I learned how to disciple others out of necessity. I was in my first year as a pastor and realized I knew zilch (technical term for ‘nothing’) about the process because I had never been discipled by another person. I had ‘learned’ how to follow Jesus through reading Christian books, sermons, Sunday School lessons and those famous all night youth lock-ins. I probably absorbed more from watching my parents live out the faith—which is as it should be. But no one ever took me under his or her wing and intentionally invested time in teaching me to walk as Jesus did. As a result, I had no pattern to follow when I started to work with new believers coming to faith as adults. I read everything I could on discipleship, used the most popular materials available at the time and learned both from my mistakes and God’s leading how to guide someone into deeper intimacy with and obedience to Jesus.
Helping people learn to live the life by pursuing God was addictive. I decided when I came to Florida to plant a new church that I would teach others how to do what I had been practicing for the first ten years of ministry. I remember recruiting my first disciplers. I had a core of early 30-something-year-old leaders emerging already in the second year of the church’s existence. Just as I had never been formally discipled myself, none of these leaders had been either. They were game to try, but a little apprehensive. “How are we supposed to do this? How long will it take to raise up a maturing disciple? What if the new believer we are discipling doesn’t prepare?” were their questions during the training. I told them to trust what the Spirit shows them and that they would do fine. And they did. This made all the difference in the growth of our church.
If you want to have a robust discipling system, one to one discipling is an important approach that you will want to develop. It may not be the whole of what you do, but without having people able to guide others, you are handicapping your discipleship process. Why is this so? One reason is that people need to be exposed to both the cognitive and relational aspect of the faith. Hearing the Word without being exposed to someone doing the Word often falls short in its life impact. People need the gospel with skin on it, so to speak. Another reason this matters is that people progress in the faith at different speeds. A one class lecture that fits all does not exist. One to one discipling allows new believers to ask their questions and understand how God’s truths apply to their personal situation at the pace they are ready to hear.
Many churches recognize one to one discipleship as being one of the best approaches for guiding new believers to maturity, but have no idea how to cultivate a team to do this in their congregation. Here are some early steps that can help you if you choose to intentionally start such a team.
Choose people who are going somewhere with God, even if they are not fully mature. Ying Kai and Steve Smith (another one, not me) wrote T4T, which is about a discipleship revolution in a part of Asia where people were not so much discipled as they were trained to be trainers, which is what the book title means (Training 4 Trainers). What Ying discovered as he was being used to start a church planting movement in his country, was to expect people to do what they were being taught—witnessing, devotion to God, prayer, etc., then expect them to immediately begin teaching others to do what they were doing. This led to the rapid multiplication of both disciples and leaders.
While new believers also need sound doctrine to soak into their minds, walking as Jesus walked is transferable at a very early stage of the discipling process. So do not discount how God can use people who are in your congregation as disciplers. If they are showing that they are going somewhere with God, recruit them to guide others. Remember that discipling another person often pushes the discipler further on ahead in his or her own faith.
Choose portable materials. A common mistake that is made in starting discipling is in choosing materials that require a Bible degree to use. If your goal is to train trainers, then you want to put materials in their hands that the learner will be able to lead someone else through when they are asked to be a discipler. Remember that using simple materials does not mean they should lack depth. Instead, use materials that can easily be understood and mastered by a young believer.
What helped me in choosing materials was learning to think like a new believer. I was brought up in church and all my life I had been exposed to biblical truths. I learned to listen to those I was discipling to figure out what I was assuming they knew (which they did not) and what would best help them gain understanding of the faith. If you have never discipled a new believer personally, take the time to chat with several of those who are new to the faith to discover this for yourself.
Make it simple. When I started teaching disciplers how to do it, I emphasized that they were preparing the new believers with whom they were working to become disciplers. So the goal was not for them to teach by lecture, but by questions. I taught them four questions that they were to use each time they met with the person they were discipling.
Go and make disciplers!
