Organic Church Growth: The First Season

Organic Church Growth: The First Season December 4, 2017
Organic Church Growth

The first – and also, the final – season of church growth is the ‘organic season’. There is a likelihood that the church at its beginning has to make do with its natural resources. It has to work with what and who it has! In that sense, organic church growth happens very naturally. This organic season is right at the beginning of a church’s life. Numbers tend to be small because it is a new work and is beginning.

This season can also be the last season of a church’s life. A faithful remnant is all that remains after the decline of a church over the years. They soldier on, believing God for a turnaround in the fortunes of the church. Yet nothing is changing, and the people are at a loss why.

So what traits are common during this season? Oftentimes, there is a high sense of unity amongst the key players in the church. They often agree on major doctrinal issues, values and practices. Because of this, there will be strong relationships as well. Genuine friendships will exist, formed over many years or through a shared history or experience.

In a church of this size, all hands are on deck and everyone is involved. There isn’t the luxury of ‘passengers!’ There is an energy and excitement amongst the busyness of church life, powered by the faith of the few. These are the ones who are committed to what they believe God is doing.

Because the size is small, money is usually tight as well. Occasionally there are a few key benefactors who are primarily funding the church, but no-one minds. There is a resultant family feel generated because the same people meet regularly. This allows everyone who is consistently part of proceedings to have a voice.

Ultimately, the hearts of the people are for others to join them in their big adventure, so they see growth not just amongst themselves in spiritual maturity, but also numerically.

Mission During Organic Church Growth

During this season, the church mission is the key growth engine and adherence to it will determine if the church succeeds or not. If the church mission isn’t focused on reaching new people, and activity isn’t primarily geared towards outreach, over time the church will diminish and shrink as members of the congregation age or move away due to life’s circumstances.

Key questions to answer during this season include:

1. As a church, who are you called to reach?
2. As a church, how do you reach out to them?
3. As a church, after reaching out, how do you meaningfully connect with them?
4. How do you stay connected to them?

The Great Commission – which is the foundation for all authentic church mission statements – is pretty clear. Jesus said ‘GO into all the world.’ He didn’t say ‘STAY and wait for the world to come!’

A clear, concise mission statement that is built on the apostolic purpose of your church will help keep this focus front and centre.

Vision During Organic Church Growth

The vision during the organic season is a whirlwind of dreams, hopes, and ‘what-ifs.’ There is an energy and excitement and as people are drawn to what the leader, and the people, are stirred about, the zeal is multiplied. There is a beautiful tension between the prophetic imagination and the scale of some dreams when facing the current reality of being part of only a small number of people. Any vision that is held will only flourish with the addition of more people, so whilst this season is a season for dreaming and imagining, it mustn’t take over the actual work of winning souls.

Culture During Organic Church Growth

Because there is a core group of people wholly subscribed to the work, there is a real sense of family. A culture of family is very attractive to many people, who are seeking to belong to a community, feel part of something bigger than themselves, and have a ‘tribe’ they can support and be supported by.

A risk is that this ‘family-feel’ becomes an unhealthy clique, and the church develops two-tiers. The upper tier is formed by those part of the ‘family’, who are on the inside, control the money, and who make all the decisions. The lower tier is those not part of the circle of trust, who not in word but in practice are treated as outsiders. A true focus on reaching new people and incorporating them into the church will prevent such an inward-looking, self-serving, church-killing mentality.

Another cultural aspect is the leader-driven nature of the work. Whether a full or part-time employee, or a volunteer, there will be a clear leader or leadership couple. Some people will have joined the work because of the trust they have in these leaders. Irrespective of motives, by nature of this season of church life, all the significant ministry and decisions will be placed at the leader’s feet. Whilst this isn’t unexpected, it’s important to begin modelling training, delegation and empowerment. Give ministry opportunities and decision-making authority away to trusted, committed people. This will inject a value for empowered people – the priesthood of all believers – into the DNA of the church. Trying to do this later on, when reacting to too many demands, means a leader is fighting against an existing expectancy of the leader doing all the preaching, pastoring, visiting, counselling and even maintenance. It will prove to be a much bigger uphill battle further down the road.

