Grow Your Church by Growing Yourself

For church leaders who don’t want to settle for mediocrity, status quo, and irrelevance, here are five steps to becoming a Spirit-led, Spirit-filled, Spirit-directed church. | by Alton Garrison

God offers each of us hope—hope that His dream for our future is greater than our memories of past ministries.

Perhaps you’re wanting to create an environment for the people in your church to become healthy and to grow. Perhaps you’ve been to conferences where experts told you how your church could grow, but the techniques had disappointing results. Or maybe in the past your leaders resisted your ideas and efforts. Or maybe you’re exhausted from trying and seeing few results. Now you’re ready for a more dynamic church. You’re ready for more effective discipleship, a new outward focus.

That’s where I was when God began to show me how His plan in Acts 2 made the first-century church so effective. There’s only one problem. To embrace the plan God had for me required something we typically don’t like: change.

It took me two years to realize I needed the courage to change. One of two things will happen when we’re confronted with the need to change. We either accept it, or we try to justify our decisions and resist it. Coming to terms with the fact that we need to change is the biggest obstacle standing in the way of renewal in our life and in our church. Many leaders are convinced that the problem is the people, but the people aren’t always the problem. We fear getting the people to change, but in reality, we’re the ones who first need to experience change in our own lives.

I was thirty-nine years old when God showed me I had to change. I didn’t know what I needed to do, but God was about to show me the way. I accepted it, and God provided the resources to go forward. I believe that if I could find the courage to change, you can as well.


Right now, whatever your situation, know that you are not alone. Your particular situation may be unique, but the problems we all face are quite common. We all struggle. We all have difficulties, setbacks, and storms, but through them all, it’s imperative that we move forward. If we want to keep getting the same results we’ve had in the past, we can just keep doing what we’ve been doing. But if we want change to occur, we have to take wise, bold steps in a new direction.

If you’ve tried to change before and failed, you may be reading this skeptically. You may think that you’ve tried new plans, new programs, and new ways of doing things—all of which may have failed or may have had less than earth-shattering success. I want to assure you that change is possible.

Over the years, I’ve seen leaders from all kinds of churches find the courage to be objective about their current situations and take bold steps to a better future. These men and women combined deep humility and the courage of a lion. They weren’t willing to settle for anything less than God’s best, and He gave them two crucial elements: a deeper sense of His love and power and a clear, workable plan.

You may be in the same place I was—where many pastors have been—looking for the missing pieces and thinking change is impossible. What I discovered is that it wasn’t that I was doing something wrong; I simply didn’t have all the pieces.

A look through the New Testament reveals contemporary examples of what God did with impossible situations. Every time God moved with wisdom and sovereignty, a new leader or a new process preceded it.

I’m not suggesting that your church needs a new pastor, but what I am advocating is that every one of us can be a new leader by embracing change. We can be transformed by the empowerment of the Spirit, and we can then change the atmosphere of our churches and congregations through the same plan that God used to transform the church of the first century.

Change is possible. God transformed Jewish believers into Christ-followers. Today, He can reinvigorate churches with the same power.


It’s easy to get the wrong idea about where change starts. It’s easy to think it has to begin with the people. The pastor is to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry, but all too often, congregations have the incorrect understanding that pastors are paid to do ministry and everyone else is just there to help them.

While members of the church board or some people in prominent families may resist change, the reality is that the paradigm shift begins with the leaders. When the understanding is in place about who is to do ministry, we will be able to equip and empower our congregations.

After I had pastored one church for nearly two years, the vice chairman of the board decided he didn’t like that I was trying to move ministry from the pulpit to the pew by empowering the congregation as co-laborers. The vice chairman was a wealthy business owner named Bill. While my predecessor had met with Bill frequently, I had not, and a crisis was developing. The real issue was, who would lead the church and where would it go?

“I think you misunderstood something,” Bill said in one fateful board meeting. “We brought you here to preach, but we are going to run this church.” I responded that I wasn’t looking for a dictatorship but a collaborative effort. I shared my belief that God had designed a church to be led by a shepherd, not a committee. As the pastor, I said I wanted to equip the saints for the ministry while Bill wanted me to be a hireling who performed the ministry for them. As I ended, I asked Bill, “I’m willing to die for this church. Are you?”

