The Pastor’s Role in Church Growth



Our theology of evangelistic dynamics needs to be pursued more minutely. What is the relation of the human to the divine? In doing the Lord’s work, does the initiative respecting methodology rest with man or with the Holy Spirit? That the Holy Spirit is the worker’s source of power is universally recognized among evangelicals. Not only does He endue the worker but effects the results. How, then, can the exact relationship of the pastor to the Holy Spirit be spelled out? What are the respective roles, and how do these roles function? An examination of two possible models may prove helpful. The first is to view the pastor as agent.

In this model the pastor is seen as the change agent who takes the initiative in devising methods and plans, but depends on the Spirit to endorse the plans and endue them with divine energy. Pastors who thus perceive their role might claim for themselves David’s prayer: “May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed” (Ps. 20:4).


There are at least three strong biblical pointers favoring this model. One is the biblical concept of stewardship. While the Bible at times sees a master or owner as a hands-on manager, it also commonly suggests a stewardship possessing considerable autonomy. The typical steward is largely on his own.

He is given areas of responsibility or a specific job to do, then allowed wide latitude in devising ways and means as, for instance, in the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-20).

The validity of this model can be further argued from the Great Commission and the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.

The church has its commission. It is told to go into all the world preaching the gospel and making disciples. This commission authenticates the outreach ministry of the local church. By winning people and growing, the local church is simply obeying God. Obviously this does not need a special revelation or prayer meeting for authorization. The pastor and local church have a stewardship, and their job is to find the best ways to fulfill it.

Neither (following this line of reasoning) does the church need to fast and pray for the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. He has been given to the church and to the world. The Day of Pentecost marked the advent of the dispensation of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised that He could be depended upon to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment, and to empower the preaching of the gospel. Since this is the case, the pastor as an agent can be sure that if he invents and implements wise plans, God will give him the results.

The imagery here suggests the Spirit’s activity as a wind that is already and always blowing redemptively. The human agent’s task is to erect sails to the wind in the form of strategies and plans. The better the plan the larger the sail will prove to be, resulting in harnessing a larger measure of divine power for the propulsion of the ship of evangelism. Plans without the dynamic of the winds of the Spirit will prove useless, while the winds of the Spirit cannot accomplish their aims without the erection of sails.


Further support for seeing the pastor as agent is to be found in Arminian theology, which affirms that the number who will respond is not predetermined by divine decree. If such were the case, the number would be limited by that decree, and no amount of doubling or tripling evangelistic saturation would alter it. But the responsibility resting on pastor and people burgeons if the eternal result is determined not by divine decree but in real measure by the efforts of the churches. The assumption of Arminianism is that people are free to accept or reject the gospel, undetermined by prior decree; and that in their freedom they are susceptible, not only to the influences of the Spirit, but to the influences of evangelistic enterprises. A sermon, a
song, a simple invitation, a show of love, the hand of friendship-any one or a combination or these small events may tip the scales in influencing personal decision for Christ.

A church in Oregon hosted 206 needy people from the community to a free turkey dinner during the Christmas season of 1988. Four of the families served attended church services the following Sunday and one of the families accepted Christ. Arminian theology says that this was not a package of events predetermined by divine decree and therefore inevitable, but an association of actions linking voluntary service with voluntary and optional response. Of course the Holy Spirit worked through the service and upon the families, but His action, while an indispensable factor in the net of influences, did not “fix” the outcome.


The division of labor is on this model quite simple. The plans are human, the power is divine. The pastor thinks and schemes and studies to put plans and systems in place, and if they are essentially biblical (an important assumption), he may be sure that the Spirit will prosper them. But this does not release the pastor from anxiety, for the responsibility for devising the right plans and methods rests upon his shoulders, and poor plans or languid effort will mean fewer converts.

This is the model assumed by much contemporary literature on church growth. “Get a vision,” counsels one church leader. “Then put into place a system which will assure the realization of the vision. ” The right systems, designed for specific church goals, will guarantee the particular results wished for. If these results are not realized, either the system was wrong or its implementation was inept.

The wisdom of the plans, on this basis, will be determined by the human understanding invested in them. Two assumptions are borrowed from the world. The first is the assumption of a law of averages-that is, that a percentage of people will respond to advertising, and that the response willbe just about in direct proportion to the amount of advertising. One life insurance salesman started out every morning with one hundred business cards, and simply knocked on doors cold turkey-until he got rid of every card. Heknew that out of one hundred contacts some would be interested and phone back.

