What Makes a Church Successful?

by Rick Burke & Cathy Nelson


I heard the story of a missionary who was sharing about her ministry in Africa while on furlough with her sending church. This lady missionary was explaining to a Sunday School class that the village tribe she was ministering to had a unique value of wealth. They valued dried cow and camel dung. Why? Because it could be used for fires and in this area of Africa there was virtually no wood for fires. So, each family would hoard dried dung in their huts. When the missionary would visit families she would have to climb over and often have to sit on piles of dried animal dung to do a Bible Study. One of the listeners in the Sunday School class made the comment to the missionary, “You must really love those people to sit in the dung pile!” The missionary’s response was most notable and the subject of this article. She said, “No, it is NOT because I love those people in that tribal village. It is because I love Jesus and He loves those people that I am able to minister in that environment!”

The article this month includes chapters 3 and 12 of Gaining by Losing by J.D. Greear. The topics of these two sections fit together well as you’ll see below.

In chapter 3, Greear states that passion for the lost is our primary need. According to him, it comes from understanding the gospel in a deeper way. The cross of Christ provided Paul with a motive for sacrifice (love of Christ), a measure for sacrifice (Christ’s death on a cross) and a mission in his sacrifice (seeing people reconciled to God) (2 Cor. 5:14-21). Most people think of the gospel as the “ABCs” of Christianity – an initiation rite from which you move on to deeper things. However every deeper virtue of the Christian life grows out of the gospel and we should continue to go deeper in it. In the parable of the debtor, the man was forgiven but unwilling to forgive his own debtor. What astonished Jesus’s listeners was that after the debtor had received such astounding grace, he could not give it to anyone else. We need to understand that astounding grace so it overflows from us. Apart from genuine, gospel-rooted heart change, sending people into a lost world will never take root in our churches.

To become a sending church, you need to show people “what can be”.  John Kotter says that the place most leaders fail in effecting change is in assuming their people understand the need for change more than they actually do. By the time the leader suggests a change, he or she has spent months thinking about why the particular change is necessary. Others in the organization, however, haven’t felt these things yet; all they feel is the pain associated with leaving the familiar. Chip and Dan Heath call this “the curse of the knowledge gap.” People have to feel the disadvantages of the current situation. The only thing that sustains the motivation to sacrifice is glimpsing the vision of what God wants to give.

Gospel-saturated people become visionaries. “Expect great things of God and then attempt great things for God” said William Carey. The order of Carey’s statement is important. Great expectations come first; great attempts grow out of great expectations. So how do we become gospel saturated? Greear preaches the gospel to himself in this way daily:

  • In Christ, there is nothing I can do that would make You love me more; nothing I have done that makes You love me less.
  • You are all I need for everlasting joy.
  • As You have been to me, so I will be to others.
  • As I pray, I will measure your compassion by the cross and your power by the resurrection.

(See also the Gospel Primer for $9 at our church bookstore—a devotional reader on the gospel.)

According to Greear, the following things help cultivate vision – whether at the office, at church, or in a family:

  • Corporate prayer means corporate hearing from God and corporate vision and, therefore, buy in.
  • Repetition is required because vision leaks. You have to talk about it and work with people to explain, answer objections, and build loyalty. When you are sick of saying it, the leaders in your ministry have probably just heard it. When your leaders are sick of hearing it, then everyone else has heard it for the first time. (So true!)
  • The momentum new life creates motivates everyone. Excitement from the stories of gospel transformation give movement. Little changes all the time create big ones over time. So tell the stories and buy capital to “purchase” the next round of changes.
  • Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now – once the momentum gets going, it will not feel like you are dragging people -they’ll be dragging you!

When we fall more deeply in love with Jesus, as our African missionary lady, then we will have a deeper heart for what Jesus loves! 

Let the Spirit use the gospel to put wind into our sails.

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