In the same way, leaders here need to be wise in how they lead. Many of us have strong gifts that we love to use, but if we aren’t careful then we may cause more problems. As a general rule, the smaller the church, the more generalist all leaders need to be. As the church grows, specialist ministers can be released or hired. In that sense, if the leader functions more as a teacher than a leader, you will have a small church that is very well taught, but just that – small. Most non-believers aren’t attracted to deep Bible studies on the Hebrew of Leviticus. It’s a generalisation, but unless they have an evangelistic gift, teachers aren’t naturally great at evangelism unless they are quoting scriptures at people who don’t see the Bible the same way as they do.

The same principle is true for leaders who are primarily pastoral. Their natural focus will be the believers already with them. All churches need pastors, but not all churches need pastors leading them. Unfortunately, many churches demand pastors as their leaders because they have an inwards, ‘feed me’ mentality. A pastoral culture that is dominant will be geared towards the needs of the people in the church, and not the needs of the people outside it. In the same way, a leader with a primarily prophetic gifting will lead the people into experiences and encounters with the Spirit of God but a firstly prophetic culture will gather around signs, wonders and experiences – a small club of people excited about exciting things, but losing the main goal of reaching the lost.

At the church’s current season, it needs a leader who can adapt to the season, which now demands an evangelistic focus prioritised above pastoring, the prophetic or teaching. People do need pastoring, the prophetic and teaching, but not above reaching the lost.

These things add up to a conclusion: don’t call your main leader ‘Pastor’. Call him or her a Senior Leader. If you call them ‘Pastor’, the expectation of people will be that they exist to care for them. ‘Leader’ avoids this trap and is adaptable for the needs in future seasons of church growth. This stops non-pastoral leaders being forced into a straitjacket they aren’t gifted for, and protects people from feeling hurt by a pastor who doesn’t seem aware of their deepest needs.

These culture-shaping decisions not only affect the leader, but also the people. An evangelistic culture that focuses on reaching new people is essential, especially if the existence of the church has come from any other reason than as an intentional church plant.

Some churches form because people have been hurt in a previous church, maybe because of leadership excesses, or disappointment. If these congregations do not maintain a focus on evangelism, the culture they will gravitate towards will be pastoral. They’ll serve each other’s needs, protecting themselves to avoid repeating what has happened before.

Churches that form because of doctrinal differences, or divisions over teaching or theology, will gather around a teaching culture. Churches that exist because of a hunger for more of the Spirit of God, and desire charismatic gifts or experiences of God’s presence will focus on a prophetic culture. None of these cultures is bad – in fact, each of them is essential for a healthy church. But at the organic season of church life, none are meant to be the central focus of a church.

Structure During Organic Church Growth

Simply put, there isn’t much of a structure! All roads lead to the leader, so it is key for the leader to identify trusted, committed people with godliness and gifting to assist and support them. This will protect the leader from burn-out, or from time spent on things of lesser importance. It will also develop other leaders and model to the church healthy leadership structure.

Structurally, churches will not grow past the organic season if the primary leaders keep control of every decision, every key ministry occasion and every opportunity for influence. Anyone with any kind of leadership gifting won’t stay in that environment for long. Nor will the prophetic voices continue to speak, because they’ll know and sense there isn’t a heart for change. Empowerment is key to prevent any culture of control rising up, so as leaders, our role is to identify, train and release other gifted people into leadership roles.

