Three Pillars of a Strong, Dynamic Ministry


When it comes to leading a strong ministry and building a healthy church, it takes more than solid theology or smart strategy. In fact, it takes a combination of those, plus the Spirit’s leading and empowerment. I think of these three as pillars of a dynamic ministry.

Every church needs to be led by a Pastor with a strong ecclesiology – a strong theology of church and mission. Out of our ecclesiology flows our mission, in fact. The mission doesn’t change. Jesus defined it in the Great Commission and has never revised it. How you see the story of the church unfolding in the New Testament should have a lot to do with how you lead the church today.

A Strong Ecclesiology

My ecclesiology encompasses the truth that Jesus founded the church Himself during His earthly ministry. It wasn’t “born” on Pentecost. It was born when the first apostles followed Jesus.

The church is local and visible. While I appreciate the Apostles’ Creed, I also fear that the point about believing in the holy catholic (universal) church has shifted our focus away from the local, visible body which is where the mission of Jesus gets organized in a visible, tangible, effective way.

The church will continue its mission, in the protection and power of Jesus, until He comes again. The church can’t and won’t fail. The gates of hell won’t prevail against it. While its easy to point out what’s wrong with the church, this core conviction motivates me to celebrate what’s going right with the church.

The New Testament presents a church that gathers and scatters. They meet in temple courts and from house to house. Sunday’s service matters. It’s a redemptive gathering of a covenant community to worship and to witness. Small groups matter just as much. Call them missional communities, house churches, or Sunday School classes, they matter as much as the gathering, but not to the exclusion of it.

The New Testament church is led by shepherds. I love the image of the flock under the care of its shepherds, who answer to the Great Shepherd Himself, Jesus. He is the head of the church. He has pre-eminence, and Pastors need the freedom to lead strongly while being accountable to the Chief Shepherd.

I could go on, but the way we build a healthy church, even if it is an organic movement of people gathering in a movie theater and in homes around the community, is determined by our biblical view of the church.

A Wise Strategy

One of my pet peeves is what happens when a church leader talks about a smart idea, a good strategy, or a sweet system. Inevitably, some critics line up to point out how “man-made” methods and marketing strategies and systems are evil and how leaders who develop them must have no strong theology at all. It never fails. Every time we publish an article on designed to help modern leaders face modern problems in their modern context, accusers show up in the comments to point out how Jesus, or the Spirit, or the Bible wasn’t mentioned even though the article is about strategy with an assumed strong theology undergirding it.

The fact is, I need to know about systems and strategies and I’m convinced that thousands of churches are stuck today with a really strong theology but no strategy for engaging the culture and making disciples. The fact is, you need healthy systems for accomplishing the timeless, biblical mission of making disciples. For example…

  • You know you should develop leaders, but what’s your leadership ladder?
  • You know you need to spread the word, but how are you equipping the saints to do so?
  • You know you need to challenge people to take a next step, but have you defined the next step?
  • You want everyone to catch the vision, but have you articulated it an understandable way?j

These are strategy questions, and there are plenty more where they came from. Don’t resort to juking leaders with a “just follow Jesus, just trust the Spirit, and just preach the word” response. You may mean well, but you’re crippling the church when you do so.

Be harmless as doves. But be wise as serpents too. Develop a strategy for accomplishing the mission.

The Power of God

Some churches have a strong theology and a good strategy, but are still stuck. Sometimes it’s because we’ve left out the third pillar of a strong, healthy ministry – the power of God. Having defined our theology and developed our strategy, it is still absolutely imperative that we go forward with an attitude of complete and utter dependence on the Spirit of God to bear fruit through us.

We can set the stage, arrange the chairs, and roll out the red carpet, but we cannot save people. This is a work of God.

And I’m not urging us to tack this onto the end. Just because I’ve listed it last doesn’t mean it’s least in importance. Leaning on the power of the Spirit of God is essential as we study the Scriptures and form our theology as well as when we’re creating the strategies to help us fulfill the mission in our present ministry context. His job, in fact, is to shed light on the teachings of Jesus as we study.