The church I was visiting had grown from a plant to over 1000 attenders. I sat with the pastor before the Sunday morning celebration and listened to him express both the blessing and challenge of leading such a large congregation. As I probed his current needs, he suddenly said, “I need help. I find that the systems that worked well when the church was at 250 people are no longer doing the job for us now.” What he meant was the systems that had been set up to handle 250 people lacked the capacity for 1000 and were now overtaxed and workers were being burned out. People who were looking for ways to connect more deeply with the church were finding “no vacancy” signs on the doors of the growth systems—small groups, ministries and missions—that formerly had absorbed all who sought entry in the past. After months of frustration, they would wander away to another congregation.
Maybe you have had a similar experience with people who explored joining your church family. You feel like you are a good pastor and that your congregation is pretty healthy. Maybe you are averaging 60 or 120 or 200 in attendance right now and believe the current influx of visitors could strengthen your church’s impact on the community. But it just appears that people who would have stayed and become part of the congregation—maybe they attended for numerous months—wandered away to another congregation without a reasonable cause. I suggest that a possible reason is that your church has systems that prevent the congregation from retaining people. In short, you lack capacity for more people.
Churches face growth barriers when they add people through conversion and transfer growth. Barriers are not just about where you find more people to lead and shepherd. Barriers exist when you fill up all the slots that can comfortably be filled in a system. If your systems can take care of forty people, the forty-first will spill out. The hypothetical question, “What would you do if God sent one hundred new people to your church today?” is answered by most churches with the probable answer, “Lose them.” Why? Because for most churches, their systems will just not absorb more people.
It is probable that you have never grasped that this is a valid reason explaining why certain churches grow and others do not. As you think about the church of which you are part, you may not have a clue about the systems with which you have an increasing-capacity issue. You may even feel defensive about the way you “do church.” If I asked, you would probably point to all kinds of reasons people should have stayed—your theological depth, your commitment to the family, or even the classic, “We are a friendly church!” You like your church family and its ways of getting things done. If those visitors had stayed, they would have discovered that your church is a fun place to be.
Let me clue you in—what is fun and functional at one growth level may keep you from going on to the next. Children are fun when they are toddlers. But you would be concerned if your teenager had the skeletal make-up or the brain capacity of a two year old. You should have the same level of concern if you want your church to grow. The systems that you develop and use have to match the needs of your congregation’s growth into its next stage of life. Church systems must grow and change to allow the church to grow. This is the decisive issue. Upgrading a variety of systems in your church is critical for overcoming each progressive growth barrier.
Increasing a church’s size also means becoming a different kind of organized organism. Do not misunderstand the implications of this truth. Every time a church grows to another level in size, the speed of the leaders’ decisions and the pressure on systems increases. Think of this in terms of baseball. When a child plays in little league, he or she is doing the same things a pro baseball player is. The child fields, throws and bats, just like a big leaguer. But a child, even a teen, could not hit a fastball thrown by a professional pitcher. Or run the bases at the speed needed to beat the throw of a pro outfielder. Church size has this same aspect. To lead and maintain the next size up church, the pastor and leaders have to gain speed in diagnosing problems, shifting system approaches and implementing changes.
Leading a growing church means figuring out how to do what is needed to be a healthy and spiritually alive congregation differently than the way it has been done up to now. Otherwise, the lack of attention to capacity-increasing systems will not only limit growth, it can reverse growth. Not having the appropriate systems to consolidate new growth can also burn out staff and volunteers trying to meet all the emerging needs.
Before discussing what systems you may need to upgrade in order to increase capacity at your church, it is helpful to categorize church sizes. Different studies have offered diverse groupings, so the one offered here is only a guideline to help you determine where your church is currently. In each category of the kind of church mentioned, the median range of attendance is bolded.
2-35-50—A family church where everyone is still able to meet in a house together. This kind of church tends to be tightly knit and have people involved in all decisions. Often the pastor is bi-vocational at this size.
