10 Painful Lessons from the Early Days of Mars Hill Church

 

This week, we launched our new sermon series at Mars Hill Church, “God’s Work, Our Witness,” which is a kind of documentary-meets-reality-TV-show-meets-sermon experience that looks back over the history of the church and reflects on the amazing work God has done over the last 15 years.

On Sunday, we showed the hour-long documentary, shot and edited by our amazing creative guys, which shared the story of God’s faithfulness in the early days of Mars Hill. In the coming weeks for this series, we’ll show videos of sermons preached at various Mars Hill churches on four defining values of our church: gospel-centered theology, complementarian relationships, Spirit-filled lives, and missional churches.

As I prepared for this series, I’ve done a lot of revisiting of the past, and it has been amazing and humbling to remember the hard times at Mars Hill and how God has always been so faithful.

The fact that we’ve grown to over 12,000 people worshiping and serving each Sunday at 14 locations in four states is proof of God’s grace. If growth relied on us, Mars Hill would have shut its doors long ago. We’re thankful to God that he’s used us in inexplicable ways to help thousands of people meet Jesus. And that’s not just religious platitude but painful reality. The KJV Bible says that Lazarus died and when Jesus brought him back he “stinketh.” Our church died many times and stinketh-ed, but Jesus kept bringing it back from death.

In looking back through our history, I want to share 10 painful lessons that God used to grow Mars Hill, lessons I believe can help all churches grow by God’s grace.

1. Create a team.

For the first five or six years of Mars Hill, I was the only paid pastor on staff and carried much of the ministry burden. I was doing all the premarital counseling and most of the pastoral work as the only pastor on staff. This went on for years due to pitiful giving and a ton of very rough new converts all the way until we had grown to about 800 people a Sunday. At one point I literally had over a few thousand people come in and out of my home for Bible studies, internships, counseling, and more. My phone rang off the hook, my email inbox overflowed, my energy levels and health took a nose dive, and I started becoming bitter and angry instead of loving and joyful. It got to the point where either something had to change or I was going to go ballistic and do something I really regretted.

Through much prayer and study of the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit impressed upon me that I’d done a poor job of raising up leaders along with me to help care for his church. I was carrying the burden myself and was not doing a good job because it was too much. I needed to transition from caring for all the people to ensuring they were all cared for by raising up elders, deacons, and church members. This spurred me to make some dramatic changes to increase membership and train leaders.

We began a process of intentionally challenging qualified men to step up as elders to lead, finding and training men and women to serve and lead as deacons, and we started a Gospel Class to clearly articulate what we believed about Jesus, the Bible, and the church to make clear what we expected from members. Our first teams were not amazing, but some of those people, through years of maturing by God’s grace, are now amazing leaders and servants.

Two legalisms at this point nearly killed our church and me. One, as we finally got a bit of money to hire a few staff members, we were self-righteous and only wanted to hire people from within. This meant we did not get the best people but only the best people we had. Two, we had an idealism that elders/pastors should serve for life, which meant the positions for senior leadership were taken forever, thereby locking out new leaders and young leaders whom God would bring us.

While the sentiment of being a unified team was good, since we required a unanimous vote of the elders to do anything, the leadership team went from being accountable to being adversarial, stifling, and impossible. But, we could not move leaders on unless they chose to resign and leave. The truth is that when a church is planted, the first elder team will not be in place years later—even Jesus’ team of a mere twelve people did not hold together for a full three years, and we cannot expect to outperform his leadership. The goals of the church are not to secure power and position for leaders but rather to glorify God, reach non-Christians, and mature Christians by putting in place whoever is best suited for these tasks.

Making this change was brutal. God blessed those efforts, and today we have over 50 elders with another 50 in process, hundreds of hard-working deacons, and thousands of members committed to the church with both time and finances. If it weren’t for them, Mars Hill wouldn’t have survived.

2. Lead from the pulpit.

Another problem that came from not having built a great team is that everyone expected me to be their pastor in a therapeutic model where we had 1-on-1 meetings every week. In a smaller church, this works because, as the average church is 70 to 80 people, the pastor has time to meet with everyone and still lead the church’s vision. As a church grows, however, it becomes physically impossible for the pastor to meet with everyone for coffee and still lead the church through vision. For our church to grow and for me to survive, I needed to transition from being everyone’s pastor to being a missiologist preacher who led the church from the Bible in the pulpit.

As we trained and installed elders and deacons, I transitioned many of these pastoral duties to other qualified leaders and began focusing more on developing the vision and mission for Mars Hill, studying the Bible, praying, and preaching.

The result has been a huge surge in growth as we’ve been able to give clear teaching and vision, as well as pastorally care for the church through the hard work of many leaders—especially Community Group and Redemption Group leaders—and elders instead of one man trying to do the impossible.

3. Expect members to minister.

In addition to training and raising up leaders in official church positions such as elder and deacon, we also made it clear that our members were expected to be missionaries and to do the work of the ministry in their daily life and among each other.

It was not enough to just attend regularly and give money. Members need to understand they are the church and should be ministers of the gospel. This meant that we trained them theologically through classes and preaching, and we created systems for deacons and elders to train our members for the work of the ministry and to provide opportunities to minister.

4. Work on the church, not in it.

It’s impossible for a church to grow if the leader responsible for vision and direction must work both in the church and on it.

