Pastor With 9,000-Member Congregation Says Churches Should Stop Focusing on Numbers

Megachurch Pastor J.D. Greear Explains How Churches Can 'Gain' by 'Losing' Their Members in New Book

J.D. Greear, lead pastor of Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, has been noted for taking a 300-member church and growing the congregation to more than 9,000, making it one of the 100 fastest-growing churches in the U.S. So perhaps Greear can afford to say that pastors should stop their obsession with "gathering and counting" and instead get excited about the possible impact of "raising up and sending out" their members.

2 photosJ.D. Greear, lead pastor of the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

But what the North Carolina pastor suggests is not exactly revolutionary, as he points to the nearly 2,000-year-old command of Jesus for his believers to "go and make disciples of all nations," the basis of what Christians call the Great Commission, found in Matthew 28:16-20.

Another passage Greear points to is John 14:12.

"One of Jesus' promises, He said that greater works would we do than even He did. Think about that? How can any one person do a work that is greater than Jesus' work? He didn't mean that we would preach greater sermons, that we would pray with greater insight, or see greater miracles," Greear said in an interview with The Christian Post.

"What He meant was when the Spirit of God was distributed on all the members of the Body of Christ, the collective impact of that they had in the world would be greater than if the Spirit stayed centralized on just one person, even [if] that one person was Jesus Himself. So he says when I send the Spirit onto the whole Church, it will be greater."

But Greear did not always see things that way. The Southern Baptist leader and former Middle East missionary reveals in his latest book, Gaining By Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches that Send, that God had to challenge him personally before he saw the light.

That challenge came a few years after Greear started leading Summit Church in 2002. His primary focus at the time, perhaps like many other pastors, was to put more people in the pews.

"The church I pastor did not start out as a sending church. During my first years there, my focus was entirely on growing the church. I sincerely wanted to reach people for Jesus, but I was also pretty interested in making a big name for myself," Greear confesses in Gaining By Losing.

"So I wanted a great big church. And I was pretty sure God was into that, too, because it seemed like a win-win for both of us," Greear confesses in the book.

He also writes of his prayer for God to send a "massive revival" to his city.

Would it be OK if the spiritual revival came about through the work of another local church? — is what Greear said he felt like was the response.

"I knew the answer was supposed to be 'Yes, Lord, You must increase but I must decrease. I knew that was the right answer. But that wasn't the real answer. The real answer is 'No, I'm not OK with that because I want our church to grow,'" Greear told CP.

"I realized that a lot of times [when] I'd made the statement 'thy Kingdom come' it really had the undertones of 'my kingdom come.' I had to go to our church and basically repent and say, 'I'm sorry. I felt like I've led you guys wrongly. Our focus has been on becoming a great big church. Instead, our focus needs to be on reaching our city with the Gospel and then getting the Gospel around the world in the places where Jesus is not known. And if God grows a great big church with us in the process, then so be it. …"

Greear told CP, "That was a big turning point for us, because it marked this time where instead of simply trying to grow a great big ministry for us, it was like 'let's take our hands off of that and let's reach people. And if we can grow the Kingdom bigger by sending our best people and resources, then so be it.'"

In the transcript below, Greear discusses additional aspects of Gaining By Losing, including why he believes the attractional model some churches use to draw worshipers in is biblical, as well as myths and misconceptions some Christians have about "seeking God's will" and being "called" into ministry. The transcript has been edited for brevity.

CP: What is the meaning of the subtitle of Gaining By Losing, that "the future belongs to churches that send?"

Greear: Churches, for way too long in the Western world, have one criteria for how you evaluate success, and that was size. You know, a successful ministry is a big ministry. But all the promises that Jesus gave about the greatness of the Church and the expanse of the Great Commission are all tied to raising up and sending out, not gathering and counting.

One of Jesus' promises, he said that greater works would we do than even He did. Think about that? How can any one person do a work that is greater than Jesus' work? He didn't mean that we would preach greater sermons, that we would pray with greater insight, or see greater miracles. What He meant was when the Spirit of God was distributed on all the members of the Body of Christ, the collective impact of that they had in the world would be greater than if the Spirit stayed centralized on just one person, even that one person was Jesus Himself. So He says when I send the whole Spirit onto the Church, it will be greater.

Well how we build our churches kind of turns that principle on its head. We talk about successful ministries as leaders who gather huge audiences of people around them who benefit from the anointing of the Spirit on them.

But Jesus, His push was raising up leaders to send them out. Thirty-nine of 40 miracles in the book of Acts happen outside of the church. I often tell our congregation that means that for a guy like me who works inside the church, I only have access to one (unintelligible) for the power of God. The Spirit of God wants to pour out His power through them in the community, not just on me in the pulpit. ...

I think what you're gonna see in the future is fewer flashier megachurches that are fighting for a larger piece of a rapidly sinking pie. For the rest of us, we're gonna have to learn the pie. And we're gonna grow the pie not by having better performances that attract people in, but by empowering people, raising them and sending them out with the power of the Gospel into the community.

CP: In Gaining By Losing you express some criticism of the attractional model, but at the same time write that it has value and a biblical basis.

Greear: In the world that I run in, where there's a lot of megachurch pastors, they are very aware that the attractional model, which I take time in the book to say, is valid. We certainly ought to celebrate when people are coming, and there's a lot of room for growth in that. But we're gonna have to not just be satisfied with it.

One of the reasons why I feel like I'm kind of in a unique place to say this is we have a church that's been ranked by Outreach as one of the fastest-growing churches in America for the last six years in a row. We have close to 10,000 people on the weekend. So I'm not like an anti-big church guy. I'm just saying that we have to put so much of our energy now into raising up and sending out, not just gathering and counting. So I think we have to recognize that there's a place for both.