If he could have distributed two hundred in a day his sales would have increased proportionately. This was the philosophy on which he operated at least five days a week, and he was successful.

The pastor who operates on such a hypothesis believes that a certain percentage of the people “out there” are already being especially moved upon by the Holy Spirit. They are already hungry and receptive. If he can just get the attention of a large enough number of people he is bound to catch in his net some of these ready folk. Therefore, he designs systems and plans that will enable him to capture the attention not of a few but hundreds, even thousands. He schemes to put into place a large net.

Of course personal free will responds or rejects the church’s overtures and thus becomes the final determiner. But if the hypothesis noted above is correct-that a proportion of the people are open to persuasion-then the responsibility resting on pastors and their churches becomes almost unbearable. No room is left for a lukewarm approach to the task of soul winning. The conclusion is that improved methods simply mean more people won to Christ and saved for heaven. A cavalier approach to evangelism spells the doom of many who will not be reached by such a half-hearted approach. If our systems are too porous, many will slip through who might have been caught by a tighter net.

This hypothesis is undoubtedly sound. The pastor in his labor and planning should keep it always in mind. Because of this degree of hunger “out there” the right efforts on his part cannot totally be fruitless.

The second assumption needs careful scrutiny. It is the assumption that the church tends to borrow from the world, that “selling” is entirely a matter of using the right psychology. When the church unconsciously imbibes this premise it begins a subtle drift toward humanism. The supposition is adopted that the same attention-getting devices which the world of Madison Avenue employs will work equally well for the church.

Madison Avenue knows that certain stimuli get attention. Certain things appeal, others turn people off. Certain motifs create feelings of desire, others repel. Certain signals influence people to act; others do not.

The world, working with the tools of psychology and technology, can virtually assure the success of any product or project. The world has learned the art of devising the catchy slogans and captions; the art of appealing to vanity and self-interest; the skillful use of color, sound, motion, surprise, and when possible even smell; the use of sex appeal in all possible forms; repetitive advertising-getting the message out in explosive, attention-grabbing, eye-riveting, and mouth-watering flair combined with overwhelming saturation. The potential market is literally blanketed with continuous assault. The belief on which the secular world operates is that even if the populace does not initially want the product, they can be made to want it’ then made to feel they must have it.

When this principle of sales psychology is borrowed by the church, we come to believe that since we already have the best product in the world, our sole task is selling it” And if Madison Avenue methods will work for the world,they will work for us. Therefore, success in evangelizing and church growing is entirely a matter of getting into place the right selling and delivery system.

But not all is gold that glitters. A second look will disclose the fallacy of adopting the world’s methodology wholesale. While we should try not to be Exhibit A of Jesus’ dictum, that the world is wiser in its generation than the children of light, we must not simply echo the world, but realize fully that the world’s motifs are not ours. The world appeals to the publics prurient, selfish, and professional interests. Advertising is controlled by motifs of vanity, pleasure, sex, power, possessions. These appeals are powerful because in fallen human nature these are the prized values.

Does the church unconsciously develop kinds of appeal which basically are the same-pleasure, excitement, happiness, self-esteem, being somebody special, success, positive thinking, “you can do anything you want to do”? And so the evangelistic pitch is that whatever the world is offering you can find in Christ, only better. But the church at this point had better be honest, and say that what God requires is repentance, surrender, obedience, and holiness.

Suddenly the bait will lose its allure.

It will be appealing only to those who have been made sick of the world’s bait, and are looking for something not just the same but radically higher and different. This will not be the mass of people aimed at by Madison Avenue. It will be a tiny minority. While it is true that the goods the churchoffers include peace of mind and inner happiness, that prospect is hidden by the biblical, totally unpsychological order of appeal: “Repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15, KJV)- The gospel is good news to those willing to repent, but it is bad news to those to whom the very idea of repentance is totally repugnant.


While doing so may introduce confusion, it is imperative that we give “equal time” to the second model, which is that of the Spirit as the agent and the pastor primarily as an instrument. It is easy to forget that when we turn the coin over we are still looking at the same coin, no matter how different “heads” is from “tails. ” A coin without the other side would be defective and nonnegotiable. In order therefore to avoid a premature commitment to Model One, we need to see that much of what has been said in promoting it needs to be, while not contradicted, at least counterpointed.


