Podcast Episode 29, 56 min
When “Can’t Miss” Church Growth Answers Don't Work, with Cory Hartman (Ep 29)
An interview about what to do when answers don't work as promised, and refocusing on the essentials.

Corey Hartman: I believe that one of the myths of our time is the myth of magic leadership.

Karl Vaters: Hi, I'm Karl Vaters and I'm a small church pastor. And welcome to this episode of, Can This Work in a Small Church? My guest is Corey Hartman. He's the co-author of Future Church: Seven Laws of Real Church Growth. In this episode, we talk about something that may be a trigger term for many of us, namely part of the subtitle of the book, church growth. But in this book and in our talk today, Corey really takes church health more into account.

Corey's background is in small churches, which he describes in our conversation. So his background, his experiences, and his writing speak well to small church leaders. And don't forget to stick around when the interview is done. I'll come back with an overview of the content and an answer to the question: Can this work in a small church?

I want to welcome you, Corey Hartman, to Can This Work in a Small Church. It's good to have you on as a guest today.

Corey Hartman: It is great to be here, Karl, thank you for having me.

Karl Vaters: I'm interviewing you today; it's an interesting path to get to you today. So I'm going to walk through the path.

Corey Hartman: Very good.

Karl Vaters: I found your name through the book, Future Church. The way I got into it was somebody recommended Future Church to me. The subtitle is Seven Laws of Real Church Growth. And for me, and for a lot of my small church friends, just those two words, church growth, are enough to make us running to the hills screaming because we've read so many church growth books and been to so many church growth conferences and walked away and gone, Why isn't this working for me, to where now they're trigger words. But somebody had promised me, this is not one of those, this is different than that.

So I bought it, put it on my shelf and it's been sitting there for, I don't know, a year or so. And then somebody online, or somehow I found an article online that had your name attached to it, and then connected to it was, this is actually a - I don't know if they called it a missing chapter or a deleted chapter or what it was, but this was actually originally a chapter in this book, Future Church. And I went… Oh, it's there on my shelf. And the article that I read that was originally a chapter in the book was Cure All: One Pastor's Accidental Quest to Debunk Every Revitalization Therapy, which was of course what got me to read the article to begin with. And then I picked up Future Church and I read it through, and it really is different than so many others that have church growth in the title, it just takes a different approach to it. There's no sense of the talking down to that I sometimes feel in other books. Even if that's not the intention of the author, sometimes we as small church pastors feel talked down to, even if it's just simply our own feelings of inferiority, whatever. There's none of that in this. A lot of that I think because of your background.

So we could get into all seven laws, but I'm going to leave that to people who read the book, because that could take three podcasts to get through. What I want to do in this interview is talk, first of all, about the book itself and then very specifically about that missing chapter of why didn't all of the church growth formulas or at least certain parts of the church growth formulas work in your congregation, which I think a whole bunch of our audience will very strongly relate to. No surprise that a podcast called Can This Work in a Small Church is going to be wanting to interview the guy who wrote that.

What I want to do though, is talk about the main illustration of Future Church, which I think is really helpful and for me, sets it apart from so many others. Walk us through the helpful illustration of church growth, of real church growth, having a lower room and an upper room. What's the lower room about, how does that contrast with the upper room? Cuz this to me is the crux of the entire book.

Corey Hartman: Yeah, it really is, Karl. It really is. And I'm glad you pointed that out. So the way we start is to say, imagine that a church is a two-story house. So pretend that it's a two-story house. Okay. Like any - I shouldn't say any - but most two-story houses, you walk in on the first floor of that house, and the second story is above you. Walking into the lower room of a church house, you can think about that as the place where there are elements that draw people in. The people who are inclined to engage in a church, it’s what draws people in. Okay. And the things in that lower room, the things that typically draw people in, begin with the letter P. There's four of them.

The first one is place. They're attracted literally to the physical location itself because it's near to them, because it's beautiful, whatever.

The second is personalities. And by personalities, we mean individual leaders that the person is attracted to. They walk in, they don't know anybody, but they do see this person standing up front who is singing really, really well. Or this person standing up front, who's talking really, really well, and they become drawn to that person. They say, Wow, I want more of what that person has, I'm gonna keep coming back for that person. That's personality.