51-110-150—A single-cell church in which the pastor partners with a changeable lay team to offer leadership. Connection to this church for new people is often through the pastor, who functions as a shepherd.
151-250-350—A multi-celled church, in which people may not know all the attenders anymore. The leadership is often given by a select group of people who work with the pastor. Connection in this church is through its small groups. The pastor often functions as the equipper.
351-600-900—A large church, which is led by some form of eldership (but not necessarily called that). Connection with this church is through a variety of growth systems (small groups, ministries, missions). The pastor functions as a leader over leaders.
901-2000-plus—A mega-church, which is staff-led. Connection to this church is through mini-congregations. The pastor functions as the primary vision-caster.
Each size church has unique challenges which call for a different way to do its systems. If you are seeking to grow to the next size, then you will not want to set up your church’s systems to fit the size you are now but where you plan to go. Otherwise you are not increasing capacity and will bounce up and then back down to the level you are now. In the next several blogs, you will be exposed to the main systems that need to be developed to move through the growth barrier affecting your church.
Want more on systems? Check out this book…
I suspect that no one is surprised by the idea that a good leader needs a team of people around him. John Maxwell calls this The Law of the Inner Circle, meaning “Think of any highly effective leader and you will find someone who surrounded himself with a strong inner circle.” In the church, a smart leader looks for or raises up other leaders to work with, knowing that he or she cannot grow a ministry alone, nor live without the accountability of others. And we are truly only as strong as our team.
While we will all acknowledge our need for good team members to share the burdens of leadership in ministry, many leaders do not know how to build a good team. Many church leadership teams turn out to be ineffective, even when populated with strong and godly people. I have known a number of leaders who, after weathering battles of control and disagreements with their “team,” opted to go it alone, as in: “I have no one I can count on but myself.” And that has resulted in both limited ministry and exhaustion.
So, what are the foundational issues for building a strong, effective team, one that works well together and is able to handle conflict without combat? Here are six criteria to look at when team building that can guide you….
Spiritual Maturity: The apostles in Acts 6 told the church to choose among them leaders full of the Spirit and wisdom. In other words, these were men who had grown to such a level of maturity that the whole church could see it. Point—avoid choosing team mates based on ability alone. Examine where they are in their walk with God.
Agenda Harmony: I cannot emphasize this one enough! You experience effective leadership in a church when all leaders are moving in the same God-given direction. Choose team members based on their agreement with the church’s vision. Tom Nebel, a national church planting leader, says he doesn’t need a lot of “yes-men” around him, but he does need “uh huh-men,” meaning people who share his vision and ideas for the ministry he leads. They help him shape specific steps, and at times, may question some of his thinking, but they agree about where he is leading the ministry. For your team, find people who share your vision for the church, instead of those who seek to pull it in another direction.
Doctrinal Harmony: Look for people who have the same understanding of God and His revelation. Of course, leaders may have minor differences about the second coming or spiritual gifts. But when leaders view God and His church differently, it will affect the harmony and direction of the team in time.
Strength Appreciation: Do we complement or compete with each other? I knew of a worship team where one of the members wanted the leader’s job. She was always disappointed and created disharmony within the team. If you choose members that see how their gifts can help you, who want you to succeed—and are expecting your strengths to help them succeed—you will build a strong team.
Reproducers: Look for people who reproduce themselves in ministry. Good team members need a Kingdom mentality, that ministry is about extending God’s Kingdom, instead of building up a personal following. Reproducers raise up other leaders and are least likely to be competitors for position and control. They give ministry away to others in healthy ways.
Friendship: I mention this last, because it is often misused. Too many teams are built with friendship as the main reason for being chosen. While we can be happy with people we like, friends may not be real leaders. Further, the problem with friendship as the main test is it often prevents honest differences being aired.
Having said that, it remains true that good leadership teams are full of people who like each other. They may not be the closest friends, but the best teams have respect for and love the others as persons. Ask yourself the question when recruiting a team member: “Is this a person the team can enjoy being with?” If the answer is, “No.” then be cautious in asking him or her to join with you.
