The Power of Authenticity

When I was about 10 years old, I made friends with two brothers in my neighborhood, Tim and Jeff Ward. Perhaps because I didn’t have a brother living at home, or just for fun, I told them I had a twin brother named Mark. We would be playing Wiffleball, and I’d go home, change clothes, and come back as Mark. To help the ruse, I batted right-handed as Mike and left-handed as Mark. At first Mike was a better batter, but Mark steadily improved (which is how I became a decent switch-hitter).

After several weeks, Tim and Jeff started getting suspicious and asking me questions, like why we rode the same bike (our parents were too poor to afford two bikes) or why they never saw us together (because we only had the one bike!). When they came to our house, only one of us was ever around; the other had a game or was at another friend’s house. Then one day, Jeff asked my mom where Mark was. “Who’s Mark?” my mom asked. The gig was up.

Why do so many people pretend to be someone they’re not? I think it’s because they’re afraid others wouldn’t accept them as they are. So, we put on a mask that hides the real us. This happens particularly when the church gathers; we can’t be our real selves because we don’t think our fellow Christ followers would accept us as we really are: sinners saved by grace. We know the church ought to be the one place we should be accepted. But too often, it’s not. Someone said, “There’s more lying on Sunday morning than any other day of the week.” I would contend there’s just as much lying on Thursday night at small group, Saturday morning at the men’s fellowship, and other church gatherings. I would also contend people cannot grow spiritually in an environment of dishonesty.

Real discipleship can happen only where there is authenticity. If we cannot be real and admit our faults and frailties to one another, we cannot mature beyond where we are. But when we build an environment where we can be real with one another, sin loses its death grip on us. Because people love us “anyway” we have the encouragement we need to do battle against Satan’s attacks. The accountability of our friends helps us live the life we want to live but can’t live by ourselves.

I admit it’s not easy to be completely honest and transparent with others. It’s part of our sin nature that goes back to the beginning of humankind. Just as Adam and Eve’s sin caused them to hide from God and each other, our sin causes us to build barriers around ourselves to protect us from shame. The church needs the constant reminder that “There is no difference . . .  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). That’s one thing we all have in common.

To live life to the full and to be the authentic church God wants us to be, we must learn how to become an authentic community.

We don’t have to fight our spiritual battles alone. But when we gather with friends we trust and determine to grow in Christ together, we break down the barriers and become increasingly more authentic. We do this together.

The kinds of groups I’m describing here display God’s purposes for his redeemed community as the Scriptures proclaim:

“Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16).

Authenticity is the secret to finding mercy and healing. God’s church should be known as an authentic community. This authenticity should be growing in every area of the church (not just small groups).

People are drawn to authenticity, especially in an age where it seems there’s so little of it. For a long time, people were separated from community because of a pandemic. Others have never entered into authentic biblical community because of their sin and fear of being exposed. Either way, they’ve experienced loneliness and a host of other related emotions.

Imagine if your church or small group were an authentic, loving, others-first community where people’s lives are being transformed. People would want to be part of that, just as they were in the early days of the church. In this kind of church, the Lord would add “to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). May that be the church today!

This article appeared as the “From the Editor” column in the March/April issue of Christian Standard. It is adapted from Michael’s book, Small Group Vital Signs: Seven Indicators of Health That Make Groups Flourish, Touch Publications, 2012.

Real Friends, Real Transformation

I’m blessed to have been part of many authentic small groups over the years that God used to transform my life. The following is one example—the first small group I ever attended. As you read this narrative, see how many examples of authenticity you see.

When I first started attending church services at Centerville Christian Church (now called SouthBrook Christian Church) in Dayton, Ohio, I was alone and a brand-new Christ follower. I lived by myself and had no family in the area. My only acquaintances were people I worked with, most of whom were not Christians. I read through the Gospels and the book of Acts, but I had no idea how to incorporate my new beliefs into my everyday life. God had filled the void in my heart, but I sensed something else was missing. When I walked into the church building that first Sunday, my hope was that I would make friends with Christians, grow in my new faith, and find direction for my life.

An older couple named Harvey and Shirley greeted me warmly and asked me about myself. They told me a little about the church and then they invited me to their house for iced tea on their back porch. When the service concluded, they greeted me again and introduced me to some people my age, who in turn invited me to their small group. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so accepted.

