Mega Churches – Not About Methodology, It’s About Principles

Post a Comment » Written on April 21st, 2008     
Filed under: News
By Don Meyer

NORMAN, OK (April 21, 2008) – Pastors of three of the largest churches in the Evangelical Covenant Church shared their experiences during a roundtable exchange last Friday morning as the Midsouth Conference Ministerium gathered for its annual meeting at Covenant Church.

The roundtable participants, all from Oklahoma, included Clark Mitchell, pastor of in Norman; Craig Groeschel, pastor of in Edmond; and Paul Cunningham, pastor of Westmoore Community Church in Oklahoma City. The roundtable was moderated by Jeffrey Black, pastor of St. Barnabas the Encourager Covenant Church in Round Rock, Texas. To learn more about each of them, as shared in their own words Friday, click on the links to their names.

Those hoping to hear some secret formula for building a mega church no doubt were disappointed. What they heard instead were three quite modest pastors, humble in spirit, who repeatedly stressed that spiritual growth, which often leads to church growth, is not about methodology, but rather it is about principles. Click here to hear more on this from Cunningham.

What principles? Keeping the ministry focused on the core essentials is one. While walking through with Mitchell before the conference started, he reflected on the church’s mission philosophy – transforming the community, one life at a time. The church appears to focus on simple themes: drawing people in and introducing them to Christ, helping them grow deeper in their faith, and encouraging them to become engaged in outreach to their community.

RoundtableAnother key principle is respecting the power of scripture. All three pastors believe their job is to proclaim the word – just as it is – and allow the Holy Spirit to move the hearts of people. It’s not about the methodology or presentation gimmicks – it’s straightforward and scripture centered.

And, they avoid the nonessentials – as one put it, they do not do a lot of the “church stuff” – endless committees and meetings – that can sap the energy of people, but not be very productive.

Following are some of the topics discussed by the group.

Preaching – what have you learned about moving from a text to a message?

Cunningham: It’s incarnation – the Word needs to become flesh through us. One needs to preach from the overflow of your own time in the word and prayer. It is about sharing how life experiences intersect with the word. Preach with authority and humility at the same time. Don’t talk just of victory, but also talk of defeats and how God works through that.

Groeschel: I work with lots of young communicators. I tell them there is a need at times to interrupt the routines to gain fresh perspective of the word. (He says his own spiritual center is evolving – and he tries to share that with people.) There is a danger in trusting the power of the presentation rather than the word of God. (He is not interested in pandering to the popularity of certain subjects when developing his messages.) I try to trust the power of the text more than the style of the presentation. I am not trying to entertain consumers to get them to come back; rather, I try to be authentic and focus on the power of the word – to trust the freshness of what God is revealing to me. God’s word stands alone. Someone who is unmoved by it can make it boring, but you can see it in the one who has been moved.

Mitchell: Our church is seven years old, but it feels like the Lord really started working with me six months ago. It is a hard year of questioning. We read Ephesians 3:20 each week – but I want the people to experience Ephesians 3:20, not just say it each week. I realized the church is consumer driven – the reaching model – and we are reaching people, but there is no compelling reason to get involved. We are moving towards a spirit-driven reaching ministry – I just want the word. We’re doing lots of creative stuff, but more important than being creative is to ask, how is the Lord changing me and how do we respond? I’m at a place I just want to be in love with Jesus and reach others.

What is the role of prayer in your life?

Groeschel: I felt for years that I was the biggest prayer failure ever. Others could form groups and pray for great lengths of time. I couldn’t pray for hours. When I decided I needed to know God for myself, my prayer life really took off. Now, it is something that goes on throughout the day – it is sustaining. There are fewer words and more heart, more spirit. It is more about immersing myself in his presence. More of being with than talking to. There are times that God tells me things so direct that it scares me. Other times, heaven is silent. I feel like God deals with me like I raise my children – nurturing, walking alongside, coaching and parenting.

Mitchell: We put a lot of pressure on ourselves about prayer. As life gets complicated, there often is not some convenient time available for prayer. I like to go to the lake and meditate. Or I’ll drive to Dallas to have lunch with a friend and pray in the car. I’ll put in a prayer tape if that helps. A pastor needs to pull away from the busy ministry center.