One of my favorite quotes comes from a guy who would likely disagree with most of what I write about, but I love his words. Shelton Smith said, “The difference between mediocrity and excellence is midnight oil, elbow grease, and the power of God.” THAT is so true.

If you want a strong, healthy, balanced ministry, find its definition in the New Testament, develop a strategy that works in your present context, and start and finish with trusting the Spirit of God’s empowering presence.

photo credit: Today is a good day

When the Church Is Working Right

Old PewsI believe that Jesus was the first church planter. I realize that most evangelicals refer to the Day of Pentecost as the “birthday of the church,” but the church was really born as Jesus began gathering His earliest disciples, and the plan and strategy for the church had been in existence for eternity already.

Jesus gathered a few guys with him at the beginning of His ministry and poured Himself into them. He would often address large throngs but would then retreat into quiet places to instruct the earliest leaders of the church. Then, before He ascended back to the Father’s side, Jesus commissioned His ragtag collection of disciples to carry the gospel everywhere and change the entire world.

We would have come up with a different plan, and our plan probably would have involved committees. We would hire experts and screen the applicants thoroughly so as to weed out any mediocre talent. But Jesus collected together a bunch of guys who didn’t make a lot of sense together and then told them, “I will build my church.”

I have what I believe to be a well-defined ecclesiology (theology of the church) that is rooted in the New Testament and connects with various movements throughout the last 20 centuries. Rather than identifying with Catholicism or the Magisterial Reformers, I tend to identify more with the Anabaptists, Waldenses, and other similar (often underground) groups. Essentially I believe…

  • Jesus started the church Himself. Peter and the apostles merely led it forward.
  • The emphasis in the New Testament is on the localvisible church and not the universal, invisible church.
  • The church is theocratic (not democratic) with Jesus as its Head and Pastors/Edlers/Bishops as its overseers and undershepherds.
  • Even in the darkest of ages, there have always been churches that were true to their biblical roots.
  • There will be churches that are true to their roots until Jesus comes again.
  • The church is an assembly of baptized believers in Jesus Christ.
  • The church must be faithful in its theology and fruitful in its ministry.

And like Bill Hybels, I believe…

The local church is the hope of the world.

There is nothing like the local church when it’s working right. Its beauty is indescribable. Its power is breathtaking. Its potential is unlimited. It comforts the grieving and heals the broken in the context of community. It builds bridges to seekers and offers truth to the confused. It provides resources for those in need and opens its arms to the forgotten, the downtrodden, the disillusioned. It breaks the chains of addictions, frees the oppressed, and offers belonging to the marginalized of this world. Whatever the capacity for human suffering, the church has a greater capacity for healing and wholeness.

Still to this day, the potential of the local church is almost more than I can grasp. No other organization on earth is like the church. Nothing even comes close.

Does the church have problems? Sure. It is, after all, made up of human beings who are made of flesh and blood, so all of the relationship problems that exist in the world as a result of sin find their way into the community of the church as well. But even as it struggles, it also effectively changes the world.

When Rick and Kay Warren were participating in a discussion among global leaders about how to help the AIDS crisis in Africa, Rick pointed out that while there were only three hospitals in Rwanda, there were 700 churches. If those churches could be mobilized for basic medical care, it would make a huge difference in a suffering population. He further pointed out that there are villages with no doctors, grocery stores, or electricity, but those villages have churches in them.

From a tiny seed in Jesus’ time, the church has grown to be an amazing living organism. It’s not a building, a denomination, or a mere religion. The church is a movement of God and I believe it’s imperative for every believer to be attending and serving through a thriving community of believers.

We value the local church at Grace Hills. In fact, we value every local church that teaches a biblical gospel and want them all to succeed, even when they’re right next door. We state this value like this…

The local church is the hope of the world, and the kingdom comes first, even before our own success. We will multiply as believers, as small groups, and as a church to fill the world with God’s glory.

