5 Elements for Strength and Growth Josh Howerton By Josh Howerton October 10, 2016
Acts 29 - A diverse, global family of church-planting churches

Heads up: this post is more “Proverbs” than “Romans”. When I was a 25-year-old pastor with a 70-person core team a few years ago, I had only ever thought through the “Romans” aspect of church leadership –– preaching and guarding good gospel doctrine. But as God began to unleash the gospel’s liberating power in our church and we had to scale from 70 to 1,400 in the next few years, there were a handful of mission-critical Proverbs-type church leadership essentials we learned as we “failed forward”.

Here are 5 of those mission-critical elements we’ve learned along the way to facilitate the type of church health (trellis) that enables gospel growth (vine)…

1. Care as much about the trellis as you do the vine.

Gospel growth in a church will only happen to the degree that there are systems and leadership structures in place.

Drawing from the Apostles’ leadership restructure in Acts 6 that resulted in “the word of God increasing and the number of disciples multiplying greatly”, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne use the (brilliant) analogy that a church is a like vine in a garden. The vine is what matters, but the vine can only grow as large as the trellis it’s growing on. In the analogy, the gospel is like the vine and the systems, processes, and structures of a church are like the trellis. The gospel is what matters, but gospel growth in a church will only happen to the degree that there are systems and leadership structures in place to facilitate that growth. For example, if your church attendance hops up every January and August, but always seems to snap right back to where it was, this dynamic is playing itself out. The gospel is wanting to grow, but it keeps snapping back to the size of the leadership structures that are in place. To facilitate structural health that enables gospel growth, you MUST learn to care as much about the trellis as you do the vine.

Don’t mislabel an organizational problem as a gospel problem.

Here’s a quick warning to you: if you (like me) come from a Reformed, theologically-oriented background, your tendency is going to be to mislabel organizational problems as gospel problems. There was a time when the percentage of our church in Community Groups was around 45%, and I kept telling our staff there was a gospel deficiency. “If they just understood their mutual adoption in Christ at a heart-level, more people would be in Community Groups!” In the end, we discovered our church had outgrown our groups assimilation process, we rebuilt that process, and our percentage of people in groups leapt to ~85%. We had mislabeled an organizational problem as a gospel problem, and I’m willing to bet there’s at least one area in your church where you’re mislabeling an organizational problem as a gospel problem.

If you don’t know what to focus on in the “trellis” area, here’s an invaluable exercise to get you thinking in the right direction: get your leadership team around a table and answer the question, “What one thing, if improved, would make the biggest difference in our church?

2. Make your highest priority as a leadership team, building and guarding an outstanding culture.

Your culture is the intangibles of your church. When people say things like…

  • “I don’t know what it is, but there’s something special here”
  • “This place just feels good” or “it just feels right”
  • “Being here is like a breath of fresh air”

… what they’re trying to say is, “This church has a great culture.”

The culture you create is more important than the vision you cast

Everybody talks about vision, but here’s what we’ve found: The culture you create is more important than the vision you cast. You can have an unclear, poorly-articulated vision, but if you have an incredible culture, people will flock to it and their lives will be changed. We recently had a non-Christian woman drive in from out of town to attend one of our services by herself. When her daughter asked her why she came, she said, “I just wanted to be in a room with that many people so excited to be there.” She didn’t even know our vision, but couldn’t resist the culture. On the other hand, you can have the most compelling vision ever crafted, but if the culture of your church is bad, people will leave in a month or get hurt by staying.

Do you let gossip, laziness, small thinking, and dishonoring sarcasm go unchecked? That will be your toxic culture.

Here are three ways to build and guard culture…

  • This short piece by Ray Ortlund is like a second Bible to our staff: How to build a gospel culture in your church. We require every leader in our church to review this as part of our onboarding process and we revisit it continually.
  • Craig Groeschel says your culture is a combination of what you create and what you allow. So, whatever is the worst behavior you allow to go unchecked will set your church’s culture. Do you let gossip, laziness, small thinking, and dishonoring sarcasm go unchecked? That will be your (toxic) culture. Or do you gently rebuke those things and constantly positively-gossip, fill meetings with the public honoring of people, encourage at every opportunity, and disallow passivity and small thinking? That will be your (life-giving) culture.
  • Recruit to your cultural values and remove the wrong people. When you know what values you want to mark your church, recruit leaders to those values and remove people from leadership who consistently embody an anti-value. It only takes one toxic leader to ruin an entire church’s culture. About removing them someone may say, “That’s so mean!” But the decision you have to make as a leader is, “Will I hurt one person by removing them or hurt the entire church by not removing them?