This second model sees the Holy Spirit taking the initiative, not only in convicting, regenerating, and sanctifying people, but in supervision of methods as well. His is not hands-off but hands-on management, at times in giving a general sense of direction but at other times in giving minute plans and orders. As Boer points out in Pentecost and Missions, the early church indicated no awareness of attempting consciously and systematically to implement the Great Commission. They held no seminars or conferences to devise plans and systems. Witnessing in the power of the Spirit was their system. The Holy Spirit was directly and immediately in charge. Being borne along by His inner fire they preached, prayed, suffered, and rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for Jesus’ name. When bogged down in Jerusalem, God dispersed them by means of persecution. But the diffusion was the scattering of Spirit-filled firebrands, who lit fires everywhere they went.

Systematic missionary effort was the initiative of the Spirit, who said to the church at Antioch, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). The immediate response was not to call a committee to devise strategy, but a prayer meeting: “So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (v. 3).

Paul undoubtedly had strong ideas about method. But they were subject to the immediate supervision, and, if necessary, correction of the Holy Spirit.

After having “traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia,” it would seem logical to expand to the northwest, into Asia;” but to their surprise they “were kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia” (Acts 16:6). Always resilient, Paul and Barnabas concluded that the northeast must be the proper direction, so they proceeded northward. But when “they came to the border of Mysia,” and “tried to enter Bithynia,” the “Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to” (v. 7). The Spirit had other plans. Thanks to their willingness to bow to the Spirit’s plans, the gospel came to Europe-which may explain how we come to be studying church growth.

Furthermore, there is something about the imagery of the Spirit as wind and human methods as sails that leaves one a little uneasy. The image tends to depersonalize the Spirit, and reduce His redemptive activity to the level of mechanical, impersonal law. Do the right thing, and you can be sure of expected results. This is the way electricity operates. But the Spirit? When Jesus used the imagery of the Spirit as wind, He was illustrating the exact opposite of the notion that the Spirit is a neutral force that can be put to work. Rather, “the wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (+lJohn 3:8). The Spirit is not like electricity that can be plugged into at will, or trade winds that can be harnessed by clever sailors; but is mysterious and, above all, sovereign. The Spirit is a Person who cannot be corralled or regimented, and whose operations can never quite be fathomed.

This suggests a further weakness in the analogy of wind. The Spirit as trade wind might imply the Spirit’s ministry as a generic resource which the church, as a separate entity, can tap at will. This misses a fundamental note of Pentecost. This was not simply a group phenomenon, but primarily individual and personal. The “tongues of fire” did not rest upon the group but “separated and came to rest on each of them.” The “all” who were filled with the Spirit was every person, individually, inwardly, Privately. While each spoke in a language, the languages varied. There was no religious cloning going on here.

This was not an example of mass hypnotism in which individual identity is swallowed up in some kind of corporate personality. This was not a generic coming of the Spirit upon some mythical entity called The Church; it was a coming of the Spirit on persons, one by one.

Therefore in this dispensation there is not a flow of power resting on this mythical entity called The Church, but a coming of the Spirit upon persons, one by one. The ministry of the Spirit may be universal in a sense, yet primarily it is a working through Spirit-filled believers. It isn’t a question, then, about the pastor hoisting a sail into the wind; it is a question about the pastor having the wind inside of him. Jesus used the figure of rivers. ” `Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him. ‘ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive” (John 7:38-39).

The book of Acts reveals that the power of the Spirit rests primarily on persons, only secondarily on plans. Therefore a logical inference might be that the first lesson in methodology is for the pastor to understand the necessity of being Spirit-filled. Jack Hyle tells of spending two days and nights in prayer at the grave of his father. “When I left,” he said, “I knew I was filled with the Spirit.” All methods must grow out of this basic experience and be compatible with it.

We are compelled therefore to take a second look at the model which stresses the Christian worker as agent and the Spirit as dynamic. Perhaps the truth lies closer to the model which sees the Spirit as Agent as well as dynamic, and the Christian worker as Instrument. He plans, but on his knees. He thinks, but in the process seeks guidance. He learns that the Spirit cannot be regimented or compelled by our systems to “deliver the goods. ” We cannot box Him in by our strategy sessions.