We believe God has an intentional strategy for us to follow that involves multiplying at every level. We will share the gospel as believers, raise up new leaders within our small groups to start new small groups, invest heavily in church planting, and also start new services, venues, campuses, or whatever else it takes to reach people for Jesus. And while we’re at it, we’ll do whatever we can to resource other churches as we learn from our own successes and mistakes.

When the church is working right, there’s nothing else like it. It’s described as the bride of Christ. He loved the church and gave Himself for her. He defends her. He doesn’t take it lightly when people hurt or threaten her, from within or without. And He will come again to her rescue someday. In the meantime, He has commissioned her to share the gospel and the grace of God with all the world for God’s glory.

So get in. Get involved. And let’s get going!

photo credit: Robert Hafley

Everybody Belongs, Starting with You

Stained GlassEverybody belongs. When we say everybody, we mean every color, every shape, every personality, and people with every kind of story imaginable. Everyone belongs, even before they believe.

It’s sad that we have to expound on the word “everybody” to make sure people know that we mean everybody. This is the fourth core value of Grace Hills, and like the others, it is rooted both in our understanding of the biblical role of the church as well as our overarching passion for people whom Jesus loves.

Let me clarify my theology of the church by saying that it’s a word that refers to those who are called out from the culture to be an assembly of people who commonly identify with Jesus Christ and who celebrate baptism and communion together while fulfilling the Great Commission. In other words, in the technical definition of the word “church,” it refers to Christians. But…

The Christian Church is a family that is to be constantly adopting new family members. So everybody belongs under the care of, in relationship with, and under the influence of the church. The church should be that family that always has extra guests for Thanksgiving dinner.

Though it should be enough to say that everybody belongs without qualifying who everybody is, we’ve gone ahead and made it ultra-clear who can be under the care of our church family:

  • Every color. There is neither Jew nor Greek, in Christ. We want people from every ethnicity in our city represented in our church family. We don’t want people to sacrifice their culture, but rather to share it with us as we get to know and understand one another.
  • Every shape. Though we don’t actually mean this physically, it is true nonetheless – tall, short, thin, well-insulated – all shapes and sizes are welcome. But what we really mean is, people with different spiritual gifts, passions, abilities, and experiences.
  • Every personality. Happy-go-lucky people, grumpy people, and eccentric types are all welcome. We’re a pretty positive body of people, but we don’t require everyone to wear fake smiles and pretend to be someone else. You be you, and the real you belongs here!
  • People with every kind of story imaginable. Everybody has a story and a struggle. Some have been abused, others are addicted. Some have marriages that are falling apart or have been divorced once or thrice. Others have been addicted to drugs, alcohol, pornography, or promiscuity. We’ve heard it all. We won’t let your story shock us, but we will pray that God’s grace will shock you.

Everybody belongs. God formed you for His family and He wants you to come home to Him and do life under His care as part of a community of people who are coming to know Jesus and serving others for the glory of God.

You belong. Yes you!

Also check out our recent “You Belong” video, produced by Nathan Wilson:

A Biblical Ecclesiology for Church Planting

Peter Waldo
Statue of Peter Waldo, leader of the ancient Waldensians, at the Luther Memorial at Worms, Germany.

A casual observer of the modern church planting movement might conclude that we have a generation of leaders who are aggressively launching churches in the same way serial entrepreneurs start new businesses. With the right model, enough talent, and piles of cash, we can build a show sure to attract enough attenders to reach critical mass so that a large church is produced. But underlying any church planting movement blessed by a sovereign Creator must be a theology of the church rooted in an ever-deepening understanding of the Scriptures.

I’m a church planter because God has called me to be so, but it is my ecclesiology (my beliefs about the biblical nature of the church) that frames my vision and values. As time passes, I’m more and more convinced that in addition to a great prospectus, a leadership profile, and a thorough interview process, potential church planting candidates ought to also be able to articulate and defend their viewpoint on the definition and mission of the New Testament church. While studying various methodologies can answer the how? of church planting, it is our ecclesiology that answers the why?.