Cunningham: Our executive staff prays together. Sometimes God leads in a corporate sense. Sometimes God speaks more directly to me. What is really needed is a prayer revival.

How has your leadership developed?

Cunningham: (His congregation has evolved over the years, growing from 50 people to thousands attending worship services each weekend.) The vision has not changed – we get people turned on to Christ. God called me to reach other Paul Cunninghams. The methods have changed, but the essence has not. We started with a small sound system – now we have a big one. Either way, we’re still the Flock that Rocks! My convictions remain the same, though we grow and evolve in ministry. In the early days, we focused on three things: connect with people, get them involved and encourage them to serve. Growth makes that more challenging as there are more people involved. Part of the downside of being a large church is that you attract some people who don’t want to be serving like that. Things we do to attract people can come back to bite us. Our church is easy to come to, but hard to join. It’s not a matter of attending some (new member) classes and automatically joining. We evaluate an individual’s commitment and invite them to join.

Groeschel: With each step of responsibility, God reveals more of my insecurities. It is as much about spiritual and character development as it is leadership development.

Mitchell: I tell people we are here to honor God, have healthy relationships and have a blast. There is a tension, however – if we are too relaxed, people will take advantage of that. So, there needs to be caution. (He also cautions pastors not to become over-committed to community and other causes, noting he has reduced his own level of involvement some 40 percent over that of a year ago.) Success can lead you to step outside of your anointing and you then try doing it all in the flesh, and it sucks the life out of you.

PastorsWhere does strategy come into play?

Groeschel: We try to be proactive and be in a ready position to move where the spirit leads. We try to keep a margin in staff, finances and our spiritual life so that we can respond. Starting out without a strategy is okay – you don’t always have to have it figured out.

Mitchell: Size is not the issue. A church should put dollars into savings that enable the pursuit of opportunities as they arise. Implementing strategies with a small staff is easier than it is today, however. There is a danger – one can over strategize. It can become an excuse for not moving forward. I believe a church needs to have benchmarks and a timeline to evaluate if goals are being met. I started out as a relational leader with visionary leadership second; with the growth, I have to now be visionary first and relational second.

Cunningham: Leave margin for the Holy Spirit to change the strategies – be flexible to change.

Do large churches run a risk of building numbers, but not spiritual depth?

Groeschel: Some of the way we’ve led produced good results – we didn’t expect discipleship to that degree. Willow Creek was brave enough to say we didn’t get it all right. We can bring a crowd into the church, but not a crowd into the community. God was making a difference in their own lives, but not a difference in the world.

Mitchell: If we’re going to reach people, we need to get involved in sowing. We want at least 75 percent of our people engaged in outreach (the church has Love Works that partners with 16 agencies in Norman that deal with poverty).

Creating a culture of conversion – what have you learned?

Cunningham: We call our church the “church of the messed up.” Until we understand that, we can’t understand grace. We need instead a culture of acceptance – breaking down the church culture barriers, breaking down the walls of religiosity and having a real encounter with Jesus.

Groeschel: Jesus came full of grace and truth – a paradox. We hope people feel welcome, relaxed, comforted and challenged. We need to confront sin and speak the reality of the word and call for a decision. We present the gospel each week – we create a culture of expectation (of a presentation of the gospel).

Mitchell: I would say “live it.” I ask our staff: who are the lost people you’re hanging with? You can’t tell people to reach other people if you’re not reaching other people.

What helps a new convert to grow?

Cunningham: The word is about we, not me. We grow together. We have classes and small groups, but also our worship times and folks serving on ministry teams.

Groeschel: We tried to eliminate many things churches traditionally do and focus instead on four emphases: world mission, kids, worship, and small groups. High control leads to small growth. So, we find in Acts the new believers are meeting and studying the word. It’s not a formula – you open God’s word and let the Holy Spirit do what he does.

Editor’s note: the top photo shows the three participants (from left): Paul Cunningham, Craig Groeschel, and Clark Mitchell. The lower photo shows other pastors gathered for the roundtable experience extending a blessing during a prayer of affirmation for the three ministries represented by the roundtable participants.

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