3. Make weekends great because nothing works if weekends don’t work.

As Tim Keller has pointed out, for a church to grow, it must have an “increasing quality of production” and “transcendence of the worship experience.” At The Bridge, we put an extraordinary amount of time and energy into making our worship gatherings better because nothing works if weekends don’t work. Song transitions, screen aesthetics, pre and post-service playlists, the feel of the lobby, execution of Scripture readings during the bridges of songs –– we PORE over that stuff. When it comes to your worship gatherings, you want to avoid two ditches…

  • DITCH 1 to avoid: “It’s all about the weekend.” Avoid the church-as-event mentality that the only thing that matters is the worship services.
  • DITCH 2 to avoid: “It’s not about the weekend.” Also avoid the reactionary mentality that it’s not about the weekend where you downplay the worship service to avoid being “one of those churches”.

With good hearts, some people downplay the importance of worship gatherings because “what really matters are discipleship and mission, etc”. But in general, you won’t have anybody to disciple or anybody to send on mission if you don’t have great worship gatherings that move people into the church body. You don’t care about Sundays INSTEAD of discipleship and mission, etc. You care about Sundays BECAUSE you care about discipleship, mission, etc. Helpful oversimplification: Nothing works if weekends don’t work.

4. Define, measure, get better.

As a leader, the most helpful thing you can do for your team is “define the win”.

As a leader, the most helpful thing you can do for your team is “define the win”. Every person on your team needs to know when they did “it” –– the measurable outcome you most want to see happen. Without that, everyone starts setting their own outcomes and moving in different directions. Imagine a race in which nobody defined the finish line. The gun goes off, and every runner starts sprinting in opposite directions. If you haven’t defined the wins, you may feel like that’s what your leadership team looks like!

Three steps here…

  • Define a measurable win for everyone.
  • Start measuring it consistently and visibly. I have a “dashboard” of metrics on my office whiteboard that our leadership team fills in for the previous month on the 1st of every month.
  • Once you’re measuring the right things, you’ll get visibility so you can start putting smart energy into what needs to get better.

5. Fill your life with pacesetters.

I believe this is the most important essential of the 5. A pacesetter is someone who’s run a little farther a little faster than you. I ran some cross country in high school. In my first ever 5K, I literally got passed by a pregnant woman pushing another baby in a stroller in my final mile! In my second race a week later, a coach gave me a “pacesetter” –– a guy on the team that was faster than me –– and said, “Your only goal is to keep your eyes on this guy.” I did, and my time was over 4 minutes faster! I wasn’t ANY BETTER of a runner; the ONLY thing that was different was I had a pacesetter.

You can be a better pastor, preacher, leader w/o actually getting any better by filling your life with pacesetters.

You can be a better pastor, preacher, leader without actually getting any better simply by filling your life with pacesetters. “He who walks with the wise becomes wise” (Proverbs 13:20).

Three ways I do this…

  • I’m constantly finding pastors and leaders further down the road than me in areas I want to grow in, and asking if I can drive to them and buy them lunch to ask strategic questions I’ve prepared beforehand. Honestly, this is why I cannot encourage you strongly enough to prioritize gatherings like the upcoming Acts 29 US Southeast Network Conference in Orlando. You’ve got a front-row opportunity to be within striking distance of some of the best pacesetters in the country.
  • I listen to leadership podcasts from guys like Craig Groeschel, Andy Stanley, and Carey Neiuwhof because they know how to scale and have thought through problems I don’t even know I have yet.
  • I find “churches that I want to be like when I grow up” and try to learn everything I can about how they function. I want to learn their whole system, so I can see how everything fits together.

Since 2008, Josh Howerton has been with The Bridge Church in Spring Hill, TN and is a member of the Acts 29 US Southeast Network. He graduated from Union University with an undergrad in Biblical Theology and is currently engaged in continued theological education at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. Josh and his wife, Jana, have two precious daughters, Eliana and Felicity. After being a Christian, husband, father, and pastor, Josh is a Kentucky basketball and Cincinnati Bengals football fan.

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