As of this writing, I’ve preached the first message in a new series of foundational studies for Grace Hills Church called Church On the Move. I’ve already had to face the difficult task of determining what not to teach as I race through the first eight chapters of the book of Acts. The Old Testament prepares the stage for the church. Jesus prepared people to lead it. The epistles flesh out the finer details of the church’s structure. But it is the book of Acts that records the story of the church’s initial expansion in the world.

From the whole of Scripture, but especially the portions of the New Testament that give special attention to the formation of the early church, I’ve come to some solid and somewhat unique conclusions about the church, as Jesus intended us to understand it. I’ve believed these things for quite some time, and while I was preparing our church’s bylaws, planting timeline, and missional strategy, I was filtering my methodology through this list of conclusions. For example…


Jesus Founded the Church

Evangelicalism takes for granted that the church was “born” on the day of Pentecost, but I think that position sells short the church planting work of Jesus, whom the New Testament declares plainly to be the Head of the church. Jesus called the apostles to follow Him and become fishers of men. He commended their baptism and instituted the Lord’s Supper with them. And He declared that He would build His church (Matthew 16:18).

The Church Is a Local, Visible Assembly of God’s Kingdom People

Hyper-dispensationalists will pick on this point, but I embrace a very simple understanding of the phrase “kingdom of God.” God’s kingdom is that realm over which He has given oversight to His Son, and it includes all who submit to Him as their ultimate authority. It includes people from every walk of life and many denominational backgrounds. But it is the church that He has chosen to bring about the kingdom’s expansion during this present age.

The New Testament gives very little, if any, attention to the concept of an “invisible” or “universal” church. Well over 100 times, the New Testament refers to the church in the context of a local, visible assembly of baptized believers. A church can have Pastors and Elders, organize itself for the spreading of the gospel, and gather together regularly for worship, all of which would be impractical, if not impossible, for a universal, invisible church.

All believers, regardless of affiliation or church membership, are fellow members of God’s family and fellow subjects of His Kingdom. But the church that carries out the work of missions is a local body, or the local body as an institution, representing all local bodies collectively.

The Church Has Been Commissioned and Empowered

Some variation of what we call “the great commission” can be found in each of the four gospels and the book of Acts. But it is in Acts that we see the context of its giving and the immediately following event of Pentecost. Jesus made it clear that the apostles were to be His witnesses in every part of the world, but they were also to wait for the promise of the Father – the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Scholars and teachers have debated hotly in the last century the meaning of the baptism of (or with) the Holy Spirit. Some seek a second experience of God’s grace beyond salvation. Others conclude that this baptism of the Holy Spirit occurs at the moment of salvation. My assessment of this issue is that the baptism with the Holy Spirit of which Jesus spoke in the first chapter of Acts was fulfilled days later, when Pentecost came.

I don’t seek a repeat of Pentecost today. Nor do I seek a separate experience of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Instead, I simply want to join the story that began nearly two thousand years ago when God poured out His Spirit on the church once and for all for this present age. Peter quoted Joel, who predicted that in this era, which he referred to as the “last days,” God would pour out His Spirit, and the events that unfold in Acts chapter two detail the fulfillment of his words.

He empowered the church that day, and that empowerment is still available for all who will join God in His redemptive purpose through the church.

True New Testament Churches Have Existed Since Jesus

Even in the darkest ages of what the world has called Christianity, in secret meeting houses and underground movements, there have always been churches that have held true to a New Testament ecclesiology. The Protestant Reformation was vital to church history, but not as the re-birth of a lost church. The Reformation merely accelerated and made public the beliefs and practices of Christians who had been reflecting a biblical theology under secrecy and persecution.

When I was a student at Western Kentucky University, I completed a research paper on the Waldensians, an underground group tucked away in the Swiss Alps for five centuries, unbeknownst to most of Christendom, but all the while honoring the pre-Reformation principles of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone. They promoted social justice centuries before it became cool to do so. And they are one of many similar groups that have carried the torch through the corridor of the church age.