I have been a team builder all my ministry life. At times, I have decided to ask people to join my team who were not necessarily the best choices, but because they met these six criteria, they turned out to be wonderful partners. Sometimes, I did not ask people who were obviously qualified in many ways for some of the above reasons. You are only as strong as your team. Think through your team—or lack of one—and start making changes to build a team that will help you to achieve the ministry goals that God has led you to pursue.
I know of a church that has a congregation of over 500 attenders, but only one pastor on staff. Looking in from the outside, you might wonder how one person can possibly handle the demands of so many. But if you take an inside look and see, you would discover that this church has a masterful leadership system. Much of the ministry work is being done by leaders he has trained and empowered. What he has is a “Jethro” system of leadership, based on the model found in Exodus 18.
Many of you already know the backstory to this model that Moses’ father-in-law explained to him. Probably the biggest aspect of any church being able to increase capacity is their plan for an expandable leadership “skeleton.” The Jethro model is one way of visualizing this skeleton. In it you have small ministry leaders, who are leaders of people (i.e. leaders of 10), large ministry and development leaders, who function as leaders of leaders (i.e. leaders of 50) and those who operate as either lay or vocational staff, leading the church (i.e. leaders of 100). Leaders of 1000 only come into play when the church begins to make the transition from a church of 500 to a church of 1000+. These leaders function as visionaries and provide focal point leadership to other top leaders. Below is a visual idea of what a Jethro model should look like in your church.
Leadership is the main frame on which the church is hung. Without such a skeleton, even the best DNA of the church’s vision will not be enough to sustain the church in reaching its potential. While I will cover this more fully when I write about leadership development, most churches lack capacity because the few leaders the church has cannot possibly provide enough leadership to develop the church to its fullest potential, to the disappointment of those who desire the church to thrive.
Why do you need a leadership skeleton? First, you need one because as you go forward, you must delegate responsibility to emerging leaders of 50 or you will be swamped with too many direct reports. Trying to maintain a flat organization with everyone coming to you as the leader will eventually eat up all your time and kill you or the church’s momentum towards growth.
Second, having a skeleton means that you are planning to exercise quality control over important ministries. This also contributes to increasing capacity. Quality control is different from micro-managing. Micro-managing means an overseer is really running the ministry instead of its leader. Quality control is making sure a ministry stays on course according to its intended purpose and in harmony with the church’s vision. A leadership skeleton assures that no ministry leader of 10 or leader of 50 lacks someone who knows what they are to do and is in close view of their ministry work for the church.
Third, this approach to leadership provides a pathway to grow in ministry. Faithfulness and fruitfulness at the leader of 10 level will make that person available to advance in responsibility if he or she desires that opportunity. This leadership skeleton also provides a natural pathway towards mentoring every level of leaders. The expectation is the leader at the next level will be the mentor for the leaders under his or her responsibility.
Your church needs all levels of leaders. The Jethro leadership system is based on the rule of thumb that you will need one leader for every ten attenders and one leader over every five leaders. These are estimates but the truth is, the more leaders you have, the better you can keep the church’s small groups, ministries and missions (Growth Systems) from drifting away from the vision. Keep in mind that one of the functions of leadership is to create more leaders so that the work of the church can expand. A second function of leadership is to resolve challenges facing the church in following its vision. These two factors make up the core of the leadership system and can be addressed through a good leadership skeleton.
One place I find the greatest need for this in churches is in their growth systems. A growing small group, ministry or mission has a voracious appetite for leaders. And churches throw as many leaders into these systems as they have, but not always wisely. I once chatted with a staff person who planned to go from eight small groups to thirty the next year. When I quizzed him about oversight of these new groups, he was confident that he alone could oversee them all. I explained that what he was creating was a jellyfish—one of the largest animals that exist without a skeleton. The result, I predicted, was that within the year, he would see some of these groups stray away from the objectives the church had set out. Unfortunately, I was right.