When I got to the house for that first small group meeting, I drove around the block three times before finally parking my car and summoning the boldness to walk into that stranger’s home. I don’t remember what kind of snack was served, what we studied, or the prayer requests shared that night. But I do remember feeling very, very good about this group of people, and I wanted them in my life.

Over the next couple months, I enjoyed doing everyday things with these people. These weren’t just once-a-week-at-the-meeting acquaintances, but real friends who invited me into their lives. This is exactly what I was hoping to find as a new Christian. I didn’t know what to call it back then, but I was searching for authentic biblical community.

A week after my first visit to the group, two guys from the group, Paul and Eric, met with me to talk about where I was in my new faith. They asked more questions than they provided answers, but they took me to God’s Word as we talked about how I could grow in my faith. They taught me from the Bible about baptism, and two weeks later, Tom Jones, the minister at CCC, immersed me into Christ.

At one group meeting after I met with Paul and Eric, I shared that I was confused about God’s will for my new life. Now that I was “a new creature in Christ,” what was I supposed to do? I wondered out loud if I was in the right career. The group encouraged me and prayed with me to know God’s will.

Within a month of joining that small group, the company I worked for went through a takeover and my whole department was eliminated. I went to the group that night and told them what had happened. “What do I do now?” I asked. Again, they supported me and challenged me to seek God’s direction. I sensed that God wanted me to use my passion for writing, and they urged me to pursue it. When I was offered a seemingly great leadership position in a Chicago firm, they continued to help me seek God’s will. When I turned down the offer, they were there with me, supporting me through a tough decision. Then when I started packing up my apartment to move to attend Cincinnati Bible Seminary, they came and helped me load the truck.

It was hard saying goodbye to these friends God had brought into my life, but I knew he put them there for a season and for a reason. I ventured out of my comfort zone with a new relationship with God and a community of friends I knew would continue praying for me.

___

This article was first published at ChristianStandard.com, February 20, 2022.

Four Reasons Every Lead Pastor Should Be in a Small Group

Lead pastors who lead a small group create a win-win dynamic. The pastors and the churches they lead both become healthier and grow as a result. Jim Egli, who has served as a senior pastor, associate pastor, missions pastor, and missionary says that regardless of his role, he has always led a group. He offers these four reasons:

Small groups are at the heart of church health. Egli says a healthy church lives in authentic, Christ-centered, missional community, and a church that uses healthy groups – the focus being on the word healthy – will increase its health, effectiveness, growth, and multiplication.

Pastors’ involvement in small groups greatly multiplies the leadership base of the church. A strategic pastor will lead a purposeful small group of potential leaders who will become new group leaders, new elders, and new leaders in a variety of other vital leadership functions in the church. The strategic pastor will model the discovery, development, and deployment of new leaders so that those he disciples will go and do the same.

Jesus led a small group. Jesus was more interested in starting a movement than preaching a weekly sermon, so he gathered some ordinary, unschooled men and patiently shaped them into bold leaders who would change the world. What would happen if every pastor walked in the ways of Jesus as a group leader?

For your spiritual health you need to be in a small group. “A lot of leaders say it’s lonely at the top,” said Tyler McKenzie, lead pastor at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. “But it doesn’t have to be. I’m not lonely. I have the community of my small group.”

Every church leader needs that kind of authentic, Christ-centered, life-changing, mission-focused community. Every pastor needs a community in which to live out the “one another” passages of the New Testament.

Humbly admit your need and then boldly lead. You and your church won’t regret it.

____

Originally posted on ChristianStandard.com, Sept. 22, 2016.

Invite People Into a Journey, Not Just a Relationship

We often define the Christian life as a relationship. It’s a vital part of our theology and our language. We need a vertical relationship with God and horizontal relationships with others (ref., John 22:37-40; 1 John 1:3).

That’s absolutely true, but the Christian life is much more than that, and I believe we’ve inhibited our outreach and discipleship by communicating our faith only in relational terms (and through purely relational ministries).

In a January 2020 Christian Standard article, Don Wilson, said when he asks people, especially men, to make a decision to become Christ followers, “I ask them if they would like to begin an adventure with Jesus, rather than asking if they want a relationship with him.” (Wilson retired in 2017 as founding and senior pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley, a multisite church in the Phoenix, Arizona, area, and he now co-leads Accelerate Group, a nonprofit organization created to encourage and support pastors and their wives.)