The Church Will Last Until Jesus Comes

Don’t misunderstand. Your church and my church are never guaranteed perpetual survival. In fact, I would venture to say that countless millions of dollars in kingdom assets are currently tied up in dilapidated and unused structures belonging to congregations that should have given themselves a proper burial decades ago when they stopped caring about the lost and broken. No particular church is guaranteed eternal survival, as is evidenced in the churches mentioned by John in the Revelation, which for all intents and purposes have ceased to exist long ago.

But the church, as God’s ordained institution for kingdom expansion, will continue its life and ministry until He returns. After all, Jesus Himself declared that the very gates of hell should not prevail against it.

The Church Must Be Both Faithful and Fruitful

It is not biblical doctrine alone that serves as the criteria for true New Testament churchhood. It is also our practice. Charlton Heston was well known for saying of his old rifle, “you can pry this from my cold dead hands.” Plenty of churches can say the same about their doctrinal teachings. There is no life, no love, and no vitality in them, but they continue to shout the truth. But Jesus’ intention was that the church would be faithful to truth, and fruitful in its mission.

So the church, while holding dearly to biblical truth, must also be spiritually healthy and missionally vital to the surrounding culture. And a church that is all of these things will show itself mature when it has reproduced another local body of believers. Multiplication is not merely a growth strategy or modern buzz word. It is the biblical goal of the church Jesus founded.

You may not agree with all that I have written, but do take my challenge seriously. Before you plant or lead a congregation, define your own ecclesiology well, and let it drive you toward the fulfillment of God’s purposes. It is our theology that determines our motives and our methodology that determines our outcomes. Don’t embrace one to the neglect of the other.

Don’t read any of this as dry theological banter. Instead hear my heart: Jesus started, commissioned, and empowered the living organism of the local, New Testament Church as the sole custodian of His Kingdom work in this world, and we are guaranteed by a sovereign God to be successful!

What ecclesiological truths fuel your passion for this crazy thing called “church?”

[Update: Since writing this post, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Rick Warren’s talk at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in January of 2012 on the influence of Anabaptists on purpose driven ecclesiology is available in full in video. It’s good stuff!]

The Savior-Sensitive, Seeker-Sensitive Church

CrossIn 1975, Bill Hybels assumed the leadership of a fledgling church plant that would grow into the rather influential Willow Creek Community Church. Under Bill’s leadership, the church pioneered many concepts in the seeker-sensitive strain of worship and ministry. In 1997, Bill and his wife, Lynne, co-wrote Rediscovering Church, an inside look at how the church grew from 100 to 15,000 in weekend attendance.

In 1980, Rick and Kay Warren relocated to Orange County, California to launch Saddleback Church. In 1995, Rick released The Purpose Driven Church, which spelled out the purpose driven paradigm and philosophy of ministry, one of the most transferred church models in history. It also told the story of how Saddleback had grown from seven people to well over 10,000 in weekend attendance (as of the mid-1990’s).

Because both churches emerged as influential institutions in evangelicalism at about the same time, and because both churches publicly espoused what each called seeker-sensitive worship, both have often been lumped together as carbon copies of each other. Actually, there are dramatic differences between the models. Not long ago, the Reveal Study demonstrated that Willow Creek had struggled to produce lasting change in the lives of new believers. Bill is an excellent leader, so he and Willow Creek are adjusting the way they do church and I know God will continue to bless their turnaround, as He already is.

Because both church created widely followed methodologies, the seeker-sensitive approach to worship has been talked about plenty in the last twenty years. Saddleback no longer even uses the phrase, primarily because it’s been hi-jacked by leaders who expect nothing of believers and really do choose to water down the gospel and minimize the “all in” commitment required of every believer.

Having served on staff at Saddleback, I can tell you personally that being purpose driven is far less about a worship style than it is about having an intentional process for moving people forward toward spiritual maturity, ministry, and mission. There’s a great backstage video interview with Rick Warren in which he explains why Saddleback is concerned about moving people from “come and see” to “come and die” and you can watch it here.

