JONATHAN LEEMAN|6:00 AM CT
How Not to Grow a Healthy Church
How do you grow a church?
A couple of days ago I was speaking with a pastor who had a man in his congregation who wanted to plant a motorcyclists’ church. The idea was that all those leathered-up, Willie Nelson-looking dudes who roam the nation’s interstates like motorized buffalo are turned off by the chorus-singing, khaki-wearing assemblies. Some of these riders even call themselves Christians but prefer to “worship God on their bikes.” How do we reach those guys and their non-Christian counterparts? Answer: with a motorcyclists’ church. The pastor wanted to know how to respond.
My counsel: tell him that it will work. His motorcyclists’ church will attract motorcyclists.
I said more than that, but let’s start with why I said this much. Beauty attracts. Humor attracts. A hipster’s couture attracts. If you’re a motorcyclist, a line of low riders parked out front attracts. This is the way of the world. Madison Avenue gets it. Hollywood gets it. And for several decades now, church leaders have been getting it.
People have eyes, ears, and the desire to feel good about themselves. Figure out what bolsters their self-image or satisfies a felt need, and you have an easy recipe for drawing a crowd. For growing a church.
So point one: it will work. But another point followed: you will likely have a shallow and unhealthy church.
Yes, we must seek to understand our cultures in order to communicate well and remove barriers to the gospel. That’s biblical. But that’s not the same thing as relying on the power of niche marketing. A number of individuals will join for the motorcycle culture and stay for the motorcycle culture. Maybe they’ll get baptized and call themselves Christians. Maybe they will clean up their acts a bit. But it won’t have been the Spirit and the Word doing the work; it will have been the sociological powers of attraction. After several years their lives will begin to show it, and they’ll drift away. Only now they will be inoculated against the real gospel.
Others will really get saved. Praise God! But since they’ve been drawn in and kept through the power of culture, not through the power of Word and Spirit, their growth will remain stunted. Their lives, too, will soon show it.
Friends, am I just carping? I hope not. Please hear my heart. I look around evangelical America and see well-meaning people drift in and out of churches, attracted by one well-meaning church leader after another. They remind me of Paul’s words about spiritual infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. I trust you see this, too.
It doesn’t have to be like this. We could have healthy churches, churches filled with new converts and old saints, motorcyclists and motor-homers alike. These churches might not grow as quickly, but they will grow for the long-haul, like redwoods not rosebushes. Which would you prefer—a bush that blooms tomorrow and wilts the next day, or the majesty that rises skyward over a generation? Take your pick.
Just about every church leader and Christian I know would affirm the doctrine of the sufficiency of God’s Word. But this is an easy box to check in the morning and forget in the afternoon, particularly when you’re sitting in Tuesday’s church staff meeting making decisions about next Sunday. One of the legacies of Mark Dever in my life is the lesson that growing as both a Christian and as a pastor means growing continually in my understanding of the Bible’s sufficiency and power. Believing in this is a faith proposition that needs feeding and nurturing, just like a belief in God and the gospel.
This is especially important for church leaders, who are going to build their congregations on one thing or another. Your beliefs about the Bible are not a box to check. The faithful pastors whom many of us admire are the men who, over the years, grow and growand grow in knowing the Bible’s power.
Here were my concluding words for this pastor: Tell this man to plant his church, and tell him to be himself. Wear leather. Expose the tattoos. Park his hog in the space with the little “Pastor” sign. Whatever. But be excited about Jesus and his Word. Don’t stop talking about the Bible and the gospel. Grab the hand of everyone who walks through the door of your church, smile at them, and tell them how amazing Jesus is. Who cares what they’re wearing or how they drove there. Let them know that you would drive your bike into the lake if that’s what it took to hear what Jesus had to say. His words are that precious and powerful. Build your church on him and the power of his mighty words.