When I came across this sentence, I momentarily forgot I was supposed to be editing Don’s article. I read the sentence several times and then typed it into my notes program. It was like I just found a lost piece of a jigsaw puzzle.

Following Jesus is a journey we go on with Jesus. We get to experience the relationship as we travel along with him on a wild adventure.

New believers need to know this from the beginning. We need to change our language and the way we teach them about what being a Christian is all about.

Think about it. What did Jesus say to people when he first called them to be his disciples? “Come have a relationship with me?” No. He said, “Come, follow me.” He invited them into a journey with him toward a specific destination. He would make them into fishers of men. He would turn followers into people sent on a mission. He would transform them into leaders of his church. Quite the adventure!

It all happened in relationship, but it was about much more than that.

Relationship, fellowship, community—these things are the environment into which Christians are reborn and in which they learn, mature, transform, serve, lead, and share their faith with others. It’s the setting for the sojourn, the atmosphere for the adventure, the ecosystem for the expedition.

I’m changing the way I communicate the good news and discipleship. “Join me on an adventure with Jesus! You’ll never be the same.”

All Leaders and Teams Would Benefit from Leading from the Heart

People still ask me questions about my book, Leading from the Heart, which I wrote 20 years ago. The subtitle, “A small group leader’s guide to a passionate ministry,” defines my original intended audience, small group leaders, plus the coaches and pastors who work with them.

Like several of my other books, the audience really includes a much larger category of leaders. I believe Christian leaders of all types will benefit from this book.

Leading from the Heart is based, at least on a surface level, on the life and leadership of King David, the “man after God’s own heart.” But each chapter also digs a bit deeper, looking at the heart and leadership of the son of David, Jesus. These two biblical leaders provide excellent models of leading from the heart.

But this book is much more than just a theological and theoretical treatise; it provides many practical leadership lessons for any leader. It also includes “Heart to Heart” questions at the end of each chapter that can be used for leadership training, turbo-groups, or coaching/mentoring relationships.

Contents:

Foreword by Lyman Coleman

Introduction

1. The Heart of the Father

2. The Heart of Jesus

3. A Heart Empowered and Led by the Holy Spirit

4. The Heart of the Call

5. Head and Heart

6. A Heart of Worship and Prayer

7. A Heart of Reconciliation

8. A Heart for Discipleship

9. The Heartbeat of Life: Relationships

10. Heart Attack!

Amazon page reviews

See my Product Page for more information, Praises for Leading from the Heart, and a link to buy the book directly from the publisher, TOUCH Outreach Ministries.

THE PANDEMIC’S LEADERSHIP LESSONS

The following is an excerpt from my October 2020 Letter from the Editor in Christian Standard magazine.

Great leaders have a blend of humility—they know that they don’t know everything—and a curiosity to discover answers. They are constantly learning from a variety of sources, beginning with God’s Word, but also through books, mentors, failures, crises, and personal struggles, to name just a few. Perhaps John F. Kennedy summarized it best: “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

The pandemic and all of its interconnected effects have provided a wellspring of important learning opportunities for us. Here are four I believe are especially worth considering.

1. The Lord’s Purpose Will Prevail. . . .

2. The Nimble Will Survive. . . .

3. Those Who Are Ready and Willing to Change Will Thrive. . . .

4. There’s No Going Back . . . or Maybe There Is. . . .

Perhaps this is an opportunity—a “divine appointment”—to go even further back than February 2020 … back to the basics in how we practice our faith and carry out Jesus’ mission … back to all believers seeing themselves as a kingdom of priests/ambassadors/ministers rather than as members being served by professional clergy … back to oikos ministry that naturally occurs in and out of Christ followers’ homes through personal relationships … back to a focus on going out to make disciples rather than “going to church” … back to the church as Jesus envisioned and built it.

_________________

Please CLICK HERE to read this article in full on the Christian Standard website.

The Art of Asking the Right Questions (Especially During Times of Crisis)

What do God’s people do when faced with challenges like a worldwide pandemic or civil unrest? We always have a choice: immediately seek solutions or turn to God. Of course, this is not a binary choice—we can do both—but it’s vital for God’s church that we “seek first” to place our trust in him.

The coronavirus and its effects are really not all that novel. For more than four millennia, God’s people have faced challenges literally of biblical proportions, and we can learn from the choices, good or bad, they made. In our September issue of Christian Standard, we included four Bible-study essays, along with corresponding application articles, that provide wisdom for how to deal with pandemics and other challenges we face today.

