How One North Carolina Pastor Dumped the Megachurch Model for Something Bigger


Each year, the “nones” in our society (those who check “none” for religious affiliation) grow at an astounding rate. Some have used those statistics to declare the end of the American church. And while this fear of secularism is a bit overblown, the stats do raise an essential point: Churches that want to reach ‘nones’ read to retool. “Nones” do not saunter their way back into church because a particular pastor is super-engaging, the music is cool, or the guest services are Disney-esque. “Nones” feel like the church is a separate world in which they have no part.

A British friend of mine, Steve Timmis, cites a study in Great Britain in which 70 percent of Brits say they have no intention of ever attending a church service. For any reason. Not at Easter. Not for marriages. Not for funerals or Christmas Eve services.

Seventy percent! Great Britain may be a few years ahead of the United States in the progress of secularization, but judging by the rapidly increasing presence of “nones,” this is where we are headed, too.

That means that each year, the “pie” of people in our communities who will wander into our churches is shrinking. Thus, if we don’t equip our people to carry the gospel outside of our gatherings, we will lose all contact with the unreached people living around us.

Without a new strategy, the future looks like a few flashy megachurches fighting for larger pieces of a shrinking pie.

But that doesn’t have to be the future of the Western church. We can reach the culture, but we need to think about growing the pie. And that means teaching our people to engage people with the gospel outside the walls of the church.

This is what, as a megachurch pastor in North Carolina, I had to learn the hard way.

I emerged from seminary with one goal as a pastor: to grow a great big church with big conversion numbers and a big budget, and—to be honest—hopes of even bigger attention for the guy behind it all. I thought I was doing God’s work. Isn’t “big” what he wanted?

God confronted my self-centered ambition one afternoon when I was praying for our city. I was praying for a massive spiritual awakening in our city—the kind that would change the shape of our city for the next two hundred years. In the midst of that prayer, it seemed as if the Spirit of God asked, “And what if I answer this prayer… but I don’t use your church to do it? What if another church in Raleigh-Durham leads the way? Would you still want it?”

I knew the right answer to that question. I was supposed to say, “Oh, yes, Lord! You must increase and I must decrease!” It may have been the right answer, but it was not the real answer. I wanted to see my church succeed, my kingdom enlarged, my name magnified. In that moment I realized that somewhere along the way, “thy kingdom come” had become all jumbled up with “my kingdom come.”

I went back to our church and told them I had been leading them wrongly. “Our goal,” I said, “is no longer to build a great big church. It is to reach our city, and to take the gospel to places in the nation where Jesus is not known. If God grows our church in the process, so be it. But if he takes from us some of our best resources and people and sends them out to start new works, that’s ok, too.”

It was during that season that we tapped into a completely new stream of spiritual power. All of Jesus’ promises about the greatness of the church, you see, are tied to sending out, not gathering in.


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J. D. Greear is pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. The Summit Church has been ranked by Outreach Magazine as one of the fastest-growing churches in the United States. J.D. has a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books. His latest is “Gaining By Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches that Send” (Zondervan, July 28, 2015)

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