LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)–In 1974, I served as a student missionary to Japan. I lived with a Southern Baptist missionary couple in their home in Nagasaki. One day, while rummaging through the missionary’s library, I picked up an old copy of HIS, a Christian student magazine published by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
As I thumbed through its pages, a picture of a fascinating older man with a goatee and sparkling eyes caught my attention. The article’s subtitle said something like “Why is this man dangerous?” As I sat there and read the article on Donald McGavran, I had no idea that it would impact dramatically the direction of my ministry as much as an earlier encounter with W.A. Criswell had.
The article described how McGavran, a missionary born in India, had spent his ministry studying what makes churches grow. His years of research ultimately led him to write “The Bridges Of God” in 1955 and a dozen more books on growing churches that are considered classics today.
Just as God used W.A. Criswell to sharpen the focus of my life mission from ministry in general to being a pastor, God used the writings of Donald McGavran to sharpen my focus from pastoring an already established church to planting the church that I would pastor. Like Paul declared in Romans 15:20, “It has always been my ambition to preach the Gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.”
McGavran brilliantly challenged the conventional wisdom of his day about what made churches grow. With a biblical basis and simple but passionate logic, McGavran pointed out that God wants His church to grow; He wants His lost sheep found!
The issues raised by McGavran seemed especially relevant to me as I observed the painfully slow growth of churches in Japan. I made a list of eight questions to which I wanted to find the answers:
— How much of what churches do is really biblical?
— How much of what we do is just cultural?
— Why do some churches grow and others die on the vine?
— What causes a growing church to stop growing, plateau and then decline?
— Are there common factors found in every growing church?
— Are there principles that will work in every culture?
— What are the barriers to growth?
— What are the conventional myths about growing churches that aren’t true anymore (or never were)?
The day I read the McGavran article, I felt God direct me to invest the rest of my life discovering the principles — biblical, cultural and leadership principles — that produce healthy, growing churches. It was the beginning of a life-long study.
In 1979, I was working as a grader for Roy Fish, professor of evangelism, and finishing my final year at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. I decided to do an independent study of the 100 largest churches in the United States at that time. I wrote to each of these churches and asked a series of questions I had prepared. Although I discovered that large, growing churches differ widely in strategy, structure, and style, there were some common denominators. My study confirmed what I already knew from Criswell’s ministry: Healthy, large churches are led by pastors who have been there a long time. I found dozens of examples. A long pastorate does not guarantee a church will grow, but changing pastors every few years guarantees a church won’t grow.
Can you imagine what the kids would be like in a family where they got a new daddy every two or three years? They would most likely have serious emotional problems. In the same way, the longevity of the leadership is a critical factor for the health and growth of a church family. Long pastorates make deep, trusting, and caring relationships possible. Without those kinds of relationships, a pastor won’t accomplish much of lasting value.
Churches that rotate pastors every few years will never experience consistent growth. I believe this is one reason for the decline of some denominations. By intentionally limiting the tenure of pastors in a local congregation, they create “lame duck” ministers. Few people want to follow a leader who isn’t going to be around a year from now. The pastor may want to start all sorts of new projects, but the members will be reticent because they will be the ones having to live with the consequences long after the pastor has been moved to another church.
Knowing the importance of longevity in growing a healthy church I prayed, “Father, I’m willing to go any place in the world you want to send me. But I ask for the privilege of investing my entire life in just one location. I don’t care where you put me, but I’d like to stay wherever it is for the rest of my life.”
Rick Warren is pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of “The Purpose-Driven Life.”