Like most pastors, I didn’t go into ministry because I wanted to preach. I went into vocational ministry because I wanted to see lives transformed by the gospel.
God had stirred up my heart and pursued me. I had been skeptical and he opened up my eyes. I wanted to help others come to know Jesus as I had. So I began serving, got some training, and entered into vocational ministry.
Early in ministry I joined a church plant and we began rapidly growing. We moved into a new building. The crowd continued to grow larger. Excitement was high. In many ways, it was a dream spot for a young church leader to be.
No one could have accused us of failing to attract a crowd. That was not our problem. Many people were coming. We had seen substantial growth in numbers. The problem was almost all of our growth was coming from other churches.
What we were not seeing was many irreligious, atheists, or skeptics come to faith. Instead, what we were seeing was a lot of transfer growth. We had a better building, a better band, better programs and our pastor was perceived as “cooler” because he preached in a sports jersey, rather than a suit. People were coming to our church because we offered better Christian goods and services than our “competitors.” Sadly, much of our growth came at the expense of other churches.
I must admit there was a period of time in which I got swept up in it all. It was a greenhouse for pride. Even worse, we had missed the point. We had created an environment that had all of the appearances of success. Attendance was growing. Giving was up. Programs were run efficiently. But discipleship wasn’t happening. We were disseminating plenty of information, but we weren’t seeing much transformation.
In time this reality began secretly doing damage to my spiritual life. This was not what I had gotten into ministry for. I was feeling dry. I began asking hard questions, which in turn led me to begin thinking differently.
I wanted to see irreligious people come to faith and be discipled. I wanted to see lives changed in the Monday through Saturday of life. Very little of this was happening and very few of us seemed to be bothered by it.
In time, we sensed God leading us to move beyond attractional ministry to start a missional church.
We started NRC with this vision: “every disciple is a missionary who is called by God to be on mission at the cubicle, in their backyard barbecues and at their local sports pubs.” It’s the idea that wherever you go, you are called by God to make disciples and reach the world with the gospel. We setout to mobilize God’s people.
I had discovered that the irreligious people I was talking to had no interest in coming to church, but they would happily join me to watch a game or grab a drink. We needed to go to them. So initially, I preached and I preached hard. I tried to preach people into mission. It didn’t work. So we started small groups that were intended to be missional, but I ended up essentially trying to preach a smaller group into mission. This also didn’t work.
I had to learn the hard way that people can’t be preached into mission. They need to be taken into mission.
I began to realize that although our intent was to make disciples who lived on mission, many of the people I was leading simply did not know how to do it. They understood discipleship in theory, but they didn’t know how to actually make disciples because nobody had ever discipled them. They understood some Biblical truths, but other than believing in Jesus, their lives looked no different from their unbelieving neighbors. They didn’t bless people any differently. They weren’t learning how to show hospitality to irreligious people, or have meaningful spiritual dialogue over a high top at a sports bar.
This is when I made the shift. It was at this point I stopped trying to preach people into mission and began taking them into mission instead. When I was hanging out with people that didn’t know Jesus I began including some of our people from NRC. We began to rub shoulders with people who didn’t know Jesus and then we began seeing some of them come to faith.
In time, what began as a small group just talking about mission became a family actually doing mission together. We ate together, hung out together, served together, partied together and communed together with people who didn’t know Jesus. That group paid one another’s bills, made one another food, bought one another’s children Christmas gifts and together saw six people come to faith that first year. Finally, we were beginning to see what I had longed to see for so long: transformation!
By God’s grace, the transformation has continued as we have seen numerous people commit their life to Jesus for the first time. Four years later we have roughly 250 people connected in missional action groups and only about 120 coming on Sunday mornings. We consider that a big win. Today we have fourteen missional action groups meeting throughout our city. However, we didn’t begin there. The first year we had just one group. Just one. The second year we had two groups. The third year we grew to four groups. The fourth year we had eight groups. And today we have fourteen groups living together on mission in our city.
Perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve learned along the way is it’s really not all that hard. Anyone can do it. In its simplest form, it is just people committed to one another and to mission. It’s doing life together, applying biblical truth in community and opening homes, backyards, and man caves to unbelieving friends. My point is this: you don’t have to be the next Matt Chandler to have a significant impact. I am just a regular guy, but I’m finally getting to see lives transformed, and regular people make disciples out of lost friends and grow in community with them.
It’s not hard, but you probably won’t be able to preach your way there. It takes faithfulness in the things that really matter and patience. Don’t try to do it all overnight. Just start with one. And if you need some coaching to help you make the shift, we’d love to come alongside you.
Mike Jarrell is a follower of Jesus, husband, dad, church planter, sports freak and confessed beer snob.