Access your downloads at our archive site. Visit Archive
Magazine Article

Why Check-Book Theology is Necessary—Part 2: Don’t Circle the Wagons

In Part One I wrote about a workshop with church elders that highlighted the lack of planning. Part 2 is about implementation, but the implementation story is from another workshop I conducted with even better results.

  • Ian Hodge,
Share this

In Part One I wrote about a workshop with church elders that highlighted the lack of planning. Part 2 is about implementation, but the implementation story is from another workshop I conducted with even better results.

When Danny said he believed God was directing him to a new "calling," my mind began racing. Why would a man, fifty-three years of age, eighteen years in the pastoral ministry, receive from God a new calling outside of the ministry? Was it to become a truck driver? Maybe a janitor?

Danny, a humble minister of the gospel, did not think he was being called to be president of a major corporation. He could readily empathize with Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) in the Dirty Harry movie, Magnum Force: "A man's gotta know his limitations." And Danny was certainly well aware of his limitations.

At the same time he also knew he served a God who knew no limitations, and for these many years Danny had faithfully relied on God as he served his local parish in the suburbs of a city of around one million people. It was a quiet, lower middle-class area, with a growing population as land availability and prices were forcing people to move to the outer suburbs. Danny had surrounded himself with a small number of faithful elders.

We were sitting over coffee when Danny dropped this bombshell about a new calling. We explored his options, which he recognized were few in the marketplace.

"If your church was growing at ten new members a month, or even if it was just growing in attendance at any rate month after month, would you want to quit the ministry and go somewhere else?" I asked.

I could tell from the expression on his face that he was thinking. But it took him a few days before he called me with his response.

"You're right. If this church was growing I would not want to quit and go elsewhere. I love the pastoral ministry and really do believe this is where God wants me."

"So is it possible that you have been confusing frustration with a mistaken notion that God is calling you elsewhere?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied.

"Let's get together and talk," I suggested.

I had known Danny for about two years. We had relocated to the area and joined his church. It had a little over 200 people who were actively attending, although not all would be there every Sunday. Its activities were the usual youth activities, mid-week home study groups, and Sunday services. Danny's preaching was practical rather than a merely intellectual exercise. And he played a mean guitar.

Often, though, you can tell what's going on in a church by what it does not do, rather than by what it does. The church had grown over the years, but more by population expansion rather than active outreach. It's not that they did not believe in outreach, it's just that they did not plan and manage for church growth.

Here was a typical evangelical and conservative church, a Presbyterian church with its "correct" theology, but frustrated that this "correct" theology did not appear to be resulting in greater church growth. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, there were churches that had less "correct" theology, but had congregations in the thousands.

The typical Reformed response to this practical phenomenon is to lay the cause for these larger churches at the door of man's sinfulness. People follow their "sin" nature, it is suggested, and lean towards churches that don't hold to the sovereignty of God-at least, don't hold it in the way we hold it. As a result of this conclusion, it's easy for the Reformed community to lock themselves into small churches-and frustration.

Sometimes you have to take a rain check. Is it true that God has ordained that the more apparent faithfulness you have in your doctrine, the smaller your church will be? Some people are convinced this is the case. Therefore, they conclude that poor or incorrect doctrine leads to church growth, while faithful preaching of the gospel leads to small churches.

This same belief-mistaken belief-often gets translated into the business world. The conclusion is that businesses only get large by "ripping people off."  It is alleged they have unethical business practices, misleading marketing, high-pressure sales tactics, and these are the reasons for their growth.

Such conclusions, however, about both business and the church, are half-truths paraded as the full truth. It is true that there are unethical business practices, just as it is true there are churches whose theology is way off course.

But it is not the poor theology or the unethical practices of business that are the cause of their success. For that, you have to look elsewhere.

There is a serious disconnect in conservative Christianity, even among those who are postmillennial in their view of the future. These people expect the church to grow, but they often do not experience it. In trying to explain the apparent failure of their conservative church to grow, they look outside their own church for an explanation, rather than inside it.

To look inside your church for the answer to this apparent failure to evangelize and grow, however, requires that you look in the mirror. There you see the cause of the failure to grow, not in some mistaken view about baptism, soteriology, eschatology, exclusive psalmody, or even the sovereignty of God. Yes, these are issues, and they are real issues. But by themselves they do not determine the size of your church.

Imagine a farmer who has tools-spade, rake, and axe. He has a particular brand of these tools, and he argues, quite cogently, how it is the brand that is the key to successful farming. His brand, he says, is the Reformed brand. Meanwhile, farmers who own a different brand prove just as successful, or even more successful than the farmer with the Reformed brand. He has so convinced himself that it is the brand that is the key to his success that he cannot fathom why farmers with a different brand have greater success.

It is easy to recognize that our Reformed-brand farmer perhaps misses the real point. While it is necessary to have tools, it is just as necessary to consider how the tools are to be used. And sometimes the farmers who do not have the Reformed brand of tools use their tools better than the Reformed farmers.

