Christian Fellowship III: The Greatest Church Growth Principle

Forget the gimmicks. What builds great churches, the kind that endure and influence the world for Jesus Christ and leave a lasting impression on their generation, is fellowship. The living work of the Holy Spirit within the lives of the members–bonding them with one another in worship, energizing their labors together, deepening their love for each other–authentic Christian fellowship makes the difference.

Being non-observant, we pastors tend to see Christian fellowship as the product of a great church. We bring in a super pastor with excellent preaching skills, work up a powerful and balanced program of ministries for all age groups, erect an impressive building on the ideal location with lots of parking and plenty of publicity–and bingo! The community comes to see, many stay to join, and because you’re doing some things right, the fellowship in the congregation–that is, the spirit, the joy, the love–prospers. And you think that fellowship resulted from the great building with good location, your powerful preaching and the attractive programs. That’s how we think.

Being impatient, we pastors prefer to skip the preliminaries such as building a great fellowship among the members and go straight to the gimmicks. Here’s a program that worked for a California church, a plan that built a mega-church in Georgia, a book that promises to put your church on the map if you follow its principles. Two years later, with an exhausted congregation, a busted bank account, and a pastor who has used up all his credits with the leadership, we have little to show for our efforts.

One wonders how long it will be before pastors and other church members figure out that the church-growth method the Lord has ordained calls on us first of all to build up the inner life of the congregation and make it healthy. A healthy church will reach into its community, will send out missionaries, will grow and do so without the aid of gimmicks and trick programs. But before we initiate programs to reach into the town, mobilize missionaries, and grow, before any of that, we need to work on the foundation.

Build the fellowship.

Now, all we need here is twelve easy steps to do that and we would have the latest gimmick for church growth. Doubtless, I would also have a best-seller on my hands.

Alas, it doesn’t work that way.

In the same way that every person, every fingerprint, and every voice print is unlike all others, every church is one of a kind. Each church is made up of a collection of members and an assortment of leaders unlike any other. Each history is its own, each community may be alike in a hundred ways but they will differ in a thousand, each pastor is one of a kind.

On the popular radio program of the 1940s, when the good guys got in trouble, the voice of the actor playing the man of steel would intone, “This looks like a job for Superman!” The music would rise, your pulse would accelerate, and you heard the whish of the hero’s cape as he cut through the air. Help was on its way.

Looking at your church at this moment, its circumstances today, the challenge it faces this evening, there’s only one thing to conclude: this is a job for the Holy Spirit and no one else. Only He knows what you need; only He can provide it.

Your job, then, it would appear, is to get people praying.

Not yet.

There’s all kinds of prayer. Much of what goes by prayer in the average church, however, is just so much religious talk directed heavenward. If that would revive the church, revolutionize society, and reach the world, our mission assignment would have been over decades ago.

Something is needed first, before you call your people to prayer. This will determine whether they really pray the prayer of faith or just bug God.

Before prayer comes the desire.

It’s a heartfelt, yearning, longing, aching need for what only the Lord can do. More than that, it’s a hunger and thirst for God Himself. “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God…. My tears have been my food day and night…” (Psalm 42:1-3)

“The effectual FERVENT prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” (James 5:16)

Anyone want God? Want more of the Lord in your life and in your church? Long to see the Lord loved and worshiped and served?

That desire is the starting place.

Now, out of that aching need, that soul hunger, out of that deep inner grief and heavy burden, talk to the Father. Tell Him what you’re feeling and what you long to see happen.

Somewhere I heard of a supplicant approaching Buddha asking for salvation. Now, knowing precious little about Buddhism, I cannot vouch for whether anyone ever actually did that, but tell the story here to make a point. Buddha walked the fellow down to the river and held him under water. After a bit, the man comes up sputtering and gasping for air. The teacher said, “When you were down there, what did you want more than anything in all the world?” The man said, “Air! I wanted air!” “Then,” said Buddha, “when you desire salvation as much as you wanted air, you will be saved.”

I shudder to think of the way some of us offer salvation to people around us, as though on a hot day we were suggesting they might like to have a refreshing snow-cone. We strip it of its life-and-death dimensions and make the living God merely an additive to the person’s life.

Whatever else we make of the mourner’s bench and the way people agonized for salvation in former days, sometimes for weeks on end until peace came, what they ended up with was lives sold out to the Lord. What we frequently have are people who admire Jesus and expect to go to Heaven and for whom every aspect of Christian discipleship is optional. A far cry from how Scripture pictures disciples.

Therefore. If you want your church, your life, filled with the Lord, if you hunger and thirst for Him more than anything in the world, you’re now ready to pray–but not until then. Now, get alone with the Lord and tell Him what’s on your heart.

