In 1974, I served as a student missionary to Japan. I lived with a Southern Baptist missionary couple in their home in Nagasaki. One day, while rummaging through the missionarys library, I picked up an old copy of HIS, a Christian student magazine published by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
As I thumbed through its pages, a picture of a fascinating older man with a goatee and sparkling eyes caught my attention. The articles subtitle said something like Why is this man dangerous?" As I sat there and read the article on Donald McGavran, I had no idea that it would dramatically impact the direction of my ministry as much as an earlier encounter with W.A. Criswell had.
The article described how McGavran, a missionary born in India, had spent his ministry studying what makes churches grow. His years of research ultimately led him to write The Bridges Of God in 1955 and a dozen more books on growing churches that are considered classics today.
Just as God used W.A. Criswell to sharpen the focus of my life mission from ministry in general to being a pastor, God used the writings of Donald McGavran to sharpen my focus from pastoring an already established church to planting the church that I would pastor. Like Paul declared in Romans 15:20, It has always been my ambition to preach the Gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone elses foundation.
McGavran brilliantly challenged the conventional wisdom of his day about what made churches grow. With a biblical basis and simply but passionate logic, McGavran pointed out that God wants his church to grow; he wants his lost sheep found!
The issues raised by McGavran seemed especially relevant to me as I observed the painfully slow growth of churches in Japan. I made a list of eight questions that I wanted to find the answers to:
How much of what churches do is really biblical?
How much of what we do is just cultural?
Why do some churches grow and others die on the vine?
What causes a growing church to stop growing, plateau, and then decline?
Are there common factors found in every growing church?
Are there principles that will work in every culture?
What are the barriers to growth?
What are the conventional myths about growing churches that arent true anymore (or never were)?
To design the right strategy you must ask the right questions
The day I read the McGavran article, I felt God direct me to invest the rest of my life discovering the principles - biblical, cultural, and leadership principles - that produce healthy, growing churches. It was the beginning of a life-long study.
In 1979, while finishing my final year at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, I decided to do an independent study of the 100 largest churches in the United States at that time. First, I had to identify these churches, which was no small task. I was working as a grader for Dr. Roy Fish, professor of evangelism at Southwestern. My study confirmed what I already knew from Criswells ministry: Healthy, large churches are led by pastors who have been there a long time. Others I found by searching through denominational annuals and Christian magazines.
I then wrote to each of these churches and asked a series of questions I had prepared. Although I discovered that large, growing churches differ widely in strategy, structure, and style there were some common denominators. I found dozens of examples. A long pastorate does not guarantee a church will grow, but changing pastors every few years guarantees a church wont grow.
Most healthy, large churches are led by a pastor who has been there a long time.
Can you imagine what the kids would be like in a family where they got a new daddy every two or three years? They would most likely have serious emotional problems. In the same way, the longevity of the leadership is a critical factor for the health and growth of a church family. Long pastorates make deep, trusting, and caring relationships possible. Without those kind of relationships, a pastor wont accomplish much of lasting value.
Churches that rotate pastors every few years will never experience consistent growth. I believe this is one reason for the decline of some denominations. By intentionally limiting the tenure of pastors in a local congregation, they create lame duck ministers. Few people want to follow a leader who isnt going to be around a year from now. The pastor may want to start all sorts of new projects, but the members will be reticent because they will be the ones having to live with the consequences long after the pastor has been moved to another church.
Knowing the importance of longevity in growing a healthy church I prayed, "Father, I'm willing to go any place in the world you want to send me. But I ask for the privilege of investing my entire life in just one location. I dont care where you put me, but Id like to stay wherever it is for the rest of my life."
Rick Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., one of America's largest and best-known churches. In addition, Rick is author of the New York Times bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life and The Purpose-Driven Church, which was named one of the 100 Christian books that changed the 20th Century. He is also founder of Pastors.com, a global Internet community for ministers. Copyright 2005 Pastors.com, Inc. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Adapted from Rick Warren's Ministry ToolBox, a free weekly e-newsletter for pastors and church leaders, available at Pastors.com.