What determines the size of your church is not your theology. Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses are proof of that. It is what you do to grow the church that is important. If you don't do anything, don't expect it to grow. If all you do is pray, don't expect it to grow. If all you do is read the Bible, don't expect it to grow. If all you do is argue over Calvinism, don't expect it to grow. But if you talk to people who currently don't attend your church, and invite them to come along, then you can expect it to grow.

Conservative, small, and Reformed churches have a ready-made excuse for their smallness. For many, a church of 200, like the one Danny pastored, would be considered a major breakthrough. But it still does not reach the thousands. Those churches with a just a few families, where the pastor often supports himself with other work, would love to be at 200.

And here's how you get there.

Danny and I met over yet another cup of coffee, and I always appreciated my time with him. He was a great encouragement to everyone in his congregation, faithful in his pastoral duties, and consistent in his conservative theology. But Danny was not alone with frustration.

As we talked about his frustrations, I was able to talk through the issues of management with him. He had the usual excuses. This is a church, not a business. But he did recognize that the financial success of his church depended upon the tithes and offerings of the congregation who, when they went to work, needed to manage the success of their daily activities.

"So what makes the church exempt from management practices?" I asked.

Danny had no answer to this. But he agreed to let me run a workshop with the elders to explore their mutual frustration and see if a solution could be found. A date was selected, and the elders were to come prepared. Preparation meant reading the first of three volumes on leadership by Dr. Tony Keys, published by the Trinity Institutes of Leadership, completing all the questions in the workbook, so that at the workshop there could be discussion of the issues raised in the book.

When we met, Danny announced he had come to a conclusion about church growth that he would share at the end of the workshop.

The discussion was lively and intense. As usual, I took the group, seven men in total, through the key functions of the organization and helped them discover the opportunities. That's just a more positive way of saying "discover the things they are not doing."

The outcome of these discussions is always the same. No plan. No shared vision of the future. It appears everyone is confined to the treadmill of near-if not total-failure.

In the discussion, the roles of the pastor and of the elders were explored. So too were their ambitions for the expansion of the Kingdom of God through the local church in which they found themselves.

I've been in this church for two years, and I've met with the folk and heard them talk. They're all frustrated, just like Danny. They seem to think that any "success" related to the Christian life is only going to happen in the life hereafter.

The discussion at this workshop was not unlike the one I spoke about in Part 1. The details are different, but the outcome is the same. The purpose of the workshop is to get everyone to agree on a plan of action. Not my plan of action, but one they can all agree on is the next step-for them.

I did not plan to end this workshop without some kind of agreed commitment from Danny and the elders. As we worked, I used large sheets of sticky-notes, accumulating comments and ideas, so they had a record of the meeting.

My very last step was to take one of these large sheets and write the numbers one through ten in the left-hand column. Beside the number one, I wrote the number seven. It looked like this.

              1                  7










Without telling them what this represented, I turned to the group and I began a new line of discussion.

"You men seem all very excited at the end of our workshop. You have found direction, without having found specific answers. You have agreed your next step is to get together to make a plan, a plan that incorporates church growth, teaching programs, etc. within the church.

"Now let me ask you this: How long do you think it will take you to get just one person in the congregation, who was not present today, as excited as you are? So excited that they will go and talk to one of their friends in the church and get them excited so they will go and get one of their friends excited?"

In other words, I'm asking a productivity question which will become a part of their plan. How long? Why, they have been in this meeting since 8:00 a.m., it's now 1:30 p.m. It shouldn't take long at all.

Eventually, I got a reply from one them, the church secretary.

"One month," he offered.

"Great," I replied. "How many did you get in the last month?"

Now it was not my intention to belittle anyone's activities. What I needed them to be was realistic in their expectations.

"How about I give you two months. Do you think each one of you could get just one person in the church excited about the future, so they will go and talk to one of their friends?"

They all nodded. Everyone in the room agreed this is an achievable goal.

"I'm sorry. I'm a skeptic. I know you all have the best of intentions. How about I give you one year to achieve this goal? That ought to be achievable, don't you agree?"

A year! You could sense what was going through their mind. A year! Why, that's as easy as falling off a log. Of course we could achieve that.

I returned to the board at the front and added some headings to the columns, and completed the right-hand column.

           Years             People

              1                  7

              2                  14

              3                  28

              4                  56

              5                  112

              6                  224

              7                  448

              8                  896

              9                  1,792

              10                3,584

I continued, "I don't know what you folk have in mind about church growth, but if you did nothing more than achieve the goal of one person each year, and then replicate that each year for the next ten years, this could be the result.

"I do not even know that you are capable of achieving such a goal, but you all seem to think that one year is a more than reasonable expectation for you to find, encourage, teach and train people to reach out to other people.

