The First-Follower

Today is a first for me, my first day officially as Executive Director of the Smith Center for Evangelism and Church Growth of the Central Texas Conference. Bishop Lowry asked me to take on this role last December, what a Christmas present. I actually began a partnership with Gary, the previous director, beginning in January. He was very gracious helping me get on board while I was still leading the North District. I will miss the North District as I miss First Mansfield, the church I served for more than two decades. But I am very excited about the mission of this center for it hits at my very core, helping people enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ and growing churches.

In my years of growing churches — and I enjoyed growing rural, small town, and suburban churches — I learned that growing a church was difficult and that it never happened by accident. I think it is more difficult than ever, especially growing existing churches. Tim Keller writes that new churches (faith communities) reach 5 to 7 times more unchurched people than existing churches do. Andy Stanley tells us that tweaking church stuff very seldom creates much growth, but creating new in the church does. For non-church leaders reading this, these ideas apply to you too. Long-term believers very seldom help someone enter a relationship with Jesus Christ because they carry the same friends through life, mostly church friends, and often don’t interact with those who need Jesus. Existing churches are like this, especially small and midsize ones. When a guest attends, they might feel like they are attending someone else’s family reunion.

So, this means that the typical church cannot grow doing the same thing they are doing now, especially if the church is stagnating or declining. Once churches begin to decline, or experience what many do — stable decline” which means they decline so slowly it is not a crisis — they can still pay the bills, people still come on Easter and their friends still attend with them — it is very difficult to reverse, unless they create the “new.”

But “new” is hard because “new” changes the culture of the church. A new service, a new pastor, a new building, a new campus, a new significant staff person, even a new all-hands-on-deck mission or outreach — these kinds of things not only allow a church to reach new people, but they can change the very core DNA of a church. This often creates anxiety, and people don’t like anxiety, and the lead pastor dislikes it the most. So, we often just keep doing what we are doing.

Sometimes we might think it is the pastor’s fault. That is often not the case. Most pastors have lots of ideas and things they want to do to grow their churches. The problem many church people have is thinking that the pastor has the most power and authority in the church organization. This is not true at all, the power in the church, in the creation of the new, in moving toward growing churches and bringing people in the community into a relationship with Christ is the “first-follower.” It’s the lay leader, the influencer, the long-term member, the generous giver, Sunday School class, the choir, the choir leader; it’s the one, the group that says “yes, let’s do this.” It’s the first-follower who will decide if the new is going to happen. If there is no first-follower, and even worse, only a first “no,” then there is very seldom the new, and the church stays in decline or stable decline. And we blame the pastor.

I treasure the first-followers I had through the years, the ones that said yes to some of my crazy, church-changing and risky ideas. If I did not have them, the churches I served would not have grown, especially the long-term growth centered in the new, and the new and then again the new.

So, for the church leader, find the new that needs to happen, foster the first-followers who will decide the success or failure of the new. And for the rest of us, be a first-follower; the first-follower is a gift to the church and the pastor like none other.

“God give us success!” Psalm 118:25

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