As you do, keep praying until you have a sense of what the Lord wants you to do. If He puts the urge in you to keep praying alone, do it. If you find yourself wanting to draw others into your prayer circle, do that. Whatever He tells you, that’s your assignment.

This is the stopping place for me.

Not very satisfying, is it? We’ve grown so used to experts laying out programs before us on how to turn churches around, how to build every kind of ministry a church needs, how to reach hundreds and bring in millions, that when someone comes along and says, “Want it real bad? Then bring that ache, that hunger, to the Lord, and let Him take it from there,” it feels like no answer at all.

We want steps and points, programs and procedures. Ten ways to build a great fellowship in your church. Fifteen fool-proof techniques guaranteed to have your members loving each other and the community beating a path to your door. That would be nice.

The genius to Christian fellowship seems to be the indirection of it. You don’t get it by trying to build it. True fellowship is the product of a congregation devoted to the Lord Jesus Christ and loving Him. So long as the focus is on our Lord, so long as everyone purposes to please Him, we find ourselves loving one another, enjoying the fellowship, working together in harmony, and building a good name in the community.

Take the focus off the Lord Jesus Christ and suddenly, it’s like an electromagnet when someone shuts off the power: all at once, everything drops away. The congregation loses its cohesiveness.

Here’s my testimony on this subject.

I am the product of a church that got the fellowship thing right. As a 19-year-old, I joined the great West End Baptist Church on Tuscaloosa Avenue in Birmingham, Alabama. I joined it reluctantly, actually. My rural background had convinced me that large city churches were cold, dead, worldly, and worst of all, rich. As a transfer college student from a school in Georgia, I was living temporarily with my sister Patricia and her husband James Phelps. That fall, we began visiting churches, in search of our new home.

That Wednesday night in September of 1959, we dropped in on the prayer service at West End. I was sure it would be a one-time visit and we would never be back. In the sanctuary seating a thousand, we found ourselves sitting among perhaps a hundred people. The pastor, John L. Smith, was bringing a Bible study. I recall thinking how helpful it was and saying to myself, “Okay, they teach the Word. But I know they’re not friendly.”

Shortly, the pastor called on someone for the benediction and walked back to where we were sitting. He introduced himself and called over church members to meet us. When he learned that Patricia and James had sung in a choir at their last church, he called across the auditorium for Larry Andrews, the minister of music, who took us on a tour of the music suite that night.

If memory serves me correctly, the next night, we were seated in choir rehearsal. The following Sunday, I fell in with the greatest group of Christian young people I had ever met. They were happy, they loved the Lord and each other, they welcomed me as though I had been in that church for years. I ate it up. My spiritual life blossomed like a flower taken from inside an apartment and placed in the sunlight.

The entire congregation, young and old, seemed the very definition of gracious and loving. My Sunday School teacher, Bill Dempsey, was sharp and prepared and funny and godly. Some evenings he drove over and picked me up and we called on other class members or prospects for our class. When the church celebrated a “youth week,” the young people chose me as their “youth pastor” and I brought a sermon of sorts to the entire congregation on a Sunday night. When the church announced a speakers tournament and I volunteered, Minister of Education Ron Palmer offered to coach me. On every side, I found only encouragers in that church.

I had no way of knowing I had caught that church at its peak, at its crest.

In a three year period at West End Baptist Church, I was baptized (I had been saved at age 11, but no one asked me to be baptized and I was not going to volunteer), met my wife, was called into the ministry, was married, and ordained.

One month after graduating from college, Margaret and I were married in that church. Six months later, we began pastoring a small congregation north of the city.

That’s the good part. Here’s the bad.

I saw that church the night it began to die.

Pastor Bill Burkett, a powerful preacher of the word and a terrific encourager, led the church to broadcast its Sunday evening services over a local radio station. The congregation took it seriously and a number of people came to the Lord as a result. Then, the church began to experience a money crunch and had to cut back on programs. Some leaders wanted to end the radio broadcast; the pastor and other leaders felt this was such a successful ministry that to end it would be self-defeating.

They met and discussed. The discussions turned into arguments. The arguments became a full-blown war.

On a Sunday night, a special business meeting was called to settle the issue. I found someone to preach for me and sat on the back row of my beloved home church to witness what happened.

It was a sad, heart-breaking spectacle.

These wonderful people, the ones who had welcomed me and nurtured me and taught me, people who exemplified for me the qualities of Christlikeness and maturity, on this night many of those same people were mean-spirited and ugly toward one another. It felt to me like a divorce in which a child watches his parents, both of whom he adores, trying to destroy one another.

That was forty-five years ago, but I can recall it like it happened last week. In fact, I wish I could blot it out of my mind. It’s a painful memory and as far as I can tell, nothing good came from anything that happened that night.