As leaders rose up, I focused more and more of my time on thinking about our future, discussing it with my elders, and connecting where we were going with the Bible through preaching and teaching.

Additionally, I studied our culture in Seattle and worked hard to pray and plan for our church to connect what was going on in the culture to the Bible. I didn’t seek to make the gospel relevant, but instead to show the relevancy of the gospel to our culture. This led to an explosion of conversions, as thousands came to Mars Hill, heard the gospel preached in a way that made sense to them, met Jesus, and were baptized.

5. Learn to write.

In a smaller church, communication is almost entirely done in verbal form. The problem is that as new people come, they have no frame of reference for who you are as a church, what you believe, and where you’re going.

Verbal communication can lead to many misunderstandings as people hear different things, repeat what you said differently or wrongly, and forget easily what was said.

Additionally, it creates much duplication in work, especially in training people theologically, as each time you want someone to learn something, you must tell them from the beginning again.

Out of this, I focused my time on writing books, position papers, policies, emails, blog posts, and more. Today, we see much fruit from this as I’ve written a number of books, we have theresurgence.com, which sees over 6 million visits per year and is the biggest ministry leadership website out there, and we have formal written membership covenants and membership policies to make clear expectations.

Now when people want to know what we believe about theology, we hand them a copy of Doctrine, what we believe about the church, we hand them a copy of Vintage Church, what we believe about religion, we hand them a copy of Religion Saves, and what we believe about Jesus, we hand them a copy of Vintage Jesus. Additionally, members understand what is expected of them and sign a written membership covenant, and our employees know what is expected of them through policy books. It’s all formal and documented.

All of this started with me simply writing one-page papers. As I started getting the same questions over and over, I decided to simply write up answers to hand out through email.

6. Focus on legacy.

Because times were very hard in the early days of Mars Hill, many of our people developed a survivalist mentality where they reacted to the immediate needs of the church and didn’t plan or think ahead for the future of the church.

I realized that if we were to survive and grow, we needed to develop a culture that focused building a legacy by changing peoples’ mindset from survivalist to settlement. This meant making decisions in light of where we were going rather than where we were—and that meant making some hard decisions, such as closing some popular ministries and locations.

In the end, however, knowing the legacy we wanted to build and making decision in light of that legacy was blessed by God as we now meet in more locations, take care of people better than ever, and are seeing more people than ever meet Jesus.

7. Accept growth.

As a leader, if you want to grow, you must actually accept that you will grow and that things will change as you grow. It seems like an obvious thing to say, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to forget it when you’re in the middle of a big growth phase. If you want your church to grow but you are unwilling to make the hard changes that will cause some people to be unhappy, critical, or even leave, then you are refusing to change, which means you or the church will suffer—or maybe both.

8. Balance care and evangelism.

As churches grow, they usually gravitate towards two ends of a ministry spectrum: They either focus on taking care of the people in their church, to the exclusion of those outside the church, or they focus on reaching out to people outside their church to the exclusion of those inside the church.

Being on either end of this spectrum hampers a church’s growth. If you focus too much on evangelism and not on pastoral care, you get many new people but they go elsewhere when they realize they can’t grow in maturity in Christ or get adequate ministry from the church when they are in need. If you focus too much on pastoral care but not on evangelism, you take good care of the people in your church and retain them because they feel loved and ministered to, but you don’t grow because you’re not reaching anyone new with Jesus.

In order to grow as a church, you must focus on both evangelism and taking care of the people in the church with the same passion and focus. Continually evaluate where you are and balance as necessary. And, have your small groups ministry follow the sermons and do much of the evangelism and care in smaller, organized communities meeting in homes, condos, dorms, apartments, etc. with trained leaders.

9. Accept criticism.

Many people attach a moral value to church size. Often this is simply a personal preference that seeks to make a moral principal with no scriptural basis and no objective evidence.

For some, this means that as the church grows and they aren’t connecting with leaders like they used to or aren’t enjoying the influence they used to have, they decide to leave rather than stay along and ride the wave of growth.

As a leader, you need to accept the fact that as you grow, you will have some fallout and criticism—and sometimes it will be from people whom you counted on, loved, and thought would be around forever. This is painful, but it’s not as painful as getting off the mission God has for you to placate those who don’t like it. The early church comprised 120 people with the disciples as the leaders, Peter as the first among equals, and Mary perhaps teaching the how-to-be-a-mom class—it was an amazing church. But then God added 3,000 and scattered them. Had he not done that, we’d be pagans. It’s never about comfort; it’s always about Jesus.

10. Choose your friends.

When a church is smaller, the pastor and leaders have the relational capacity to interact with almost everyone that attends. As the church, grows, however, it becomes impossible to say hello to everyone, let alone come over for dinner or grab a cup of coffee.

As your church grows, you and your leaders need to have the freedom to choose your friends. This doesn’t mean you ignore everyone except a select few, but it does mean that you don’t have to say yes to every invitation, fill your calendar with “get to know you” meetings, or even like everyone.

If you and your leaders don’t have the freedom to choose your friends, your church will suffer as you burn out. Not everyone needs to have your private phone number or email, or your spouse’s. Be friendly toward all, but friends with a few like Jesus, who knew many people but had Peter, James, and John as his friends.

This post was adapted from Confessions of a Reformission Rev: Hard Lessons from an Emerging Missional Church.

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