The third thing that has people coming is programs. So there's stuff that's going on, there's organized activities that work really well. For example, a lot of these have to do with children's programs or youth programs. They've got this great thing for my kid, and so I want them to participate in that. But also it begins to involve themselves as well, as they get involved in the church and as they start to serve, what has them involved in the church is, Oh, this is my ministry, this is my place of service, this is the thing that I like to do to volunteer.

And the fourth thing that draws people into the lower room of a church is people. People in the sense of friends, relationships. It's the place that I know when I go there, I'm gonna see people that I like and that they like me. And I like to be with people that like me and I like to see them, I like to talk with them. I like to have that relational connection, and so that's what's there. The two rooms of the church, the lower room and the upper room, which we haven't talked about, they're not just places that have certain features, but they're also places of emotional attachment.

So let's put it this way. Imagine that you had a sole x-ray, and you were able to put that in front of somebody who comes to your church. And you were able to ask that person the question, Why do you love this church? And you were able to see the real answer for why they love their church or why they call their church home, why they keep coming back. Below what they might think that it is or what you might think that it is, what it actually is. For the vast majority of people, the thing that really has them attached to their church is one or more of those four P’s. And the longer they're in that church, the more invested they get in those things. The more times they've spent fixing leaky pipes in that building, the more they're attached to the building as an outlet of their own time. The more they have smelled the smell of what it smells like to have coffee and donuts in that particular room, the more that scent in that particular place feels like home. And you can say the same thing for relationship with the pastor, and for engagement with programs, and for relationships with all the people.

Karl Vaters: For those who are listening in on that, just as a… For me, one of the proofs of how much people connect to that are try to change your church building. Watch what happens when you have a pastoral transition. Try to stop doing a once loved program that really isn't valid anymore, but stop doing it anyway. Try to change any of these things and watch the world war that often erupts in a church and you see really quickly how people really are connected to these things on a visceral level.

Corey Hartman: Yeah, they really are. And this is so important too. That connection is not by itself bad. It's not. It is human, it is natural, it is normal. It is appropriate in its way. But like anything and everything that is good, it can become an idol. It can become a thing that the attachment to that becomes greater than the thing that God wants us to be attached to. And the thing that he wants us to be attached to is the upper room.

So if the four P's are the stuff of the lower room, what is in the upper room? So the upper room is the unique disciple-making vision for the church from God. God's unique disciple making vision for the church. So to unpack that, it's about vision, right, it's about this is where God wants us to go, and this is who we are. So it's about identity, it's about direction. It's from God. It's about disciple making. So it has to do with people helping other people trust and follow Jesus. If the vision is not at core about those things, it's not the vision from God for His church, because that is what God has the church on earth to do.

And it's unique. So God has given every single church on the planet a vision to have people helping people trust and follow Jesus. But for each individual church, there's a particular way and particular style and particular focus and particular emphasis and particular language and passion that is peculiar to the individuals that He has placed in that place at that time. And so the articulation of all of that, that is the upper room. And when people are able to have their primary emotional attachment to the church be that, be God's unique disciple-making vision for the church, they can still very much enjoy, appreciate, improve, extend the place, personality, people, and programs. And if those things are changed, there's still a tweak, there's still a pain, there's still a hurt, there's still a loss. And yet, all those things could change, all those things could go away and a person will still be 100% attached to their church because for them, the heart of their church is God's unique disciple-making vision, not the place, personality, people and programs.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. This struck me and it's like chapter one, chapter two. You're right into it in the beginning of the book, and immediately it went, Oh, okay, I love this. Because I experienced that in my own congregation. We came into a congregation that was sick and dying, had been through five pastors in the previous 10 years before I came. And for the first 10 to 12 to 15 years, even, I really spent my time in that lower room. I was working on those four P's because my perception of what I was being taught - and it may have been my misperception - was that most of what I was being taught was how to make those four P's better.

Corey Hartman: Yeah.

Karl Vaters: There was the occasional talk about other things, but it was kinda like, Yeah, we know we also have to do prayer. Yeah, we know you also have to make disciples, now let's talk about the parking lot. That was how it came across to me anyway, whether it was intended that way or not. But I love this because it reflected what we've been able to see in our congregation, which was when we really did have an understanding of the mission of the church, of the focus of the upper room, of what disciple making really is all about and how that really is the center focus of the health of the church, then the balance between the upper and lower really became healthy. Then when we started to change things in the lower room, it wasn't the trauma to people anymore because they were connected to the upper room vision and to the upper room disciple-making process, not just to the building or to the pastor or to the programs or to their friends.

Corey Hartman: Yes.

