One of the biggest questions I get from pastors is what we did in the early years that now, looking back with hindsight, we feel made the most difference.
It’s a good question.
Most churches make it or break it in the first five years of their existence. Numerous church growth studies have shown that if you don’t break 200 in average attendance in the first two years, you never will. If you don’t break 500 in five, you never will, and so on.
I don’t understand all of this in terms of the work of the Holy Spirit. All I know is that it is the consensus observation from those who watch how the Holy Spirit tends to work.
What did we do in those early, formative years that we now feel set us free to break through the 200, 500, 700, 1200, 1800, 2500, and more barrier?
(Meck now has over 8,000 active attenders, and over 25,000 in its data base.)
In no particular order (actually, that’s not true – the fifth may be the most important), here are the five most decisive:
1. In terms of ministry programs/activity, we focused on two main things: weekend services and children’s ministry. Not small groups, or student ministry, or missions. We built from the ground up, and these two are the foundation for everything.
2. We waited to build a building, using rented facilities for as long as possible. But we didn’t wait to buy land. This is a crucial interplay. Get your land/campus as quickly as you can, and buy as much as you can. This is a decision you will NEVER regret. Parcels of land get “land-locked,” particularly in fast-growing areas, and you can’t buy more. And you can always sell it later if need be. But make no mistake, the “shoe” can tell the “foot” how big it gets. The mistake that many make is to focus on the building instead, buying a small plot of land in view of building quickly. Don’t. We started in the fall of 1992, raised money for land in a campaign in 1995, bought the land in 1996, and didn’t build until 1998. And even then, this was earlier than we had anticipated or wanted when the high school we were in could not accommodate our size anymore.
3. We put all of our resources and effort into outreach. I know, you’re thinking, “So do we!”, but make sure. Lots of churches say they do, but then they build their staffs large and quick (instead of using volunteers), have super nice office space in an executive park, and…well, you get my point. For the first year-and-a-half, Meck’s office was my home. Yep, the church’s phone was our home phone. It would ring, I would tell all the kids to be quiet, and then try and answer in the most generic and professional voice possible. It was hilarious. But the point is that we funneled what little money we have into things that would reach people, not serve us. Still do.
4. We were tenacious in holding to the mission/vision/values, conveying the mission/vision/values, making decisions by the mission/vision/values, and judging everything we did by the mission/vision/values. Mission is the target on the wall in terms of what you are trying to do, vision is what it all is going to look like if you succeed, and values are who you want to be and how you want to live along the way.
5. Finally, we had a big-church mentality. I know that’s crass, and might invite all kinds of “value the small church” comments, but let me unpack it.
Tom Watson was the leader responsible for putting IBM on the map during its heyday. When asked why the company had become so successful, he said:
IBM is what it is today for three special reasons. The first reason is that, at the very beginning, I had a clear picture of what the company would look like when it was finally done.
The second reason was that once I had that picture, I then asked myself how a company which looked like that would have to act.
The third reason IBM has been so successful was that once I had a picture of how IBM would look when the dream was in place and how such a company would have to act, I then realized that, unless we began to act that way from the very beginning, we would never get there.
In other words, I realized that for IBM to become a great company it would have to act like a great company long before it ever became one.
One of the most important things you can do as a church leader is establish a preferred vision of the future firmly in your mind and spirit, act on it, and then make decisions based on it. And most important of all, let people know your thinking.
In the early days at Meck, we used to say that we were “a small church with a big church mentality.” We saw ourselves, from the beginning, as a church of thousands. So we acted like one. When we were running less than a hundred people, we would prepare for each service as if hundreds would come in terms of quality, effort, attention to detail. And that’s one of the reasons hundreds did.
And then thousands.
It’s very easy for a church to act in accordance with its current status. You prepare a service for 250 because that’s what you tend to have in attendance. As a result, everything is done with that level of quality, that level of decorum, that level of expectation.
It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For a church running 250 to become a church of 500, it has to begin to act like a church of 500 long before it actually is one.
Again, I don’t know why these five matter as much as they do, I just know that they do. It isn’t meant to diminish the power of prayer, biblical fidelity, and such. There just seems to be a “street smart” element to things that counts.
And these are five things we would say fall into that category.
James Emery White
On the Tom Watson story, see Michael E. Gerber, The E-Myth: Why Most Businesses Fail and What to do about it.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.