Why You Can't Chase Numbers if You Want to Grow Your Church

(Aaron Coston)

When my wife, Dawn, and I were called to become lead pastors of our small-town church, I didn't want to accept God's assignment. I had several reasons, but one was that the church was in a community of only 1,000 people surrounded by cornfields.

How in the world am I going to do anything "significant" in this little bitty town that is barely on the map? I thought. I wanted to move to a city so we would have a larger population base to draw from and we would be able to make a bigger "impact."

Despise Not Small Beginnings

In 1984, about a dozen people hungering for more of God met regularly for prayer in a Norris City, Illinois, home. This young congregation, which became Crossroads Bible Church, then met in a senior center. Next, they purchased land at the intersection of Highways 1 and 45 just outside the city limits. There they gathered, sitting on hay bales, in a horse pole barn. The congregation grew and served the community and surrounding area in a variety of ways, including a food pantry and other ministry outreaches.

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The church's first pastor, Leo Hall, led Crossroads for 22 years. Then, in 2006, he and the church leaders asked if my wife, Dawn, and I would become lead pastors. At the time, I was an accountant.

One day, while I was complaining to God about His call, He led me to get a map and mark the four farthest points from which people were already driving to our church. At the time, the radius was 30 miles. God told me to draw a circle around those four points and then look up the population in that circle. After some research, I figured out that number to be over 100,000. I immediately felt like the Lord said to me, "Now what are you complaining about? Get to work." This made me realize that God had a dream to impact the entire region, not only our little community, for His kingdom.

A few years ago, I was tested again as to my Crossroads assignment when I was offered a position at a very large church in a city of almost 700,000. I found the offer appealing, so I was praying about whether to take the position. On one particular day, I was praying in the parking lot of a former location for a Rural King farm supply store. I looked up at the building where the store sign used to be and felt as though the Lord said to me, "I am the King of the rural area."

This simple statement confirmed my assignment. I finally felt settled in my heart that God wanted to use Crossroads along with many other great churches to impact the rural area in a much more significant way.

Change for the Future

When Dawn and I became Crossroads pastors in March 2006, our church averaged a little under 200 in weekly attendance. We realized that if we wanted to grow, we were going to have to be willing to change, which brings to mind what Life.Church pastor Craig Groeschel said, "People don't hate change, they hate the way we try to change them."

We knew we could not change everything overnight, so we started to implement small changes here and there to communicate and emphasize the "why" in a powerful way so that the new "whats" were more easily accepted. We didn't start by pointing out what was wrong with this or that. Rather, we consistently talked about what was right about the things we were introducing until people were willing to walk away from the old to experience what they saw that might be better.

Most churches want to grow and reach more people but don't always know how. The problem is rarely one of not knowing the desired end result, but determining what you are willing to leave behind to achieve that result. We challenged the status quo and started developing a culture of reaching people more than pleasing people. We realized that conversions to Christ had to take priority over comfort. It is impossible to grow and stay comfortable at the same time.

Our growth was not about one "big thing," though. Through the years, we experienced many changes. We built teams around the vision of where we were going instead of policies to protect where we had been. We began to see steady growth, as more and more people came from our own community and from all over the region. Most importantly, we have seen lives changed by the power of Jesus from all roads of life, including farmers, coal miners, school teachers, lawyers, business owners, students and government officials.

Of course, not everyone accepts change. Leaving what is comfortable is not usually easy. One longtime member came up to me and said, "Pastor, there are more of them than there are of us!" The "them" to which the member was referring were the new people who had come, and the "us" were the people who had been there for a long time, who were now outnumbered. "I know, isn't it great?" I replied.

As Crossroads grew, it was difficult for some who loved our church the size it was to stay connected. We loved the ones who preferred the way things were but did not cater to them. We continued to implement changes and cast vision until they either bought in or chose, on their own, to leave and go to another church. With the few who did leave, more who were attracted to the vision and to growth came. The radius we draw from now has grown from 30 to 60 miles. With the population of Norris City still a little over 1,000, our weekly attendance now averages over 900. We've broken 1,000 in attendance several times, even over 1,300 this past Easter Sunday.

Increase Your Expectations

I believe churches in rural communities are an essential part of what God is doing in this country. Churches in both rural and metropolitan areas often have the same goal: They want to reach their city. The only difference is the number of people from which to draw within their area.

Certainly, there are challenges unique to the rural pastorate. But rural church pastors need to realize God can use them in powerful ways to make a significant impact. They must not limit themselves by the size of their towns or what has been done before in their area. Thanks to the internet, the world is a different place than 50 years ago. Rural churches that are going to make the most impact are the ones willing to increase their expectations and change their methods to reach more people.

One of the greatest assets of a smaller community can be one of the biggest hindrances to growing a church in such a community. The loyalty and familiarity of smaller churches are good but can become a hindrance to making changes to reach people in future generations. There is a fine line between honoring what has brought a church to a certain point and building a monument so it doesn't go any further.

When Joshua and the Israelites crossed the Jordan River, they set up a monument of 12 stones in the middle of the river as a memorial of what God had done for them. These stones were to remind them of what God had done in the past and to honor those who had paved the way, but the people were not supposed to stay in that place and look at the stones forever. Rather, they were to move forward into what God had ahead of them while being encouraged by the faithfulness of His work among them in the past (Josh. 4).

Too many times, the people of a generation who experience a powerful move of God are the last ones to accept His next move, something He wants to do differently for the next generation. The older generation wants not only to place memorial stones but to camp around them nostalgically to keep everything the same.

Every pastor has to discover for himself what vision God has for his congregation. There is no magic number to shoot for before a pastor believes he has achieved success. Success is not tied to a number but is absolutely tied to a vision and the execution of that vision.

If we chase numbers, we will live in a constant state of dissatisfaction and lose sight of why we do what we do. On the other hand, to say numbers don't matter is a mistake because each number represents a person who matters to God. We have to care about numbers if we care about people. We run into a problem when we get our "why" attached to the wrong thing.

The year 2018 is truly a game changer for our church as we purchased an elementary school last year in Mt. Carmel, Illinois, 45 miles from Norris City. With this significant purchase, our purpose is to launch our first additional site in the near future. This year, we felt God told us to expand into multiple locations.

God is changing our church significantly, and one of the changes was our name. Since Crossroads is a common name, we thought it might confuse people in our future church locations. In May 2012, we received a prophetic word that there was a new name for our church, but we didn't want to change it unless God was truly behind the switch.

During our prayer and fasting in January this year, we felt as though we heard the name "The Roads Church" from Isaiah 49:9 (NIV). The Isaiah 49:8-13 passage jumped out at us as the vision of "Connecting people with Jesus from all roads of life." The interpretation is not that there are "many roads to God" but that we are to connect people to Jesus, the only road to God from the many roads of life. Verse 12 of The Message Bible says that people would come out of the north, the west and "all the way down the Nile," which was amazingly significant to us, since our region of Illinois is called "little Egypt"!

We are so grateful for where God has brought our church and for the many people who came before us to pave the way. We know God is the King of the rural area, and we are excited to be a part of growing His kingdom throughout rural America.

Chad Everett worked as an accountant before he and his wife, Dawn, were asked to take over as lead pastors of Crossroads Bible Church in Norris City, Illinois. Since 2006, they have led their rural congregation, now renamed The Roads Church.

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