The way that meeting ended is that after everyone spoke and expressed themselves, some began to cry. It went from a confrontation into a prayer meeting. After we prayed, a longtime member stood and said, “I’ve been on the board over forty years. This boy,” he said, pointing to me, “is going to lead this church. He’s going to be the pastor and we’re going to help him.”

When I left the church fifteen years later, Bill apologized to me. What could have served to divide the church was instead a watershed moment. Change had to happen, and I had to be willing to see it through.

You may not have an old saint stand up in your defense. However, you must ask yourself if you are willing to put it on the line to usher in God’s change for you and for your congregation. Decide whether you are going to do it the board’s way or God’s way. I was willing to die for the church I pastored—are you willing to die for yours? And perhaps even more pertinent, are you willing to fight for your church?


God isn’t intimidated by any problem in our churches, whether the challenges of rural churches, the struggles of urban society, negative trends in the culture, false religions, or anything else. So why should we let problems steal our hope?

We have determined five things necessary for churches to experience revitalization:

1. A “burning platform,” which is the crisis—it’s the pressing need for immediate and radical change.

Plateauing and declining churches, and the state of the church in the West in particular, are the burning problem of today. We have a crisis. Across America, we see churches in crisis, its dreams bigger than its memories. We desire to help churches dream the dream that God has for each of them.

God has a plan for each and every church, and we want to help church leaders find that plan and fulfill it. The process of discovering that plan is what we have pioneered with our Acts 2 Journeys—programs that have helped literally hundreds of churches to discover and fulfill God’s destiny for them.

Your church and its ministry have a hope and a future!

2. Equipping church leaders and pastors to thrive and grow—to change.

Leaders fear getting the people to change, but in reality, change starts with the leadership. We must each be willing to admit we need help, create a community of leaders committed to helping one another succeed, and brave one of the most frightening words in the church: change.

Churches seldom outgrow their leaders. Sustained growth is a function of wise, godly, and visionary leadership. While not every church leader has the same potential, we can all get better—and we can all help one another do it.

To be better leaders, we must keep learning. I’ve worked with leaders in their seventies who are still learning and growing. I’ve also met pastors in their thirties who have stopped learning. We must keep our elasticity—our willingness to change and grow and flex.

3. The team behind every pastor—the volunteers and lay-leaders who make “church” happen every week.

No church can turn the corner without a great team of people working together and discipling new team members.

Often, something is “lost in translation” when pastors attend conferences and come home excited and full of vision. If a team of leaders doesn’t share that vision and work together, but rather are at cross-purposes, it is nearly impossible to implement the vision. We must empower teams and help them understand that they aren’t in the church only to be blessed but also to be a blessing to others. When church leaders work together with empowered teams, our experience shows that about 80 percent report significant progress.

The entire church must catch the paradigm shift that they haven’t hired a pastor to do everything for them. Congregation members who see themselves as no more than helpers feel no sense of ownership, no vision for the future, and no drive to achieve great things for God. When people see themselves as part of a team—all called to the same mission—they feel a sense of ownership. Working as a team enables us to reach people for Jesus effectively.

4. It’s critical that our churches become outward-focused.

No matter the size of our churches, we must fulfill our mandate: the Great Commission. For too long we have focused on making churchgoers comfortable. It’s time to go into all the world with the gospel as co-laborers for Christ, focused on the mission of winning souls.

We can fill buses with people who will distribute tracts to people they’ve never met or put some people on a plane for a short-term missions trip, but when we ask people to share Jesus with those close to them, people they see every day, it’s another story. Healthy believers build relationships with people who need Jesus instead of expecting pastors to do it for them.

The most important number for your church isn’t how many people attended last week but how many people in your neighborhood, town, or city need Jesus.

5. The plan.

The Spirit of God imparts the plans of God, as well as the heart and power of God. God has a plan for every church. We have the Holy Spirit as our teacher, and He revealed the plan to the church in Acts 2. The plan doesn’t come from a book. It comes from studying the truth of the Scriptures, praying together, and asking the Holy Spirit what He wants to do in and through us. This is the process my father lacked when he began his ministry and what I lacked when I began pastoring.

We’ve seen the fruit from churches that are being revitalized by making room for God and embracing the plan God laid out for the church in Acts 2. The leaders of these churches weren’t content with the status quo; they didn’t want to become irrelevant. Their days of mediocrity are over, and they are behaving as Spirit- led, Spirit-filled, Spirit-directed churches.

My hope is that you will become one of these churches, too. CGM

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