Financially, there may not be an abundance of money available. People give to a vision that inspires them, meaning that committed people who are with you will be giving. New people, or those who are ‘looking in’, won’t give yet. It is important to develop a plan for the level of finances you have, with faith for what God is saying to you. But at the same time, create opportunities for people to give. As people begin to show they are with you, through their attendance or serving, it would follow that they will begin to demonstrate the same through finances. John Wesley said that “the last part of a person to be converted is their wallet!” Part of the challenge of this season is raising finances without making it all about the money. Making it easy for people to begin giving, no matter the amount, is a great first step.

Staff-wise, employing the Senior Leader, earlier and part-time if possible, is a good move. Later, increasing the hours or hiring full-time will enable the leader to focus on the church. If money allows, part-time administrative help who can manage admin and finances will help ensure the leader isn’t spending time on these functions, away from the main focus of the work.

Strategy During Organic Church Growth

Because of the limited time and finances available during this season, it is important that the church strategy doesn’t overcommit and have too many events or meetings. Not only will this use crucial funds, but it will tire people out who find more evenings are swallowed up with church events. More church meetings mean less time for people to spend connecting with those outside the church. Additionally, the meetings more meetings that run, the more meetings will naturally drift away from the focus on non-believers and centre on the people in the church. This subtle shift will cause the church to plateau if left unchecked. This may seem harsh, but it will be a natural response to voices who want more teaching, more pastoring or more of the prophetic. Again, good things but at this phase of church life, not the main things. With these very real tensions in mind, focusing on two ‘wings’ of church meetings seems wisest.

The first ‘wing’ is to develop a strong main service. In one sense, it is your ‘shop window’ to demonstrate who you are to visitors. In another sense, it is the primary ‘family gathering’ to foster connections and community for newer people. Make it easy for you to connect with new people, but also for new people to connect with you! Let the people with you who have gifts of hospitality use them to make your meetings welcoming and friendly to all.

I don’t subscribe to a ‘seeker-sensitive’ model of church service where everything is geared towards non-believers – meaning short worship, no demonstrations of the power of the Holy Spirit, and elementary preaching. The people of God – the church – gather together to worship Him first and foremost. Out from that place of encounter, we minister to other people, whether they are saved or unsaved. Therefore demonstrations of spiritual gifts and strong, excellently crafted but entirely biblical preaching are essential. However, we do need to be ‘seeker-sensitive’. It is wise to avoid any language, practices or behaviours that would confuse, distract or put-off unbelievers. It is possible to have meetings that are accessible yet powerful – the two are not in opposition. It takes clear leadership to deliver both.

The second ‘wing’ to develop are small group-type meetings. Small groups that meet in peoples homes, or another informal but welcoming location, will help build community and deepen relationships for those who are with you, and those who are looking in. These groups are ideal for discipling people – whether new converts, young believers, or those with you who can be discipled in the use of their leadership, teaching, pastoral and prophetic gifts. Encourage people to be part of groups, and let them be places of life, risk and fun. All three will bring connection and growth with them.

Organic Church Growth: Summary

This is a key time in the life of a church, but also a vulnerable one. The enemy likes to distract or destroy churches and will often dangle nice, exciting ministry ideas on the path. Keep a missional, outreach focus and cultivate an evangelistic culture. If possible, bring in evangelists to teach, train, model, demonstrate and impact into your people.

Resist the easier and more immediately successful results that come from focusing on the prophetic, pastoral or teaching ministries. Have them, of course, but as secondary cultures for now. Their time will come.

Fight control and leader-centrism by empowering people in ministry through leadership and authority. Identify fellow leaders quickly and form informal teams that have genuine authority, responsibility and accountability. To paraphrase John Wimber, get others ‘doing the stuff.’

Don’t overcommit with activities – prioritise creating a good weekend service that is accessible to visitors so they can meet God and yourselves, and small groups that are discipling and training people through experiences. Think practical workshops rather than Bible studies or inward focused sessions.

Lastly, keep pressing on. A snowball takes time to start rolling down a mountain, but it picks up momentum before it turns into an avalanche! So keep going. God is with you!