The church ought to see itself as a leadership factory that stirs up the gifts of God in people, not an auditorium that gathers people behind a leader. Jesus did not build his church by recruiting the 12 brightest from the rabbi’s list of “up and coming stars” and platforming them in large stadiums around the world. His disciples were mostly blue-collar workers with little to no formal theological training.
Yet through his Spirit, Jesus uses this ragtag group of misfits to turn the world upside down. Peter, the disciple with a foot-shaped mouth who wilted before a teenage girl, became the church’s most courageous leader and premiere preacher (John 18:15–18). When Jesus chose Peter, he was not a star. He was a man in desperate need of development. Jesus made him into a star.
If developing leaders is what Jesus got most excited about in the church, isn’t that what we should be most excited about, too? Let me suggest four important implications for how we should approach ministry.
1. We must challenge our people to be leaders.
We need to put forward a new vision for the church. We should not allow people to see the church as a weekly service they attend to make God happy. The gathering of the church is preparation for heavenly battle. We “huddle together” for a few minutes each week to worship God together and build each other up so that each of us can more effectively run the “missional play” throughout the week.
We need to celebrate, as often as we can, what God is doing through our people. What you celebrate, you replicate. Several times throughout the year our church features testimonies of members leading out in various projects in our city. When someone in our church leads a friend or family member to Christ, we ask them to stand in the baptismal pool with us, helping us baptize them. We want it to be clear who is on the front lines of ministry.
2. We must empower our people to be leaders.
Jesus’s promises in John 14:12 (about our work being greater than his) and John 16:7 (about the Spirit in us being superior to Jesus beside us) tell me that the greatest ideas for ministry are likely in the minds of congregation members, not my own mind. Jesus’s vision for the church was not a few mega-geniuses with thousands of foot soldiers at their behest, but millions of believers filled with the Spirit and following his lead directly. Further, if the majority of what Jesus wants to do he wants to do in the community, it shouldn’t surprise us he puts his best vision into the hearts of the people who live and work there for the majority of their hours each week.
Thus, one of our primary responsibilities as church leaders is to help God’s people uncover these ideas and to encourage them, as Paul did with Timothy, to “fan into flame the gift of God” which he’s put within them (2 Tim. 1:6). I love Paul’s imagery there: each week the congregation gathers, and it’s like I get in the pulpit and take a great big sheet and fan into flame the smoldering spiritual gift fires the Spirit has started within them. (While it reinforces the idea I’m full of hot air, I still like it.)
We should expect God’s Spirit to be leading our people the same way he led Philip, Apollos, Barnabas, and Silas—all “laypeople”—in the book of Acts. Luke says that when Paul was waiting in Athens, God’s Spirit provoked him to do something about the idolatry he saw. Shouldn’t we expect the Spirit to put those same provocations in the hearts of our people in their contexts? Just as God didn’t put his Spirit into only a few ordained leaders, he does not put the Spirit’s ideas into only a few heads.
I’m not saying that pastors are not themselves leaders with great vision of their own, just that the primary function of their leadership ought to be helping their people discover and unleash the ministry potential God has placed inside of them. Congregants are not to be merely gathered, counted, organized, and assigned volunteer positions as cogs in our ministry machines. They are to be empowered into their own ministries.
3. We must have the courage to send out our people as leaders.
Churches that take Jesus’s promises and Great Commission seriously are committed to sending out some of their best leaders into the mission. Honestly, this is one of the hardest things for me to do: finding someone with great potential, developing them, and then watching them leave to establish a ministry somewhere else. Down in your heart you know you ought to be happy about this—but still, they are no longer there benefiting your church.
This past year we planted a church on the North Carolina coast, and Ethan, the planter, took 55 of our best people on his core team. Seeing them line the stage the weekend we commissioned them was both painful and joyful.
But here’s a principle we’ve learned that sustains us when our courage flags: sending out leaders creates more leaders. What you send out inevitably comes back to you in multiplied form.
That doesn’t mean giving away leadership talent isn’t scary. Sacrificial giving of any kind always is. You give up control of something you feel you need, or at least something you know you’d love to keep, and sow it into the fields of God’s harvest.
God calls his leaders, not to a platform to build a great ministry for themselves, but to an altar where they die to themselves. This means sending out our best with abandon.
4. We need a new metric for success.
Finally, we need a new metric to determine success. As I’ve noted: Sending and planting is rarely good—in the short run—for our church’s attendance or budget bottom line. Of the 25 domestic and 90 international churches we’ve planted, not one has ever contacted us and said, “We had such a surplus budget this year we wanted to give some back to you!” Church plants are like teenagers—they only want your money and affirmation and then for you to stay out of their way. (Smile.)
Sending is costly and painful, but the harvest is a thousand times worth it. When I was able to share with our church this past Easter that the congregations we’ve planted in the last five years experienced a greater collective growth in attendance that year than we had, it gave us a joy we could’ve never experienced in only our own growth. I’m a dad, and there is a joy I experience in my children’s successes that goes beyond what I feel for my own. The same is true for the “children” of our church.
Just as sending multiplies the kingdom, it multiplies our joy as well.
Editors’ note: The following is an adapted excerpt from J. D. Greear’s forthcoming book, Gaining By Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches that Send (Zondervan, 2015).