In 1985, Paul Chappell became the Pastor of Lancaster Baptist Church in the high dessert of southern California. The church has experienced phenomenal growth over the years and has produced visible change in the lives of thousands of people and the surrounding culture. Pastor Paul and one of his associates, John Goetsch, co-authored a little book entitled The Savior Sensitive Church that offers a critique of the seeker-sensitive movement, at least as a whole. I’ve read it, a couple of times actually, and while I don’t agree with some of the specific convictions at which Drs. Chappell and Goetsch arrived, I do think it’s a great book with brief but powerful insights. (By the way, it’s important to read more than just the guys we agree with in totality or we’ll never challenge our assumptions or grow beyond our current experiences.)

It’s very easy for us to get the impression that there are two sides to the debate over how to do church. It would seem there is the seeker-sensitive angle, then the Savior-sensitive. Or there are those who are all about evangelism and growth to the neglect of biblical discipleship and then those who are all about discipleship to the degree that they become totally insensitive to seekers. In fact, I think it’s often easy for us, as leaders, to peg other leaders as one or the other and then begin to criticize according to our preconceived assumptions. Therein lies the problem.

I’ve read all three books. I’ve studied all three of these churches. And I’ve learned a great deal by watching the ministries of Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and Paul Chappell. I chuckle inside when someone asks me, “what do you think of (fill in the blank with some well-known Pastor)?” and I often reply with, “I’m a big fan, and here’s what I learn from him.” For some reason, we have the impression that if you learn from John MacArthur, you can’t possibly be fond of Rick Warren. Or if you learn from Rick, you can’t possibly be fond of John Piper. After all, these guys are… different!

When I was in Bible College, that’s how I thought. In fact, I still read and hear the discussions of young, eager seminarians who know far more than people with decades of experience doing the very same thing. Listen to a guy preach. Hear a catch phrase or three. Brand him as weak, strong, heretical, soft, worldly, etc. Then criticize everyone who listens to him. My mind is drawn to Paul’s rebuke of this kind of thinking in the Corinthian letters. He made it clear that God never intended for us to line up behind our favorite leader, such as Paul or Apollos, and create imaginary lines of demarcation between “our camp” and “their camp.”

Instead, I’ve come to some conclusions. Regarding the leaders I’ve already mentioned, you need to learn from Rick Warren about leadership and about creating an intentional process for discipling people. You need to learn from Bill Hybels how to be authentic and authoritative from a depth of personal character. You need to learn from Paul Chappell the importance of standing by your convictions and preaching truth without apology.

You also need to learn from John MacArthur to stay in the study longer to feed people from the depth of God’s Word. You need to learn from Chuck Swindoll about communicating with humor and grace the gospel of Jesus. You need to learn from Al Mohler how to silence skeptics, from Jack Hyles and John R. Rice about being constantly conscious of lost souls around you, and from W. A. Criswell about having a passionate, unwavering commitment to the full counsel of God, from Andy Stanley about systems, and from Craig Groeschel about communication in a technological age.

You need to hear the passion of Chrysostom and Athanasius about standing against heresy. Adrian Rogers can teach you about packaging God’s Word in a relatable, understandable way. Charles Spurgeon will teach you about unction. John Wesley and George Whitefield will fire you up to get on a horse and go to the furthest hamlet to thunder forth the gospel.

Some of these guys are Calvinists, others Arminian and some Wesleyans (particularly that Wesley guy). Some have been revolutionary, others have gone practically to their graves defending truth. Learn from them. Repent of the arrogance you have about your camp, and open your ears.

With all of that said, let me return to my original discussion. My hope and desire, as we plant Grace Hills Church, is to be both Savior-sensitive and seeker-sensitive (though I don’t like the latter phrase anymore either because of its misuse). We need to be Christ-centered in our theology as well as our methodology. We need to walk in wisdom toward those that are without (those would be seekers). We should start with the cross, identify with the needs of lost people, and develop people into fully devoted followers of Christ.

Not all debate is bad. It can yield good self-evaluation and out of the dialog can come healthy change. But debate isn’t the priority Jesus gave to the church just before He ascended to heaven. Making disciples of everyone on the planet is. So let’s get started.

Photo by Matt Gruber.