On the other hand, I have been in large churches where just walking through ministry areas I have spotted leaders of 50 who provided the oversight over leaders of 10. They consistently provide the glue that strengthens the church’s work and allows it to grow naturally.
I will continue to expand on leadership in the next several articles, including how to develop your leadership as well as leadership training systems.
I met a great church planter in a North Carolina restaurant. He was a sharp, articulate entrepreneur kind of guy, just at the front end of what will probably be a very long and fruitful ministry. Since successfully planting his church four years before, he had started two daughter churches in nearby towns. As he shared the details of these churches, he mentioned that one was running over 1000 people. I had learned that he was still seeking to break the two-hundred barrier for his own church so it could grow further. Intrigued, I asked him why one of his daughter churches had grown so much bigger and faster than the one which had initiated it. He answered without hesitation, “When that pastor started, he had a partner who was all about systems. That’s all this guy does—put together the systems that make the church work. I, on the other hand, do not understand systems and need to learn.”
That planter’s experience is why I teach healthy church systems to church planters and pastors of established churches alike. I know that systems alone are not the magic pill leaders are looking for to grow a church. But I also know that even terrific leaders cannot increasingly retain, train and guide new people into the life of the church without workable systems. It does not matter how spiritually deep your pastor’s walk is with God, how outstanding his preaching is, or even how good an evangelist you and the leaders in your church are. The church is an organism that requires functional structures to grow. To ignore systems is to put an unseen lid on your church’s growth capacity.
“System” is a word used to define the dynamics of how your church does its ministry in each area. It does not mean program. It is merely a descriptive shorthand for how a church accomplishes a necessary function—such as discipleship, leadership training, or finances—regularly and consistently. Other churches may do the same task differently. What your church does depends on the Spirit and the vision of the church.
There is no one right or only way to do any church system. Nor is there anything wrong with copying parts of another church’s system. The issue is to make sure you are aware that you have all the parts of a system and not just incomplete pieces of a system. Systems, unlike programs, have multiple facets and have to be developed progressively. Many churches make the mistake of buying a program to patch a hole in their structure, not knowing that the program does not fully cover the hole. Significant parts can be missing because the acquired program contains only the most exciting portion of another church’s complete system. And so when the new program does not work in the same way for the purchasing church, people are frustrated. And the real problem is not the program, but the lack of the other parts of the system.
Furthermore, the real key for choosing how to do a system in a way that works for you is by making sure what you adapt for your church is in keeping with the vision and strategy that you are pursuing. There are ways of doing a system in your church that will never work for you just because it is not suitable for your situation. Knowing this one key will save you time and frustration.
Here is the real question for a system: Is there evident fruit from the way you do it? If the system you use is not producing the results you are asking it to produce, then either the system is missing some necessary parts or it is not being led by the right leader. Or the problem may be that you have outgrown the system you used because you have grown to another level of attendance. While this is a good problem, failing to address this in a timely fashion may discourage the people you are trying to serve through that system.
Why should you work on your church’s systems? Here are five reasons.
Below is the chart of church systems.
I have been a systems coach for over a decade. I have mentored pastors who took systems seriously. One of the first planters I coached in systems came up with a visual model for his systems based on building a house from the foundation up. His church continues to grow. Another pastor realized he would not be the one who developed the systems for his church, so he brought the leader who would to our coaching sessions. He still thanks me every time I see him and has referred a number of pastors to me for help. I also have sat with those who listened politely, took no notes, did none of the challenging work, and continue to wonder why their church does not grow.
I invite you to discover what you do not know about healthy systems. You may say you already know how to do this or the other system. But what if you have overlooked something that would make your system stronger and more productive? Your system may not be missing much, but what is missing may be the key difference between growth and frustration. It’ll be worth your time to find out and do it better. Increasing Church Capacity Primer: Learn to Think in Systems contains a thorough introduction to church systems and also includes an evaluation tool to help you see what systems in your church are going well and which ones need to be addressed.