How to Guarantee Sustainable Congregational Growth

By: Rev. Ed Schneider, M.P.Th.

In the third chapter of Colossians it encourages the reader to approach life, in general, and the Christian journey, in particular, with intentional fervor, zeal, and enthusiasm.  In the context of any local church’s numeric, spiritual, financial and congregational growth there is an undeniable truth; There is no such thing as sustainability in strategic congregational growth….no matter the context…without the foundational understanding and commitment to the inseparable gospel requirement of an EQUAL PARTNERSHIP of evangelistic fervor AND an environment that fosters an expectation of empowered discipleship.

23 Do your work willingly, as though you were serving the Lord himself, and not just your earthly master. 24 In fact, the Lord Christ is the one you are really serving, and you know that he will reward you.     Colossians 3:23-24 (CEV)

When I was young boy being taught and loved through my early Christian life I attended two churches on a regular basis; Sutter Avenue Presbyterian Church (all white) and Olivet Missionary Baptist Church (all African American, but me), both located in St. Louis, Missouri. At the Presbyterian Church I heard and was taught how essential it was to my Christian journey to commit to and learn the values and skills of how to follow the life examples of Jesus.  At the Baptist church I heard and experienced an evangelistic fervor so profound, so powerful, so inspirational, even as a pre-teen I found myself so moved by the passion for an empowering God it still feeds me personally today.  Neither congregational priorities were wrong.  Both were incredibly right!  Both churches were loving and supportive. Both church produced highly effective community leaders, Christian educators and future ministers of the Gospel.  However, both churches have had segments of their histories where there were tangible, if not dramatic, lulls in both general membership and weekly attendance.

Why?  Because both congregations did not share an EQUAL PARTNERSHIP of both passionate evangelism and intentional commitments to building the practical environment of discipleship.  The truth is, both churches AND THEIR PASTORS spoke to the “other side” of the required Gospel partnership. As I look back at both experiences it was painfully obvious where each pastor/preacher’s preparation for ministerial service, personal passion, and previous pastoral successes led them.  Like most things of highly effective pastoral leadership, it is about finding the right balance in a rather long list of responsibilities to touch, influence, guide, guard and implement in the life of any congregation.

22 So let’s come near God with pure hearts and a confidence that comes from having faith. Let’s keep our hearts pure, our consciences free from evil, and our bodies washed with clean water. 23 We must hold tightly to the hope that we say is ours. After all, we can trust the one who made the agreement with us. 24 We should keep on encouraging each other to be thoughtful and to do helpful things.   (Hebrews 10:22-24)  (CEV)

Congregations all across the vast expanse of Christian expression have unfortunately discovered a “falling away” of growth, weekly attendance, passionate commitment for the work of Christ, and the overtly unstoppable joy of sharing the gospel message of a life giving and transformative God THROUGH Jesus Christ.  The nonsense being spread from both inside and outside the local church that our society has entered into a POST-CHRISTIAN ERA is ludicrous!  The truth is Christians and their leaders have fallen into trap of spiritual laziness of trying to live their Christian journey in their comfort.  This attitude becomes a failing and deadly recipe that becomes counter-productive in the goal of prompting both the growth and sustainability of healthy Christianity.  We need to stop hiding from this self-evident reality!

It’s not EITHER-OR…’s BOTH.  Passionate evangelism AND building an environment of intentional discipleship ALWAYS represents both growth and sustainability.  

cropped-20140605-173103-630633091.jpgHearing and receiving the message of an empowering and transformative God Almighty through the life and mission of a salvational Jesus Christ is the entry-point of our shared journey of faith.  Celebrating that awakening of heart, mind, soul and perpetually growing in each believer’s personal connection to the God that called, saved and transformed their lives are the next steps. This of course is the general description of the DISCIPLESHIP PROCESS.

Let’s review.

  1. First, God calls out to the individual to prompt their willingness to hear, to understand what they couldn’t hear or understand before.
  2. Second, the message of a real, authentic and salvational God becomes dramatically clear and undeniable.
  3. After this an individual receives the Divine gift of gracious understanding regarding who Jesus is within the “plan of God.” With this new and life-altering understanding Jesus becomes for the believer an absolutely essential and profound connection to the Creator of all that is known and unknown.
  4. Fourth, an overwhelming sense of humility and personal transformation, from what “was” to what “could be” as the Christian journey begins to awaken itself.
  5. Finally, there follows a surrendering of sorts to the believer’s “selfish nature” while they learn and move toward a life devoted to living and demonstrating the “ways of Christ” to the world around us.

This is how the Evangelistic and Discipleship Process generally unfolds.  It is perfectly normal that as these stages of awakening and development take place they prompt and encourage the believer into……AN THIS IS INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT….an intentional replicating stage.

In other words, ALL EVANGELISM leads to healthy and replicating DISCIPLESHIP….which then leads to personal and missional outreach of evangelistic endeavors to those around us.  This kind of practical evangelism can be seen and felt, whether that be our households, families, communities, or the greater community of UNBELIEVERS we may interact with.  Any evangelism that helps in the awakening of a new soul for Cause of Christ that DOES NOT PRODUCE replicating discipleship has unfortunately failed as it relates to its potential fullness of missional outreach.  For those congregations who have been declining for decades and have “awakened” to the fear that they are quickly approaching closure they can simply look back and discover that the above generic congregational spiritual health has not happened. It is both simple to deduce and to remedy.

teamwork-six-elements3For those wanting to plant a sustainable church it is ABOSULTELY ESSENTIAL that this environmental partnership be installed and cherished from the very beginning of the planting process.  Without an understanding of this church-growth foundation a church plant is highly unlikely to succeed at sustainability and multigenerational growth.