Jehovah Jireh is more than just another name for God. That he is a God Who Provides is a vital theological truth, and it is a critical operational principle for Christian leaders. Jesus’ concluding words of his commission, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” is a promise of his presence and provision as we go. We lead under his authority and with all the resources he supplies along the way.

That he is a God Who Provides is a vital theological truth, and it is a critical operational principle for Christian leaders. Click To Tweet

Still, when we face challenges, we tend to start with questions: “Why did this happen?” “Who is responsible?” “How can we fix this?” And, of course, a biggie, “How long will this take?” These are familiar questions these days in the world and in the church.

About 10 years ago when I was going through a personal crisis, I found myself asking, “How long, Lord?” I found solace in the fact, as I was reading through Psalms during this period, that David often asked the same question (see Psalms 6:3; 13:1-2; 35:17, as examples). I was frustrated with God’s slowness, as I perceived it—I had to wait several years for my answer to prayer. As I compare my waiting to that of God’s people in Scripture, who often waited on God for decades, even centuries, I’m deeply humbled.

In discussing David’s “How long, Lord” cry, Warren Wiersbe said, “The answer to the question is, ‘I will discipline you until you learn the lesson I want you to learn and are equipped for the work I want you to do.’” So perhaps each of us should shift our questions to “What lessons has God been teaching me through this pandemic?” and “What is the work he has equipped me to do now?”

During my period of waiting years ago, I learned I couldn’t control any of the circumstances I was in, so eventually I surrendered my ways and my timing. I decided to simply do what I knew was right (and righteous) and trust God with all my questions. It wasn’t easy at first. Like many leaders, I’m prone to want to be in control, but God was showing me that he alone is sovereign. In my waiting, as I became more dependent on him, I heard from him more clearly than ever before. I saw him answering my prayers. I now consider that time of waiting as one of the most productive seasons of my life.

Many questions still remain about COVID-19 and its lasting effects. There are many aspects of it we simply can’t control. So perhaps this is a good opportunity for us to learn, to grow, and to relinquish any presumptions of control we may have. When we do, I believe God will make us better leaders.

I’m beginning to wonder: Could this pandemic be part of God’s plan for preparing his church for future challenges, crises, and even persecutions that will also be outside of our control? How will the temporary closure of our buildings—a relatively small sacrifice in God’s overarching story—equip us for only God knows what?

Could this pandemic be part of God’s plan for preparing his church for future challenges, crises, and even persecutions that will also be outside of our control? Click To Tweet

We believe Jehovah Jireh is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. Why wouldn’t we look to him first and trust him to provide no matter what comes our way? He will provide—it’s in his name!

_____

Adapted from my “From the Editor” article in the September 2020 issue of Christian Standard.

MLK: ‘What Kind of Extremists Will We Be?’

“If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.” 

Dr. Martin Luther King wrote these words in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on April 16, 1963. Now, nearly 57 years later, his words seem prophetic. 

King’s letter was in response to eight white Alabama clergy members who wrote a letter asking the “outsiders” who had come to Birmingham (a thinly veiled reference to King) to stop directing “some of our Negro citizens” in the “unwise and untimely” demonstrations for integration. They preferred to let the issue of racial segregation play out in the courts and to patiently wait for the social changes to happen over time. They said the outsiders’ resistance to racism, “however peaceful those actions may be,” were “extreme measures” not justified in Birmingham.

“I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction in being considered an extremist,” King wrote. “Was not Jesus an extremist in love? . . . Was not Amos an extremist for justice? . . . Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? . . . So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?” 

This is not purely a racial issue, although that was the context of King’s letter. It is, as King pointed out, a church leadership issue. King said that with notable exceptions, he had become disappointed with the church he loved. 

The source of King’s disappointment was that its leaders “have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” Martin Luther King’s call in 1963 to restore the self-sacrificial spirit of the New Testament church is our call today. 

Martin Luther King’s call in 1963 to restore the self-sacrificial spirit of the New Testament church is our call today.  Click To Tweet

I am convicted by Martin Luther King’s words: 

There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.

Do these words describe the contemporary Christian church? Do they describe your church? Are we extremists for love, justice, and the gospel? I echo King: “I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.” 