The tendency to give lip service to the personality of the Spirit and then operate as if He were a law to be manipulated is surprisingly pervasive in much current church-growth methodology. In some cases, kits are offered to anxious pastors, which, if followed, are guaranteed to give specific results.

The subtle but unvoiced implication is that the Spirit is compelled to act
according to certain spiritual laws that we can use to bring sure-fire success, if we can just discover them. But, of course, this comes dangerously close to sorcery, which as David Hunt makes clear in The Seduction of Christianity, is the attempt to manipulate Deity by cultic formulas.

No. The Holy Spirit has been deputized by the Father and the Son as Sovereign of the whole operation, including church growth. He claims sovereignty over strategies and systems as well as spiritual flows of power. Our systems may please Him for a particular church and a particular situation, or they may not. We cannot simply adopt Madison Avenue presuppositions or Madison Avenue know-how and force-fit it into the subjective complexities of a totally different sphere of reality. Rather our immediate methods locally must be sought from the Holy Spirit first, then implemented in His power.

It is true that many systems being promoted include prayer. This in some cases may prove to be the redeeming feature which really does bring the Spirit’s blessing on the plans. But it also may simply be in the end a formal activity which becomes a part of the sorcery. Here are four or five components of a watertight plan, and prayer is one of those components. It can be seen as a leverage for gaining certain ends. It is our leverage, not the Spirit’s instrument for revealing His ends and releasing His power. But if we pray as a method for church growth, we are not necessarily praying in the Spirit; and if not, we are engaging in manipulation. It becomes a leverage rather than the Spirit’s mode of intercession.

Rather, let us pray not as a method but as an expression of a broken heart, longing for God’s blessing and yearning to intercede for the lost. If we are interceding for the lost with authentic burden we are not doing it in order to achieve church growth. We dare not use prayer as an instrument for church growth. Prayer is impudence if it is not worship and if its objective is not the glory of God and the salvation of souls. We may have the glory of God and the salvation of souls without much numerical growth-locally. We may also have numerical growth without glorifying God and without people really being saved. Prayer is a charade if it is only an exercise in the “kit” that is guaranteed to build our church.

On the other hand, it is always proper to pray for greater measures of the Holy Spirit’s presence and manifestation. The assumption of Model One was that because the Spirit was given to the church and the world on the Day of Pentecost, fasting and praying for His working was needless; that the winds of the Spirit were always blowing, needing only the erection of our sails.

We have seen that while there is truth in this metaphor, by itself it is misleading. Powerful movements of the Spirit are particular to places and times, as, for instance, the Day of Pentecost itself, followed by the “second Pentecost” of Acts 4. The Spirit is active among all people but not universally in the same way or in the same degree. The special manifestations of the Spirit’s presence and power we call revivals. Every Christian has an inherent right to experience at least one such revival in his lifetime. When he does, he will never be the same. Therefore, it is always in order to pray for the Holy Spirit to come in unusual power and manifestation. But to attempt to force the Spirit or to whip up a simulation of divine power can only grieve the Spirit and harden hearts.


What then? Probably Model One and Model Two need not be mutually exclusive, as long as Model Two is dominant in the pastor’s thinking and method.

At Iconium Paul and Barnabas “spoke so effectively that a great numberof Jews and Gentiles believed” (Acts 14:1). The effectiveness no doubt was due to the Spirit’s anointing upon them, but one gets the impression that there is a reference here also to their skill in speaking. If so, this would be the human side, and consists of an art that can be learned and that will enlarge one’s success in soul winning. This Scripture may be said, therefore, to stress the human element.

But the divine element is predominant in Acts 16:13-14- where we read that the “the Lord opened” Lydia’s heart “to respond to Paul’s message.” The human components were in place: (1) They went where she was-“a place of prayer.” (2) They got her attention she was “one of those listening.” (3) They faithfully proclaimed the gospel. But the Lord opened her heart.

Was this an arbitrary opening, an example of “irresistible grace” and “effectual calling”? No, it was the divine illumination of an already open and hungry heart, for she had gone there to pray, and she was already a “worshiper of God.” But now her heart was opened to these messengers and to their message of Christ. But she could have resisted. As the Lutherans have sometimes said, “No one can save himself, but he can damn himself.” So in our insistence on the sovereign and essential action of the Spirit we stop short of Calvinism.

