The problem with common sense is that it’s not quite as common as it used to be. This is particularly true in the area of church growth and evangelism. Most pastors understandably and appropriately want their churches to grow. Despite the pushback that evangelism gets these days for being a “numbers game,” there is no dispute that Christ calls us to be both faithful and fruitful. But the pursuit of the next best thing in the church growth area can be amusing.
I walked into my home library one Sunday looking for a particular book and I almost laughed at the number of church growth books that offered the “real answer” to our church growth challenges:
- The Turnaround Church
- The Breakout Church
- The Monday Morning Church
- The Word and Power Church
- The Disciple Making Church
- The Organic Church
- The Church That Works
- The Missional Church
- The Sticky Church (Really?)
And those were just the books that I saw on one shelf in my home library! My real library is at the university where I can wade through another ton of guaranteed solutions like: The U Turn Church, The Un-Church, and my all time favorite title, Simple Church—two words that were never meant to go together!!!
Now I have an explanation. I’m a practical theologian by profession, and church growth is my specialty area (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it). Consequently, as a pastor, and now a trainer of pastors, I constantly find myself under a barrage of books that promise to answer all evangelism and church growth problems in a few simple steps. Don’t believe it. Think diet books. They all promise a miracle. They all rarely work. They all have the same thing in common. If you exercise regularly, eat moderately and get plenty of rest—they work. What a surprise! Another victory for common sense.
Since 2012, Forbes Magazine and other media outlets have noted that the Adventist Church is the fastest growing church in America. A 2.5% growth rate is nothing to write home about, but it’s clear that we are not the only group that’s struggling to expand the kingdom. A number of reasons were cited to explain the growth. Our emphasis on health and simple living were cited, of course. But USA Today noted that one obvious reason was that a significant percentage of Adventist churches conducted revivals, reaping meetings or evangelistic campaigns during the calendar year. Now that’s a thought. If you want to have a successful evangelistic campaign, you must conduct a campaign! Common Sense.
I am convinced that much of what we need to know about church growth can be observed by a 3rd grader working in a garden. Paul puts it this way in Galatians 6:7, we reap what we sow. Many televangelists have turned this text into a recipe for disaster, but it is a principle of life, and certainly a principle of church growth and evangelism. Jesus spoke about the growth of the kingdom in organic, agricultural terms. It you don’t put anything in the ground, don’t expect anything from the ground. Common sense. If there has been no real pre-work for the meeting, it will be a miracle if anything happens at the meeting. Common sense.
In other words, evangelism is a process that assumes that we will cultivate relationships, plant seeds of truth into those relationships, and then look for the harvest from those relationships. There are a number of programs and plans you can use. In fact, practically any legitimate church growth program will work—if you work it. But that’s a blog for another day. Let’s look at 3 common sense keys to church growth.
1. If it Ain’t Broke—Don’t Fix It!
Evangelism, like so many other ministries, can tend to follow the fad. At times we seem to prefer the novel approach to the proven approach. If there is an approach to evangelism that is working for you, then work it. Don’t change what you are doing just because someone commented that it wasn’t contemporary.
Each pastor is made up of a unique blend of gifts, temperaments, and talents. We are all different. Our backgrounds and tastes are different. Our styles and strategies are different. When you find an evangelism strategy that works for you, there’s probably a reason for it. It flows. It fits. And when you are comfortable, it makes others comfortable. People can sense when you are ministering in another man’s armor.
Many traditional approaches to evangelism have been condemned to the trash heap. Tent evangelism and Revelation seminars, for example, are two approaches that have been criticized for being dated and ineffective. I must admit, I still have reoccurring nightmares of my early tent meetings. My tents blew down so often that storm clouds still make me break out in a cold sweat!
But in certain areas, tent evangelism works to this day. I still remember driving up Interstate 40 into Louisville, Kentucky and seeing a gigantic tent evangelistic meeting. The cars were everywhere! I was so amazed I stopped in myself. Whether it’s novelty or nostalgia, if it works and it works for you—then work it. The same applies for Revelation Seminars. Some pastors have a natural teaching gift that’s tailor made for that classroom approach. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
2. If it Ain’t Broke—It Will Be!
There is one thing that won’t take any pastor long to learn. Few approaches to ministry or evangelism work forever. Attention spans are short. Interest levels are even shorter. Many a pastor has left the pulpit dejected because the sermon that worked on the road fell flat at home. Many an evangelist has left a campaign scratching his head because the series that baptized 50 in one place, only baptized 5 in another. There are a host of possible reasons for the difference, but this one thing is true: You have to be flexible and skilled enough to use multiple ministry and evangelistic approaches.
Ellen White is helpful here:
“God wants us all to have common sense, and he wants us to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relation to things.”[i]
Good stuff. Sharpen your skills. Add enough to your evangelistic and ministry toolbox to pull out another tool when the one you’re using isn’t working. Because what works extremely well this year might not work at all next year. It’s one of the reasons that I have been encouraging leaders to take responsibility for their professional growth. Too many leaders are at an absolute loss when things begin to stall or break down in their ministries. It might very well be that the principles and programs that you learn at a conference this year might save your ministry next year.
3. If it Ain’t Broke—Bend It.
I’m not a fan of soccer. No offense to the fans of the “beautiful game” but I prefer my football with shoulder pads. But like most Americans, I jumped on the World Cup bandwagon. I was impressed with Germany and even more interested when I read about their journey to the championship.
It seems that for decades the German national team was a force, but they experienced one heartbreaking loss after another in big matches. They were a model of efficiency, but couldn’t quite seem to get over the hump. In June of 2004, after another disappointing loss in the European championship, the Germans made a major change that paved the way to their 2014 World Cup Championship victory. They revamped their program and prioritized the recruitment and development of young players. The youth movement revolutionized German soccer and the future seems bright for years to come.
The team went from good to great. They did it by making adjustments to a system that was already working but needed to work better. A wise leader knows how to make adjustments, to “bend” even the best system to keep it fresh for the future. Some of our evangelistic methods don’t need to be discarded they just need to be adjusted.
A great example is Dr. Carlton Byrd, the pastor of the Oakwood University Church and director of Breath of Life television ministry. He is one the most productive evangelists in the church but I call him the best of “old school.” His meetings are a throwback to the best of traditional evangelism. From his legion of Bible workers, to his quiz cards, to his sermon titles, if you closed your eyes you might think you traveled back to an E. E. Cleveland campaign. However, his media, music, and marketing are as contemporary as the evening news.
And again Ellen White reminds us, “Men are needed who pray to God for wisdom, and who, under the guidance of God, can put new life into the old methods of labor and can invent new plans and new methods of awakening the interest of church members and reaching the men and women of the world.”[ii]
Here’s to common sense and growing churches.
[i] Selected Messages Book 3, p.217.
[ii] Evangelism, p.105.