Karl Vaters: That was a huge difference for us. So I saw our journey of health of our church reflected in this book in some wonderful ways, which is really, really helpful to me. Before we get to your specific chapter, one last thing. I also loved how there's - I'm trying to find it in the book here so I'll let you frame it for me - that there are some churches that are only upper room and they are a certain type, and there are churches that are only lower room and they're a certain type. Walk through that. I think it helps to clarify some of what we mean by upper and lower room. And then how the fusing of the two together is really important for the health of a church.

Corey Hartman: Yeah. Perfect, Karl. Absolutely. So Will and I project that over the course of the next 20 years, all churches are eventually gonna be sortable into three categories. Okay.

And so the first one, let's call that a lower room only church. We call that program church. So program church is a lower room with no upper room. Not that there isn't upper room desire, intent, even language, right? Even lip service, per se. But really at heart, the time, the effort, the energy, the devotion of people and the initiatives of leaders is entirely focused on those four P's of the lower room. And so it's like a one-story ranch, right? There's lower room, there's no upper room, and we call that organization without disciple making. Highly organized, no real disciple making going on.

The second kind of church would be upper room, but no lower room. So if you imagine like a beach house that's built on stilts, so it's got the upper room there, but there's nothing going on underneath it. And so upper room with no lower room, that's disciple making, but without organization, and we call that house church. Now, house church doesn't have to meet in a house. House church can meet in, and a lot of them do, meet in third spaces: Cafes and dog parks and all kinds of different sorts of places.

Karl Vaters: I keep wanting to call it hipster church, but maybe that...

Corey Hartman: Yeah. So there could be that, although I'll tell you what, man, there's a heck of a lot of hipster program churches out there, right?

Karl Vaters: Oh, just there are great house churches and great hipster churches as well. But the idea of it, it feels kind of like hipster or hippie or we're just gonna have… We're just gonna have the Spirit, we don't need to organize.

Corey Hartman: That's right. That's right. And so to say there's no organization is going a little far, but it's saying that the organization is extremely light, and the organization is extremely light because the number of people that you're trying to work with at any one time is very small. So you're multiplying tons of small expressions of the church, right? Like tons of small expressions of 30 people or less in all different kinds of places. And if you're dealing with 30 people or less, organization is not a huge need that you have. And so it's this very decentralized network that is intensely based on disciple making, and it is helping people trust and follow Jesus, but there's really nothing going on in terms of place. And in personalities, hot shots or whatever, hotshot leaders are not really there, and definitely no programs. And the people, it's a pretty small group of people and it's a group that's constantly multiplying and dividing and spreading out, so nobody's really staying still for very long.

What we are talking to is churches with a lower room that we think that God still has plans for for the next two decades, and that we wanna see become future church. So if future church… Or if program church is lower room, and if house church is upper room, future church is upper room and lower room with upper room predominating. So there really is the lower room institutional organized thing, but it's driven by upper room priorities and people are constantly walking up the staircase to the upper room, who are walking into the church. And so we call that organized disciple making. It's organized, but disciple making is the driver and that takes priority in what the church is all about and doing.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. I love it because it feels like a bungee cord. It feels like you're pulling us forward, but you're not stretching it so far that it's gonna snap and break something. Some of the calls are basically keeping the lower room going without acknowledging upper room, which is no pull at all. And then others, it seems like they're wanting us to make such a giant leap across this chasm from, like, the kinds of churches that you were in, for instance. Maybe a mainstream church with a building in a small town, and all of a sudden you're wanting them to just… They feel like you're asking them to sit cross-legged on the floor all day long, right? It's like, we're not making that jump, that doesn't work for us. But what you're asking is a doable stretch, but that will challenge our preconceptions, that will cause us to grow, but that is doable within the current structure of the typical church in North America.

Corey Hartman: Yeah, that's right. And we are not looking beyond 2040. We're not looking beyond that. And there's a part of the book where we actually look backwards 80 years and look at 20-year increments to say, What was the reigning or cutting edge paradigm of church growth in those different periods. And we're projecting the next period of 20 years, but we make no predictions about what happens after 2040. I mean, for all we know, the next 20 years is a long hand-off to house church. Maybe by mid-century we're all doing house church, all over North America. We don't know that, but we do believe that for right now, that God isn't done with established, organized entities, commonly known as churches. That He still has a reason for them to be here, and there's a way that they can be faithful in what He's doing today to reach the lost for Christ.