But we must equally stop short of humanism. At this point we need to return to some things said in the previous chapter. Madison Avenue techniques can capture attention and persuade a percentage to buy. Those same techniques employed by the church can also capture attention and may even persuade
troubled people to become religious and join the church. But at some point-perhaps at every point simultaneously-the psychological must be invaded by the spiritual and the purely human influences give way to the Spirit’s conviction, or the religiosity and church joining will prove to be temporary and superficial reformations rather than profound transformations. And the attachment will be to people, not to Christ.

The notion, therefore, that Madison Avenue know how can win people to Christ is weighed in the balance and found wanting. Madison Avenue is not up against human sinfulness plus a web of satanic powers. Madison Avenue’s aim is to work with the grain of human nature, not against it. In contrast, the recalcitrance of human nature is the church’s supreme obstacle. While, therefore, certain sociological methods of getting attention and dissolving personal antagonisms will help up to a point, beyond that point all methodology must be transposed to a higher and radically different world of reality. The pastor and church that operate on the lower level alone will have nothing on the Day of Judgment but “wood, hay, and stubble” to show for their labors.

Pastors can keep their sanity only by remembering that while their methods affect the number of people they can contact and influence, only the Holy Spirit will turn contacts into conversions; and that because of free will the best of systems will never have universal success. This is true of God’s own redemptive plan, which provides for the salvation of all, but assures the salvation only of those who respond.

Therefore, while we will be saddened, we must not despair if in spite of the finest systems of pastors and churches the number who respond and go all the way with God will be relatively small. It is proper for pastors to grieve over those who resist, but not to flagellate themselves for others’ resistance. It may be proper to bear guilt for poor plans thoughtlessly put together and nonchalantly carried out, but it is not proper to suppose that if only the plans had been perfect the results would have been total.

It is easy for the ardent soul-winner, who desires to win everyone for Christ, to forget Christ’s negative pronouncement: “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matt. 7:14; cf. Luke 13:23-27). While this should not be used as an excuse for languid effort, it should be a sobering reminder of limited expectations. Sometimes the optimism of church-growth talk almost suggests that if our systems are good enough we can prove Christ wrong.

To hold aloft Model One-the pastor as agent then shoot it down seems contradictory. But we are faced with real tension, which needs to be acknowledged. The first model seems to fit our theology of free agency, both of the pastor as steward and the unsaved as free agents, while the second model, by which the Holy Spirit’s sovereign initiative is stressed, is more congenial to a Calvinistic perception of redemptive dynamics. But perhaps we have seen that excessive reliance on Madison Avenue techniques leads to sociological and humanistic results, while, on the other hand, giving full recognition of the Spirit’s indispensable initiative at every level and at every stage does not necessarily lead to a Calvinistic soteriology.

Admittedly there are mysteries in the Spirit’s operations which would at times raise questions in one’s mind. The Spirit’s timing and His degree of power on particular persons and situations might suggest a kind of sovereignty explainable only by Calvinistic premises. But we cannot relinquish our hold on the “whosoever” of John 3:16, and the promise of Jesus that the Spirit would convict the world (+1John 16:8). A better explanation lies in our capacity to hinder the Spirit. Unbelief, prayerlessness, indifference, and other forms of sin in the church will grieve the Spirit and choke the channels of blessing.

It is incontestably true that awakening, convicting, regenerating, and sanctifying are ministrations solely of the Spirit and cannot be counterfeited or substituted, and that without these ministrations all religion is spurious and vain. But if the Spirit is going to work in these ways through a local church, three conditions must be met:

1. Our plans, schemes, systems, methods, and polity must be such that the Spirit can and does work through them and is not hindered by them.

2. Even more important is the moral and spiritual state of the church. For the Spirit’s primary instrument is the church (including its leadership), but He works through the church on moral terms. The moral and spiritual state of the church will have more to do with the Spirit’s redemptive activity than will the particular methods and systems used. The methods may be fine while the spiritual channels may be clogged.

When the Israelites were humiliated by puny little Ai, God said, “Get rid of the sin first. Then I will give you a strategy.” And so they did and He did. When the sin was removed and God’s strategy employed the victory was won easily.

3. The kingpins in all of this are the pastors. The Spirit must be able to work through them. Their heart must be pure and their lives unblemished. Perhaps the bottom line after all is expressed by E. M. Bounds, in Power Through Prayer: “The church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men.” It is not enough that the Spirit fell on the church at Pentecost. He must come upon God’s man or woman today.