They cut out the radio program and in a few weeks, Pastor Burkett moved to a church on the other side of the country. The church called a new pastor and tried to pick up and go forward, but–as far as I could tell–it was never the same. Many factors came into play, but within 20 years, the church closed its doors and went out of business.

Some of the members of that great church to which I owe so much read this blog. As always, we invite them to leave their own analyses of what happened at that time. Nothing I say here is meant to disparage the church which God used to bless me beyond anything I ever deserved.

The day that church began to die was when the people replaced their deep loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ with a resentment toward their leaders and one another. They quickly lost their fellowship with one another and the cancer that destroys churches was at work.

As always–and I wish we could emblazon this on the front wall of every church in the world–the issue is never what the church votes to do about a business matter that is getting the attention. I will go so far as to say that up in Heaven, whether West End Baptist Church broadcast its services over the radio station mattered very little. What mattered most was that the people kept their strong devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ and thus their love for one another. From that foundation, they could solve any issue that threatened to divide them.

The Lord did not say people would know we were His disciples by our doctrine, our buildings, programs, music, sermons, or even by our agreement with one another. He said the love between us would be the tell-tale mark. (John 13:34-35)

The love between members? That’s the essence of Christian fellowship.

It’s not as fragile as you might think. It’s pretty sturdy stuff, actually. But, turn from your allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ and start demanding that others tow the mark and live up to your expectations and that fellowship will disappear like the fog on a warm August morning.

Over the past week, while I’ve been traveling in my car, I’ve listened to an 11-hour recorded book on a year in the life of William Shakespeare. One of the many points that lodged itself inside me was how the Bard of Avon would continually go back and tamper with his plays. He was always in search of just the right word, and if he couldn’t find one, he would make it up. As a result, his writings are for the ages and as long as humanity walks this planet, they will read his words and laud him as the master of the English language.

I’m not writing works of art here. This is more stream of consciousness stuff, so bear with me.

My preacher friend was pouring out his pain to me. The last church he had served had mistreated him, just as it had the previous half-dozen ministers. In the midst of what he saw as a thriving ministry, the deacons had decided the church would be better off with new leadership and suddenly he was without a church. Since that time, a few weeks earlier, no church had invited him to preach and he was hurting. He said, “Joe, I have to preach! Preaching is my passion.”

Trying to be as gently as I could, I said, “Hey, friend, that might be the problem right there. Preaching is not supposed to be your passion. Jesus Christ wants to be your passion.”

Give him credit, he took the blow. He looked like I had slapped his face. “Oh, wow. You’re right. Thank you for that reality check.”

Same for your church. People are not to be your passion. Not reaching people, not soulwinning, or crusades, or innovations, or a thousand other features of modern mega-churches. Jesus Christ and He alone is worthy of occupying center stage in your life and the life of your church.

Keep Him first, at all times, but particularly when the finances get tight and the stresses build up, and watch how God works.

6 thoughts on “Christian Fellowship III: The Greatest Church Growth Principle

  1. Joe,

    Great article. I wish that more people understand that: 1) a passion for Jesus is to supercede our passion for everyone and everything else in life, and 2) the spirit of fellowship within the church determines whether or not that church is going to be moving forward. Thanks again.



  3. Agian, God has used your ministry to help many. Pastors and people need to hear and understand what you have communicated in this little “stream of thought” message.

    I believe that God does cause all things to work for good for his people – even the bad things we do to ourselves. Not an excuse to do bad but a reminder of the powerful love of God for His own.

    Every pastor needs to think on the things you have written here and ask God to open their eyes to the reality of their ministry and be prepared to change as God gives direction. May we all hunger for the will of God as a drowning man hungers for air and may we build love for one another as the bedrock of our church relationships.

  4. I especially like your comment that the love of the congregation for one another and for Christ supercedes whatever it is that we happen to be voting on. The problem happens when pastors like me and their congregants decide that a particular issue is worth “going to the mattresses,” and we go for a win at all costs mentality. Then good people, who agree on 99% of the issues (and 100% of the important stuff) decide they can no longer worship together. Tragic. Thanks for the reminder of the incredible importance of fellowship. I know following your advice means I’ll eat a bit of crow now and then, but it will be well worth it.


  5. Doctor…I heard an old-time preacher telling us pastors that we need to sort out three things in a conflict….Is it worth arguing over?,,,Is it worth fighting for?…and, Is it worth dying for? He went on to say that many will die for things that are not worth arguing over! Haven’t we often fought over the minor while ignoring major problems? You do good, being from Winston County!

  6. i was looking for some ways that we can do to build up the finances in our church. Prayer is deffinitely the answer. the lord has truly helped us in some tight times. our pastor promotes love in our assembly and it is a witness tool. people see us work together and show love and they say that is what attracts them. it is rare to find nowadays.

Comments are closed.