ALL EFFECTIVE DISCIPLESHIP at some point in EACH BELIEVER will reproduce basic evangelism expressed to other searching souls.  If someone feels awkward for any reason sharing the All-Powerful, Completely Loving, and Radically Transforming God who created all that is known and unknown….THROUGH THE LIFE AND MISSION OF JESUS CHRIST….then we can easily discern there has been a dramatic failure in the discipleship process. I can absolutely guarantee this undeniable reality!

In the Gospel of Mark (3:14) we read that Jesus CALLED….he, NOT US….initiated the choice in the believer and then this same Christ prompted our “earthly hearts” to unite with Him in a eternal quest of both personal discovery and outward expressions of God’s love and transformative power to the those they come in contact with. Mark 3:14 says:

“he (Jesus) appointed twelve; SO THAT they might be WITH HIM and that he could SEND THEM out to preach” 

Most of you know by this time I don’t parse Greek in an attempt to impress.  It is far more important to dive into the deeper meaning of what the Bible means rather than what it says. However, on this occasion I think it is necessary to share with you a little Greek word, “poieo.” (ποιέω)  This “poieo” is the word that has been translated as APPOINTED.  In this context the word “poieo” is definitely an ACTION WORD.  It is telling the reader TO DO or to MAKE SOMETHING HAPPEN.

Why is that important?

What Mark 3:14 is shouting to us is that Jesus MADE is twelve disciples. While he was still on this earth his personal, inspirational and practical relationship with those original twelve were strategically designed and implemented to PRODUCE committed “learners” in the “ways of God” and obligation of reproducing others in the faith of a transformative God Almighty.  Jesus COMMITTED HIMSELF to “producing” REPLICATING disciples, who in turn, would evangelize through the Gospel AND THEN foster the producing of both men and women who become replicating disciples themselves. (For a quick video on the right attitude when mentoring new leaders follow this link )

Watch out….I’m about to touch a sensitive nerve to some.

Both preachers and pew sitters alike have a very bad habit of making excuses for those who are not gifted with an evangelistic gift or who don’t “aggressively” commit to a personal journey of faith discovery.

Is every individual going to morph supernaturally into a Billy Graham or Jeremiah Wright? Of course, not!  However, to think that each authentic believer is void of both the responsibility of sharing the saving message of Jesus Christ as well as personally growing in the ways of Jesus is ridiculous. Every believer is both CALLED and APPOINTED by God….through Christ….to receive, share and empower others in the reality of the faith they claim.  By pure logic, if any believer is remotely walking down this journey of Christian discovery THEY WILL PRODUCE FRUIT.  At some level sustainable reproduction is always the end product of this walk of faith…..ALWAYS!

If you personally or the local church you are connected to is not growing at some sustainable level then logically it is reasonable to assume there is tangible evidence of either a failed mission or a complete lack of honesty regarding the authenticity of Christian faith.

Wow! That was harsh, wasn’t it?  Well, sometimes good preaching and teaching is intentionally uncomfortable. 

Preachers/pastors who just want to preach the GOOD NEWS and then practically refuse to commit the energy to help produce an environment that promotes “healthy” discipleship are, at best, lazy, and at worst….outwardly failing the GREAT COMMISSION.  (For more information on the GREAT COMMISSION follow this link The Great Commission is a Command, NOT an Option )

For those NON-clergy teachers, leaders or general members of any local congregation who somehow have come to the mistaken conclusion that IT IS THE PASTOR’S JOB to be the main agent of evangelism and the discipleship process…..STOP IT!!!!  The bible clearly says, “We are a priesthood of believers.”  All of us….from the pulpit to the back pew are equal partners in the evangelistic call and the process of helping to PRODUCE replicating disciples FOR the call of God THROUGH JESUS CHRIST.

Let me take the heat off for a moment. 

I want all of you to remember that every one of those original twelve failed Christ on more than one occasion. They were not perfect people.  Jesus was willing and able to “feed into them.” Plus….

  • He didn’t leave the process to others.
  • He took primary responsibility.  He was willing and able to accept their faults and failures and still “invest” into their discipleship.
  • He trusted the transformative process of God Almighty.
  • He loved and cared and taught and demonstrated the ways of God to them while constantly “feeding” and “investing” into their future service to the kingdom He represented…..and
  • There is no doubt Jesus held His disciples accountable for the purpose of their gaining understanding and excellence.

lion-2The important thing to remember is that once each of the twelve answered THE CALL OF GOD, TO CHRIST….Jesus became completely committed to turning them….including their faults and failures….into replicating disciples.  It was only AFTER his death and resurrection did those original twelve disciples TURN INTO apostles.  It was AFTER Jesus invested and fed into their lives that they were enabled to understand the miraculous nature of his resurrection. It was because of this “divine feeding” that these once cowards, liars, ill-tempered, and frustrating “disciples” supernaturally transformed into apostolic “roaring lions” and “agents of love.”

If you want to resurrect your local church, if you desire to grow an existing ministry, if you believe you are called to start a new church….do not forget this lesson of the divine partnership and essential foundation of our Christian experience.  It will reap great results while we are serving the Cause of Christ.




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