This summer I’ve had the opportunity to mentor two youth ministry interns who are working with a small congregation in Alabama. Over lunch this week, some of the church members were discussing the importance of creating the right culture for growth.  One of the men said insightfully, “It’s like something I tried this spring in my garden.  In order to have tomatoes all summer long, I thought it would be a good idea to plant tomatoes two weeks apart, so I made three plantings in hopes that they would produce fruit until the fall.”  “How did it go?” I asked.  He said, “I learned from the experiment that whether I planted tomatoes early or late, they all grew at the same rate once the temperature got right.”  “Today,” he said, “every one of the plants is the same size, regardless of when they were planted.” The story reaffirmed to me something about church culture. Regardless of when the plants were planted, it took a context that was conducive and favorable for growth in order for them to grow. Through the years, I have returned to Max Dupree’s statement about leadership many times: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you.” So how is your church temperature, the growing environment? In the book In Pursuit of Great and Godly Leadership, Mike Bonem suggests that the healthy growth of a congregation is directly related to way people interact with one another.
  • Are decisions made from the top down, by consensus, or by the power brokers in the parking lot after the meeting?
  • Do people wait on staff to tell them what to do, or do people feel comfortable initiating things from the bottom up?
  • Is there a sense of authentic community or just a pseudocommunity?
  • When conflict occurs, is it handled in healthy ways, or does it go underground?
The way we answer these kinds of questions will define for us “the horizons of possibility and impossibility” (170-171). We need to learn a lesson from the tomato patch. Get the temperature right and there is hope for a good harvest. Get it wrong, and there will be shallow and stunted growth.  Jesus said, “By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).  Or to quote management consultant and author Margaret Wheatley, “There is only one prediction about the future that I feel confident to make. Those organizations who will succeed are those that evoke our greatest human capacities—our need to be in good relationships, and our desire to contribute something beyond ourselves.  These qualities . . . are only available in organizations where people feel they are trusted and welcome.”  The growth of the group always reduces itself to the individual.  Are people loved?  Are they trusted?  Do their ideas and opinions matter?

When Jesus came to the first disciples, he didn’t say, “I’ll show you how to become a great church member.”  He didn’t say, “I’ll show you how to create the best church programs.”  He said, “Follow me, and I’ll make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:17).  His simple plan for discipleship was come, be changed, go tell somebody else.  That’s it!  And like those disciples, we have one job to do:  make disciples. I must admit that for years I preached the great commission, but it never really hit me until recently that I have one job to do:  “Go, and make disciples!”  That’s it!  I thought my job as minister was to start good programs, run the church office, plan fellowships, all the usual church stuff!  It’s not my intent to say those things are bad, but that’s not the call. Jesus discipled, not through programs, but through one-on-one relationships with very small groups of people.  He would preach openly, then take the disciples aside privately and discuss what he had just preached.  Jesus appointed the Twelve “to be with him” (Mark 3:14-15).  He said at his arrest, “Every day I was with you” (Mark 14:49). So, why are churches dying? (According to some of the research I’ve read, for the last 10 years we’ve been losing 200 people a week; every other week, a church closes its doors forever). Why are churches dying? We have gotten off point.  We have forgotten that we have one job to do, and that is to make disciples.  We have lost sight of the mission! When Jesus came, people were tired.  Religion had grown routine and burdensome.  People were longing for freshness, for a time of pure religion.  The old system was spiritless, lifeless, dead!  And one day Jesus came along and called a group of fishermen to a new purpose:  to proclaim the good news of God.  “The time has come.  The kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:14-15). Jesus doesn’t step on their dreams, he just calls them to so much more.  So here’s the question:  if we stripped all of the programming away and returned to our call, could we possibly experience more?  Could our churches starting growing again? Making disciples is our only business.  We have no other business but that!  Everyone needs a Timothy (someone you’re discipling), and everyone needs a Paul (someone discipling you). Thankfully, some of our churches are figuring that out.  Those who are experiencing new growth are rediscovering ways to make disciples AND disciplemakers.  What to know more?  Message us at and we’ll discuss how.  I’d love to share with you personally the transforming power of discipleship groups.