in. Should we dip in to cash reserves or take out a loan? We had taken out loans before, but this time I said, “No, let’s fully trust God on this.” That week I received an email from a college student who said, “I can’t afford it, I have no money at all, but I’m pledging $200 to online church.” I knew then that we’d make it. By week six we exceeded our goal, and we began online church two months ago with 4,000 brand-new attendees from 18 different countries and 48 states.

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Sometimes spiritual leadership doesn’t seem so spiritual. I’ve been leading this church for 27 years, and for 27 years I have heard complaints about our music. I just wrote an email to our director of music this week and said, “Someone has to have the authority on this (decibels, mix, song choice) and that person is you. So, I will keep coming to you with these issues because we can’t do our mission if we don’t get this right. We have to be clear about our standards, hold people accountable to those standards and develop people until they get it right. Nothing drives me more crazy than knowing there’s a problem and not doing anything about it.”

That doesn’t sound very “spiritual,” but I think it’s a sin to invite people to church and “offend” them with music that’s too loud, shrill or unrehearsed. What I’ve learned about spiritual leadership is that it sometimes doesn’t seem very spiritual, but being clear and holding people accountable to standards is one of the most spiritual things you can do.

Success isn’t measured in how big you become but in how faithful you are. We never planned on being big. I personally never wanted to become big. I’m an introvert who avoids people and hates crowds. Bigness is a result of faithfulness—showing up to work, laboring over every sentence, treating people well, keeping your marriage strong and doing your best to use your spiritual gifts to the full.

I read voraciously, but that takes some humility. Last year I read two books by authors of whom I am not a huge fan—one is a pastor; the other is a consultant. I loved the books, and we’re doing a message series this fall based on their content. Humility is the key. You have to be willing to learn from anyone, even people you don’t like much—even 20-somethings who haven’t lived long enough to know anything.

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Jesus said, “Speak the truth; speak it in love.” Truth and love must go together. The day we give up the truth—and are afraid to speak the truth—is the day the church dies and society is lost forever. But the need to do that well has never been more important. A single, misplaced word can shut down an entire audience. That same word combined with the right words, context and tone can win the day and lead people to Christ. I frequently remind our teaching pastors before they hit the stage to speak, “Make sure you love the congregation today.” People aren’t opposed to hearing the truth, but they’ll never come back if we rail away on truth that’s void of love.

Read more candid conversations with Outreach 100 pastors »

Centerville, Minnesota
Twitter: @Bob_Merritt
Founded: 1949
Affiliation: Baptist—Converge Worldwide (BGC)
Locations: 6

Attendance: 22,480
Growth in 2016: +1,761 (8%)
Fastest-Growing: 54
Largest: 11