Most churches don’t experience explosive growth or seasons of massive multiplication. In fact, usually when churches do grow in that way, it is marked by a great deal of transfer growth, or/and a highly gifted leader which is rarely reproducible.
I am extremely grateful for both those types of churches and leaders. However, I also realize studying them for healthy steps for the church/ministry God has entrusted us to lead, while inspiring, may not often be practically helpful. We need to realize some realities:
While the gospel transcends all cultures, your personal DISC inventory will create a radically distinct culture. If you are the leader, that distinct culture matters. For example, if I read church leadership books from high DC leaders and I am a high IS leader, that is going to feel a lot more like bondage than a way forward. At the same time, if my make-up is high DC and I read IS, it is going to feel to chaotic, and out of control.
All that to say if you are leading a ministry or a church, or serving as an elder, there are two things that really matter that most people never talk about:
First, who are you as a leader? How has God wired you? Who has he made you? This is never an excuse for laziness, or an excuse to stop growing, but you need clarity and honesty about your personality as you think well about leading your ministry, and the types of structures and systems you will be able to lead in.
Second, what stage of development is this ministry actually in?
It is important to have a vision, but it is just as important to look in the mirror and look at who you are, where you are, and what you are. Too many ministry leaders never look into the mirror, and if they did they may realize what Larry Osbourne says, “they will either have to tear up their vision, or tear up their sheep, because they cannot have both”.
I want to take three blog posts to deal with the second question: Where is this ministry, in reality? How do we remain faithful in this present phase? How do we honor God and not fall into pragmatism? How do we move well into the next phase?
I believe church planters and church leaders experience growth, pain, and opportunities in different phases. While not a perfect picture, I often think the nation of Israel’s return from exile and development as a nation mirrors the stages of growth that a church plant goes through. I am using these as teaching metaphors and not as precise categories in a theological construct.
The three stages are what I am calling:
The Ezra Phase
The Nehemiah Phase
The Esther Phase
If a church leader fails to accurately recognize the phase and season they are in it will lead to all kinds of confusion for both the board and leader of the church. I think perhaps one of the greatest sources of tension on an elder board is an unclear reality about the stage the church is in. A church that is growing first has to experience the Ezra Phase.
THE EZRA PHASE
This is where a community of believers becomes gathered around and awakened by the preaching of the Word of God, and the gospel. This can happen in a church plant. It can happen ten years into a church. It can happen when a new leader enters a pulpit, or it can happen when the Gospel moves powerfully in an existing preacher.
The key element of this phase is a rediscovering, or a recommitting to both the Gospel and the Word of God. Paul tells us that the Gospel is the power of God in the book of Romans and describes this ministry so perfectly in his letter in 1 Corinthians when he writes.
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
1 Corinthians 2:1-5 (ESV)
What is Paul saying? The power of God moves, not through being the most relevant, best communicator, or being the most missional church. God moves in power through the proclamation of Jesus Christ and Him crucified--the good news of the Gospel.
The Ezra phase is marked by a man and a congregation awakened to this reality, lit on fire by the power of the Gospel. This is often a sweet season of new momentum and birth. This season is marked with new people committing to the Gospel, sleepy Christians awakened by the Gospel and backslidden Christians returning to the Gospel.
In church planting many times a church in the Ezra phase may not have a permanent building, a staff, or a worship leader, but what they do see is God doing what only God can do: moving in power in spite of them.
Notice the warnings this phase reveals:
1. I have never seen God grow a reaction: If a church planter is simply reacting to what he perceives as watered down Christianity that he grew up in, or a legalistic church youth group he went to, that is not a church in the Ezra phase, that, honestly, is pride. That leader needs to humble himself and open the Word of God, and pray that his heart would be far more stirred by the Gospel then his frustration with his youth group.
2. Make sure your anchor is the gospel: Some leaders may be gifted enough to communicate well enough, be attractional enough, and market powerfully enough to manufacture church growth. This honestly may be a work of the flesh and not a movement of the power of God. Church leaders need to make sure they are not manipulating the word of God to build their thing, or using the word of God to build their own tower of Babel.
The Ezra phase is one of excitement, new life, and the power of the Gospel. The Nehemiah phase is often one of the most difficult, painful, and refining seasons a leader can navigate. The next blog will deal with that.
Ryan Baitzel is a disciple of Jesus, husband and father of four. He serves as the lead pastor of Emergence Church in Totowa NJ, which was launched in May of 2006. Emergence is committed to planting churches in North Jersey, and currently is training two church planters to plant gospel centered, missional, multiplying churches.