Let me start by saying that I’m very, very happy with our preacher. This is a post for churches looking to hire a preacher — and for Christian college presidents — and for churches who already have an excellent preacher.
Point 1: Although the literature often omits this, it’s very likely true that the first requirement for church growth, especially for a large church, is a really good preacher.
Now, as an elder in the Churches of Christ, I’m not supposed to say this. After all, in our theology, a preacher is a hired hand, working under the oversight of the elders. And only elders and deacons get to be leaders. We therefore don’t like to talk about preachers as great leaders. They’re just supposed to be great speakers.
And it’s not a fashionable thing to say in terms of Church Growth Movement theory. The guys who write the books — the preachers — generally insist that the preacher doesn’t drive growth. But they’re wrong.
In Beyond Megachurch Myths, the authors compared large churches that still had the original preacher under whom they’d grown and those churches that had had to change preachers. The result — not really surprising — was that churches that had changed preachers either stopped growing or else grew much more slowly than before. I was surprised that the churches had not shrunk! Also, see this site.
This tells us that the right preacher is both essential and rare. I mean, if a gigantic church can’t find a replacement preacher without losing momentum, who can?
Point 2: The Churches of Christ have a shortage of preacher talent. I can’t prove this, but I know it’s true. It’s probably true of all denominations.
I know it’s true because I’ve served on committees doing preacher searches. And while there are a lot of good guys out there, very few are adequately prepared to preach in a large, growing church. And, for this, I blame the Christian colleges.
You see, tuition just keeps going up, and our colleges and universities generally give only minimal scholarship help for preaching students. They might give a $1,000 stipend or some such, but that’s about it.
Now, if a young minister graduates with a college degree and $60,000 or more of school debt, he’s in a world of hurt. I mean, starting salaries are low. Worse yet, large, progressive churches don’t want to hire someone just out of college.
Smaller churches will take a chance, but smaller churches tend to be conservative and legalistic. And our colleges tend to produce grace-oriented preachers (which is good, but tough on getting a job!)
And our churches only want to hire someone who’s married. We live in an age when young people are delaying marriage decisions, meaning a lot of bright, talented preaching graduates aren’t married and so aren’t employable.
Now, if you’re a spiritual young man trying to make a career decision, would you be willing to incur $60,000 in debt on the chance that once you graduate you’d be (a) married and (b) able to find a small church willing to hire you? I think a lot of young men whom God has gifted for ministry find themselves unwilling to face these hurdles. They go into business or something and decide they’ll serve as volunteers at church while working a “secular” job. Better to work for free than to get paid and starve.
Oh … and let’s not forget that smaller churches generally offer no health insurance, no retirement, and when they fire you, no severance. See this post.
The least the Christian colleges should do is cut tuition in half or less. But they don’t. Rather, they give athletic scholarships to non-Christians while ignoring the desperate needs of the churches that support them. And they wonder why there are so few large Churches of Christ.
It’s not the theology so much as the lack of full-time leadership. We have leaders, of course, but just not enough.
You know, somehow or other, many of these megachurches are training there own preachers and sending them out to plant churches, many of which grow into megachurches. And if a large church can do it, why can’t our colleges do it?
Conclusion. We need more preachers. And we especially need more preachers who are talented as leaders of men and women who are trained in building vital, growing congregations. A college can train leaders to be better leaders. They can’t train non-leaders to be leaders.
To get men with the talents we need, we need to cut them a break on tuition. And we need internship programs that let these precious talents be nurtured by proven leaders, so they come out of school with the experience needed to get them hired.
And we need to get over our prejudice against single ministers. (I’ve known many ministers who’ve fallen to sexual sin. All were married.)
Comments in response to David’s question that are too long to type in the comment box:
Point 3. I entirely agree with David’s comment (below) that churches should not be built on a foundation of the preacher’s personality. And that is certainly not what I’m suggesting. I’ve seen that movie and didn’t like the ending!
Rather, the question I’m trying to investigate is what is the best organizational philosophy for a large church growing larger. As churches grow, they have to change their organizational or leadership structure to accommodate the challenges their new size presents. Churches of 500 that try to operate like a church of 200 will stop growing and likely shrink over time.
We were taught at an eldering seminar a couple of years ago that a church can’t grow any larger than a church that can be administered by part-time volunteers unless the elders allow the full-time staff authority to manage the church day to day (which seems obvious once someone points it out). The elders, if they’re not careful, can choke off growth just by not changing how they operate.
There are several models for how this might be done. And, plainly, the elders must retain the general oversight of the church. The key element is that the elders can’t delegate responsibility while simultaneously insisting on approving all the decisions. (More on this in future posts.)
In Break Out Churches Thom Rainer concludes that the key ingredient of church growth is the right pastor — but the right pastor is a servant-leader who does not focus the spotlight on himself and who works diligently to accomplish the vision of the church. The book is well summarized at http://www.joshhunt.com/mail114.htm. Good to Great is a similar book in the business world, reaching similar conclusions.
George Barna, in Turn Around Churches, concludes based on survey data that the number one factor in churches that change from declining to growing is a change in pastor. Barna explains in an interview,
One of the necessary components is that those churches brought in a new individual to be their primary leader, and that individual is not just a preacher-teacher — not that that’s bad, we need those — but that the individual who came in to spearhead that ministry was first and foremost a leader. This is one of the driving difficulties we have in most churches in America today. We have good people who are well-educated, good-intentioned and called to ministry, but they are not for the most part leaders. They are teachers, preachers, counselors, they have good skills, and they certainly have spiritual gifts and they can help people, but they can’t lead. …
You see, most of the churches in America have no God-given vision that they’re centered on. And so what do we wind up doing? We revert to playing the religious game. Let’s have more programs, let’s get more people in the seats, let’s build a bunch of buildings — all the things about which the world would say, “Ah, that’s success.” This has nothing to do with God’s equation of “Are you holy? Are you obedient? Are you serving? Do you want to be like Christ?” So we’ve missed the boat there. We’ve got to have the leadership component.
The right preacher matters quite a lot, but not because the church should be personality centered. Barna seems to be saying that the church has to be missional but to change into a missional church requires excellent leadership.
And it’s very hard to build a church around an ineffective preacher (I’ve seen that movie, too), but I’ve seen churches grow quite large with a preacher who isn’t a great speaker. However, he has to be great as a leader — as a quiet motivator, mentor, and equipper and as a single-minded, insistent voice for remaining true to the church’s vision.
Elders and others can and do lead, but if the preacher doesn’t lead — and lead well — the church may well grow, but it won’t grow much. Pretty soon, the elders and other church leaders will be worn out trying to lead around the preacher (also a very ugly movie).
And if you find yourself a leader, the leader has to be freed to lead. Of course, the wrong staff can frustrate it. But if the staff is truly on board, the question becomes, again, what is the best organizational philosophy? Do all decisions have to go through the elders? Or do they delegate to the staff? And just where should the line be drawn?
Future posts will address these questions.