CP: What's your response to skeptics who might say, "Well that's easy for you to say because you have such a huge congregation?"

Greear: I have a chapter in there on disciple-making, and the point I make is that disciple-making is just one Christian producing himself in another Christian. If disciple-making was a part of the church culture again, then sending would take care of itself. So sending is not something that a church with a lot of resources is supposed to do. It's supposed to be what every Christian does. They're supposed to be raising up other leaders around them and empowering them to go into ministry as well.

So if you have a church of only 10 people, they can be doing this, they can be identifying who is the leader they should be raising up and sending out to plant another church. Multiplication is built into the very DNA of the individual Christian, so whether it's 10 or 10,000 the principles apply.

CP: You explain in the book how your church encourages members to be mission-minded. How do you keep from guilt-tripping people? How do you equip them to follow the Great Commission in their own Spirit-gifted capacity, without drawing comparisons to others?

Greear: You replicate what you celebrate, so we are constantly telling stories of people who God is using, just ordinary people. So you have people at different stages of their discipleship saying, 'I could see God doing that in me.' It doesn't take a seminary education and it doesn't take a great deal of talent to be able to reach out to somebody and begin to bring them in the process of discipleship.

Discipleship is just you teaching somebody to follow Jesus the way that you do. In fact, you can make an argument that people are at their most effective in disciplemaking the newer they are in the their faith, because they can still understand what it's like to be outside of Christ and they're able to bring other people along. So we just start celebrating people that are, whether they are sharing Christ or ministering Christ's love, we tell their stories all the time because, like I said what you celebrate, you replicate.

CP: You also write about myths or misconceptions some Christians might have about seeking God's will for their lives, or believing that only a select few are called to ministry.

Greear: The call to leverage your life and talents for the Great Commission was included in the call to follow Jesus. Jesus says follow me and I will make you a fisher of men. That call is given to every Christian. The question isn't (any) longer if we're called. The question is only where and how. What we tell our people is, if you're a sincere follower of Jesus, he's called you into mission. Now you just have to find out where he's gifted you and find out what arena he sent you into to carry the Gospel with you.

The counterpart to that, about seeking God's will, we're asking the wrong question when it comes to seeking God's will. God has already spelled out His will in Scripture for us, the majority of it. That is that we would be a people who know Jesus and make Him known to others. Once you answer that part of it, what He does is He steers you in the execution of His will.

We have a lot of people asking the question waiting for a voice, when He's already given us a verse. The will of God is spelled out in the verse: 'He's not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.' Christians pursue disciple-making and they pursue glorifying God with whatever gifts and talents God's given them. And the question is where and how they are supposed to do that most effectively.

CP: What are your thoughts on those who might say that instead of sending Christians abroad to do missionary work, why not have them focus on evangelism at home?

Greear: The heresy of sequentialism, which is a big term that just means treating things that are supposed to happen simultaneously as if they were supposed to happen in sequence. God never told us to distinguish between reaching our neighbor and reaching the nations. The very first apostles that God called, He gave the commission Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, the uttermost parts of the Earth. It wasn't that they were supposed to go to the uttermost part of the Earth after they won all the Jews to Christ. If that had been their mindset, then none of us who are Gentiles would be Christians today because the Jews still haven't all come to faith in Christ.

So what we have found is that we pursue simultaneously ministry at home and ministry overseas because that's the agenda that Jesus has given. What we found is that our abilities in one actually make us strong in the other. When we go on mission trips overseas, inevitably people come back from those with a greater clarity about the needs in their own community. Because they see the universality of the Gospel and they see what it looks like for Jesus to be glorified in the nations and they begin to desire more for that to happen in their own neighborhoods. The way we say it is 'the light that shines the farthest will also shine the brightest at home.'

CP: Are there any final points you would like to share?

Greear: For me, the biggest obstacle to becoming a multiplying, reproducing church was my own idolatry as a pastor. Because pastors tend to want big churches and big ministries. It all came to ahead for me one afternoon when I was praying for our city, that God would send an awakening to Raleigh-Durham, an awakening to the Gospel like nothing I'd ever seen before. It's the kinda thing that you write about in 100 years.

It was one of those moments when God, the Holy Spirit answered, not audibly but in a voice every bit as clear as if it were audible. He said, 'What if I answer this prayer and what if I send an awakening through the city of Raleigh-Durham but I don't use your church to do it? What if I bless somebody else's church down the road and your friend's church gets big but your church stays the same size. Do you still want me to send that awakening?'

I knew the answer was supposed to be 'Yes, Lord, You must increase but I must decrease. I knew that was the right answer. But that wasn't the real answer. The real answer is 'No, I'm not OK with that because I want our church to grow.' I realized that a lot of times [when] I'd made the statement 'thy kingdom come' it really had the undertones of 'my kingdom come.'

I had to go to our church and basically repent and say, 'I'm sorry. I felt like I've led you guys wrongly. Our focus has been on becoming a great big church. Instead, our focus needs to be on reaching our city with the Gospel and then getting the Gospel around the world in the places where Jesus is not known. And if God grows a great big church with us in the process, then so be it. But if he wants to send out some of our best resources and best money into the nations and we lose them as we send them out, then that's gonna be OK, too. Because the focus ... God never called us to just grow big and celebrate that. He called us to reach people, and the focus is reaching people, not growing big.'

That was a big turning point for us, because it marked this time where instead of simply trying to grow a great big ministry for us, it was like 'let's take our hands off that and let's reach people and if we can grow the Kingdom bigger by sending our best people and resources, then so be it.'

Email this CP reporter at nicola.menzie(at)christianpost.com | Follow this CP reporter on Twitter.