"One a year. That's the commitment."

They were silent. A church of over 3,500 people in ten years. Never in their wildest imaginations was such a goal achievable. This was for the "other" church groups, not Reformed people. Yet they have agreed, in this meeting, that such a goal is possible.

Danny spoke, "I came here today with a number for church growth. It was nowhere near that number. I'm going to throw mine away and run with this one."

If you look carefully at the table, you will see that on this productivity plan, it will take them six years just to work through the existing congregation and get everyone on board for an exciting train ride for the remaining four years.


Perhaps you are wondering what happened? Did this church achieve this outcome? Did they, in fact, put a plan in place?

The workshop was held in 2004. In October 2010 they baptized new Christians and had many accept "membership" in the church. Here's the result in Danny's own words.

"Your workshop taught us we needed to have a plan. We were inexperienced, and we decided we were not going to reinvent the wheel. Instead, we borrowed an idea from another church and implemented our version of it and called it ‘Faith Steps.' This comprised four basic steps in the life of every Christian in the church, from newcomers onward, learning to serve God in a particular way. Each step is a logical flow on to the next. Our aim was to improve the worship service so that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit would be worshiped in an excellent way; communicant membership would be encouraged through a well presented view of Scripture and the sacraments, leading to a challenge of personal commitment and service; small group ministry; and finally a mature Christian approach to mission both at home first, the community and then abroad ..."

In other words, Danny and his elders began to ask the "quality" question. So often the music in churches is poorly put together. Little or no rehearsal. Danny, a skilled guitarist, encouraged the church musicians to a higher standard. And there were also the greeters in the church who were trained to do a better job of greeting and befriending strangers who enter the church. Danny continues:

"The elders were terrific. The church came alive and the Lord brought many new faces to us. We now have a part-time employee to carry on our youth work. The whole team worked together well, implementing the first two steps."

But here's the interesting piece of this story. Most of the church growth happened while Danny was "absent" from the church. He says,

"We invested time into people and trusted them in doing certain tasks, the growth (not that huge but noticeable) took place while I was moderator for that year, therefore away for most of the time. That was proof enough that the work did not and never did revolve around the minister alone. That's what excited me. Someone (tongue in cheek) said, ‘Dan, you should be away more often.' I took that in the right spirit ... and understood perfectly what was meant. But that was the highlight, to see the church being the church and not a bunch of people just following a minister-fifty-eight new members and eight baptisms (I got to enjoy the results) after some real effective ministry by others in the church-not me. I guess my input was years of teaching and discipling, but that didn't eventuate into anything until people actually owned the work and ran with it."

Danny and his elders had crossed the path that separates doctrine and church growth without the slightest compromise to their doctrine. Too often church growth is seen to be achieved only by giving up doctrine. But not for Danny and his co-leaders. Danny learned to harness the skills of other people, recognizing he could not do it all himself. "A man's gotta know his limitations." And until he does, his effectiveness is diminished.

But he also learned the most important lesson. And his advice to conservative churches is this: "You have to stop circling the wagons around doctrine. You need to let the doctrine do its work."

When Danny read Part One of this series, he wrote, "You just reminded me about what I had forgotten in the forecasted hustle and bustle of our next planning day-tangible goals-it really does matter. Activities and goals must be distinguished, otherwise we always plan for disappointment when people don't get enthusiastic about the activity ... We are actually planning now to increase the church size to 500 people, over the next ten years, that's fifty a year, at least one quarter of our congregation being gainfully employed in discipling one person per year for the next ten years.  I'm sure we can do better than that."

Their next phase, thus, is to encourage and train the congregation to reach out into the community through home groups and other related activities. They do not yet know how some of this will work out in practice. They just know they need to plan and do something.

Not a bad effort from someone who was ready to quit the ministry. In fact, an inspiring story because the church has not only grown in numbers, the "spiritual" growth is also evident. The weekly church newsletter encourages people to become active and reject political and social activities that are hostile to the gospel. Their Christian growth is not inward, it is outward, and this is what makes for a growing, vibrant church.

However, it seems to be time to run another workshop for Danny and his elders and help them with their math problem. I need to remind him that compound interest is superior to simple interest when investing money-and also when managing church growth.

Meanwhile, Danny, the leadership of the church, and the congregation are all on a journey-not a destination. And the journey of a thousand miles begins with one small step.

What's your plan? What's your next step? Need help? Contact Chalcedon and we'll teach and train you, and put you in touch with people like Pastor Danny so you might see the expansion of God's Kingdom in the portion of His garden he has allotted to you.

See Part 1

See Part 3

  • Ian Hodge

Ian Hodge, Ph.D. (1947–2016) was a long-term supporter of Chalcedon and an occasional contributor to Faith for All of Life. He was also a business consultant in Australia, USA, Canada, and New Zealand, and a prominent piano teacher in Australia.

More by Ian Hodge