– Adapted from Letter from the Editor, by Michael C. Mack, Christian Standard magazine, February 2018. https://christianstandard.com/2018/01/what-kind-of-extremists-will-we-be/

Make More Disciples by Making Less

As a small group leader, how many people do you think you can effectively lead, shepherd, and disciple? Eight? Ten? Twelve? Twenty? Let me ask this question another way: If you are to bear much fruit, fruit that will last . . . if you are to see true transformation of people’s lives . . . if you are to see people develop into leaders so that you are multiplying your leadership . . . into how many people can you invest your life? 

The World’s Greatest Small Group Leader formed a small team that would eventually change the world. But first, Jesus called two sets of brothers: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Three of these, Peter, James, and John, became Jesus’ inner circle, his Core Team. Jesus poured his life into these three men, investing into them and modeling a life surrendered to the Father for them. He took these three away with him to pray and heal, as well as when he was transfigured.[I] While Jesus did not ignore the other nine apostles or his other followers, he intentionally discipled these three and developed them into leaders. 

Jesus knew something vital about leadership, discipleship, and shepherding. No one—not even Jesus—can effectively lead, disciple, or shepherd more than about two or three people. Leading, discipling, and shepherding are based on close relationships in which the leader invests into the life of those he or she is leading. 

"No one—not even Jesus—can effectively lead, disciple, or shepherd more than about two or three people." Click To Tweet

For years, many churches have assumed that small groups or Sunday school classes or discipleship programs make disciples. Just get people into one of these, and voila, you’ve made disciples. But it doesn’t work that way. Small groups and other forms are simply the context or environment in which disciples can be produced. Disciples are made life on life. As Leroy Eims said, “It takes time to make disciples. It takes individual, personal attention. It takes hours of prayer for them. It takes patience and understanding to teach them how to get into the Word of God for themselves, how to feed and nourish their souls, and by the power of the Holy Spirit how to apply the Word to their lives. And it takes being an example to them of all of the above.”

Read that quote again. Study it. Reflect on it. Can you do those things by yourself with 10 or 12 people? How about five or six?

I’ve said it before: We can mass-produce dresses, diapers, doormats, Doritos, and Dodge Durangos . . . but we can’t mass-produce disciples!

The foundation of disciple-making is a one-on-one relationship. Discipleship is the personal relationship in which one believer pours his or her life out into another to help that person become more like Jesus. I think most people can make this kind of investment with at most two or three people at once. In the best circumstances, these two to three should be people within your small group. It does not make a lot of sense to be in one group for discipleship, another for fellowship, another for Bible study, and yet another where you serve together. That leads to burnout for everyone (and yet I’ve seen plenty of churches organized this way). 

"Discipleship is the personal relationship in which one believer pours his or her life out into another to help that person become more like Jesus." Click To Tweet

The small group is where you do life together, serve together in missional community, and discuss and apply the Bible together. It’s also a warm and welcoming place where you can invite friends who do not know Christ yet, where they can see the love portrayed in your community life and meet the One who makes it happen.

Within that larger small group, discipleship happens one-on-one or with two or three who may meet regularly for more intense Bible study, memorization, and personal application; prayer; confession; and accountability . . . or it may be a less formal relationship in which they meet regularly for coffee, talk on the phone and text one another, or whatever works best for those involved. It’s always intentional, but it doesn’t have to be “formal.”

In these subgroups, the two or three people are close confidants whom you trust. The relationships are more authentic and intentional than in the larger small group.

I’ve described in much more detail how this works in a healthy small group in my book, The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership: How to Gather a Core Team and Lead from the Second Chair, and also in Chapter 3 of Small Group Vital Signs: Seven Indicators of Health that Make Groups Flourish (both published by TOUCH Publications, www.touchusa.org). The foundation of the process is that the designated leader of the group must share leadership (that is, shepherding and discipling roles) with several others in the group. Each person on the core team takes responsibility for discipling one to three others. 

I’ve found that those whom have been discipled this way often turn around and disciple others, reproducing themselves again and again.

Jesus demonstrated a simple model we can use to make more and stronger followers, a model that can, and should, reproduce more disciples, more groups, and even more churches, just as Jesus intended.

"We can mass-produce dresses, diapers, doormats, Doritos, and Dodge Durangos . . . but we can't mass-produce disciples!" Click To Tweet

This post is adapted, in part, from Chapter 2 of The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership.

