Plumb Line #2: We Judge Our Success by Sending Capacity, Not Seating Capacity
Our God is a sending God. He sent his best into the world to save us. Jesus is referred to as “sent” forty-four times in the New Testament. After his resurrection, Jesus passed his identity on to his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).
To follow Jesus is to be sent.
Jesus’ command to every disciple is to “go” (Matt. 28:19). We may not all go overseas, but we are all to be going. This means that if you are not going, you are not a disciple; and, church leader, if the people in our churches are not “going,” we are not doing our jobs. A church leader can have a large church with thousands of people attending, but if people are not going from it “outside the camp” (Heb 13:13), to pursue the mission and call of Christ, those leaders are delinquent in their duty.
Everyone who has received the gospel of reconciliation is sent to carry that gospel to others. Every believer is sent. You are either mission field or missionary.
Planting, investing, sending, and sacrificing are costly. It hurts. But the trajectory of discipleship is toward giving away, not taking in. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, “When Christ bids a man to follow, he bids him come and die.” Jesus did not say come and grow, but come and die. And he showed us what that means by his own example.
Why would it surprise us that God wants to use the same process in our ministries? It is not through our success that God saves the world, but through our sacrifice. He calls us first to an altar, not a platform.
His way of bringing life to the world is not by giving us numerical growth and gain that enriches our lives and exalts our name. His way is by bringing resurrection out of death. As Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
We live by losing. We gain by giving away. What we achieve by building our personal platform will never be as great as what God achieves through what we give away in faith.
The need for this kind of an approach is greater than ever. The “nones” in Western society (those who check “none” for religious affiliation) grow each year at an astounding rate. “Nones” don’t casually make their way back into church because the pastor is engaging, the music is cool, or the guest services are Disney-esque. They have to be reached outside the church. In the future, we will likely see fewer and fewer megachurches competing for larger pieces of a rapidly shrinking pie. Those who want to “grow the pie” will have to reach people outside the weekend services. This means empowering believers to carry the gospel outside of the church.
Furthermore, we are now seeing a flood of immigrants moving into our backyards, and we hear the voice of a culture crying out for a racial diversity they are unable to achieve. Many people find these trends frightening, but I believe that they present tremendous opportunities for the church. However, they will not be seized through going about church as normal.
Are we sufficient for the task? Like Ezekiel, standing before the valley of dry bones, we confess our inability, but we know that the Spirit of God can do through us all that he has determined.
The church is not composed of “those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith” (Heb 10:39, ESV). Instead of adopting a defensive posture toward the culture, trying only to hold on to what we have and protect it from the enemy, we must go on the offensive, sending out believers into the culture to besiege the gates of hell. We must cease measuring success by “seating capacity,” and view ministry success as “sending capacity.” Seating capacity is comfortable. It’s safe. But sending capacity is risky and frightening. Seating capacity makes the churches’ leaders look important. But sending capacity makes the mission—and Jesus—look important.
Shifting from seating capacity to sending capacity will entail a fundamental shift in how we think about the mission of the church. Jesus’ vision of the church—the kind of church that would besiege the gates of hell—did not consist of a group of people gathered around one anointed leader, but multiple leaders going out in the power of the Spirit. It’s a claim that very few of us take seriously: Jesus literally said that that a multiplicity of Spirit-filled leaders would be greater than his earthly, bodily presence (John 14:12).
Can you imagine the power of a church in which ordinary members know what it means to be filled with the Spirit of God and led by the Spirit of God? God’s plan to glorify himself in the church never consisted of platformed megapastors, cutting edge art, or expensive buildings. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things in themselves, but the real power in the church is found the Holy Spirit moving through ordinary people as they carry his presence into the streets.
In Acts, the biggest advances of the gospel in the New Testament happened through ordinary people. Of all the miracles in Acts, 39 of 40 were done outside of the church. We need to expect that kind of ratio today, too.
As a church, we’ve got to focus on empowering and equipping those in our church for ministry. Everyone loves seeing attendance numbers grow, but I know that incremental growth won’t make a difference for 99% of the people in my city. We need to empower our people to multiply God’s power where they already are. As Paul says, God “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph 4:11–12). What that means is that when I became a pastor, I left the ministry. I simply can’t reach people everyone where they are. You can.
God is calling you to understand your role in his mission, to get off the sidelines and join him where he is already at work. It won’t be easy. It won’t be safe. But remember that the kingdom of God works on the principle of the harvest: we reap only as we risk; living comes by dying; gaining comes by losing.
Plumb lines are a series of short, pithy statements that we, at the Summit, use as rallying points—both for our staff and for the entire church. They are a way to encapsulate our ministry philosophy in short, memorable phrases. Be sure to check out our entire list of plumb lines.
For more about becoming a church that sends, check out Gaining by Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches that Send.