[i]While it seems that Andrew was not included as much in Jesus’ inner circle as the other three, he was included at least once when the two sets of brothers pulled Jesus aside privately to ask him some questions (Mark 13:4). Interestingly, when the Gospel writers listed the Twelve, Matthew and Luke list the brothers together: Peter and Andrew, then James and John. But Mark separates the sets of brothers, placing Andrew fourth on the list behind Peter, James, and John. In the listing of the eleven apostles in Acts 1:13, Luke places them in this order: Peter, John, James, and then Andrew. Is there any significance to this? We can only surmise, but the order of names in a list was usually very significant in Jewish culture.

Every Decision Point Is an Opportunity to Grow (and a Possibility for Pain)

Why do some churches grow and multiply, some plateau, and others decline? 

It’s a question I’ve considered for a long time, and my experience as well as everything I read and study and all the people I talk to reinforce my theory that growing churches do certain things and have a particular mind-set largely absent in stagnant and declining churches. I’ll try to explain. 

In my personal life, I’ve seen a direct correlation between my physical health and my tolerance for pain. For years I lived with carpal tunnel syndrome and eventually lost quite a bit of functionality in both hands. I knew having surgery would be painful, inconvenient, and uncomfortable for weeks after the procedure, but I need the use of my hands for work and many other things. I had to weigh the costs, and I decided to have the surgeries. It was difficult at the time, but now, about 18 months later, I sit at my computer and type without pain. 

I’ve experienced something akin to that in my spiritual, emotional, and relational life. Growth in those areas has come about mostly through times of struggle, pain, loss, sacrifice, and surrender. That’s why James said we should consider those kinds of struggles “pure joy”: they result in maturity and completeness. 

I believe similar correlations exist in our churches. Vitality and growth will never happen without pain, loss, and sacrifice, and we must weigh the costs of joyfully taking on those struggles—and the bigger, kingdom impact of not doing so. 

Churches, small groups, ministry teams, and other ministry organizations go through a common progression. They start “up and to the right,” with excitement and growth. Eventually, however, they begin to level off and plateau. This is not necessarily good or bad, at least not at first—it’s just a natural occurrence in organizations; it’s hard to sustain long-term accelerated growth. A brief plateau may be a time for rest—a sabbath of sorts. But over time it can become unhealthy: a comfort zone, a time for maintaining the status quo, focusing internally, and, well, lukewarmness. Churches, groups, classes, and teams can forget their “first love,” the very reason they were started, and settle for something safer and more comfortable. 

I think one of the saddest things in life is to see a once vibrant person, group, or church now plateaued and remaining there for years upon years. They weren’t created for that! 

One of the saddest things in life is to see a once vibrant person, group, or church now plateaued and remaining there for years upon years. They weren’t created for that! Click To Tweet

Along the plateaued line, a church comes to countless decision points, and each one represents an opportunity. They can continue with the status quo, or they can push out of the comfort zone, wholly trust God, and focus on his mission to the world around them. 

Recognizing and responding to these various decision points is a vital leadership responsibility. I have used this chart to teach small group leaders how to get out of maintenance and into missional mode, and the same principles apply for church leaders. One of the first things the leader must do is simply recognize these decision points as opportunities to grow. 

Leaders should also recognize that each decision point bears an associated opportunity cost. A decision to step out of a comfort zone may bring temporary pain and loss, including the loss of some traditions, programs, and certain people. But missing or ignoring the opportunity has kingdom consequences. We accept pain to achieve progress; we endure loss to embrace real life. We walk through pain, help people grieve loss, trust God’s plan, and strive for his mission.  

We accept pain to achieve progress; we endure loss to embrace real life. Click To Tweet

Of course, it’s not enough to just recognize decision points. We must act on them! We unapologetically cast a biblical vision. We refocus leadership meetings from internal to external. We start a new, externally focused serving initiative. We reach out to a neglected group of people in our community with the gospel. We develop young leaders and let them lead, even if imperfectly. We decide and communicate clearly that objects are not sacred and can be moved or changed to help us be more effective in carrying out God’s mission, which is sacred. 

As a church moves forward in living out God’s mission, it becomes healthier. And healthy things naturally grow, bear fruit, and multiply. Unhealthy things don’t (or we don’t want them to!).  Leaders in healthy churches count the cost at each decision point, and they ultimately decide temporary pain will not deter them from becoming the disciple-making church Jesus established and envisioned.

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Adapted from my Letter from the Editor in Christian Standard, May 2019, page 6.