Karl Vaters: Yeah, what a great way to phrase that. So from Future church… I've written a few books too, and I know the painful process of editing it from 80,000 down to 40,000 words or that kind of a thing, and I know you had to do that with this book. You did something in this book, however, that I didn't think to do in mine, but I will probably do in the future, which is, Hey, by the way, we wrote a chapter right here and we didn't include it in the book, but you can find it online. Which, as I mentioned up front, is how I found you originally because I found one of those lost chapters.

And now a short break to talk about something else. If you like the content you're hearing, here are two things you can do for us. First, forward this podcast to a friend. Second, consider becoming a financial supporter through Patreon, Venmo, or PayPal. Just go to Karlvaters.com/support. For as little as $3 a month, you can help us put these resources into the hands of the ministries that need them the most. Our support link is in the show notes.

So you wrote a piece that was originally intended for the book, and the title of at least the article, whether it was the original title of the chapter or not, Cure All: One Pastor's Accidental Quest to Debunk Every Revitalization Therapy. And so let's jump from the general church growth stuff, which is so good and so healthy, to the much more specific Can This Work in a Small Church stuff.

Let's get to your article. When you say revitalization didn't work, what specifically didn't work.

Corey Hartman: That's a great question. So there were several, I guess you'd say, tactics or priorities that I took on at different successive or overlapping waves of my ministry in these two churches over the course of 13 years, and that were encouraged to me by revitalization voices, and that I really believed would work. And I should also say that I'm not gonna say that they didn't work, from God's kingdom perspective. In his mysterious providence, you might say that they did work. But measured by a church with a few people and getting fewer people, turning into a church, getting more people. If that was the measure of success, they didn't work. The first one of these was, preach the word, right? Teach the Bible, preach the word, ground people in sound doctrine, ground people in the gospel. Yes, and amen. Of course we must do that. We had better be doing that. As a matter of fact, in our book, one of the seven laws we call the law of power, which is real church growth is powered by the gospel, not relevance. So we very, very strongly believe in that. But with a lot of voices, I heard it was sort of the idea that you just preach the Bible and you get people grounded in the truth, and everything is gonna work out, everything is gonna take care of itself. And it did not.

Karl Vaters: And that's not… Sometimes when we present these presuppositions, we are presenting them as generic, this is what people think even though they don't say it. But I don't know a pastor out there who's been pastoring for very long that hasn't actually heard somebody say, Just preach the word and everything else will take care of itself. We literally say those words.

Corey Hartman: It's true. It's true.

Karl Vaters: So in your chapter or article, you go through four potential solutions that didn't work, and this is your first one, right? So solution number one, the question was why didn't biblical teaching work. Okay. Just preach the word, leave the rest to God. How can that possibly not be correct? Come on.

Corey Hartman: Right, how can that possibly not be correct? The reason that it's possible for that not to be correct is a few things, but let's start with this one. When we are doing this as pastors, the first and most natural place for us to look as the vehicle to preach the word is really one of the main elements of our job description, which is to stand up in front of people on a Sunday morning and talk for a while. I mean, that's literally one of the things we're paid to do. And in that setting, we are also prone to believe that that is extremely powerful. Now, it is powerful, but it's usually not as powerful as we think. We tend to think that one sermon or five sermons or 10 sermons, or hey, maybe even 50 sermons over the course of a whole year, is gonna do a ton. And it rarely does as much as we think it will. Now, 10 years worth of sermons actually is usually more powerful than we think it's going to be. So one sermon is less powerful than we think, and 500 sermons are more powerful than we think. So it's the accumulated weight of it that actually has more of an impact.

But there's something else too. Even as good as your sermons will be, the most that you can realistically accomplish in an educational setting, and I'm including the worship environment as an educational setting, that involves one person standing up and delivering information, no matter how inspirational, how passionate, how incisive, is that you usually are able to get people at best to the point where they want to do what you're telling them to do.

Karl Vaters: Gotcha.

Corey Hartman: And that's a huge accomplishment. If you can get them to want to do what you're telling 'em to do, that's great. But there's still a big gap between wanting to do it and doing it, and that can't reasonably get accomplished in the teaching event. It doesn't. That gets accomplished in much grittier places of the Monday through Saturday life and day to day interaction with people, and giving people practices and tools to self-evaluate, to self diagnose, to course correct, to build in habits. These are the sorts of things that actually practically change the stuff of life, and that also happens to be the stuff of disciple making.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. And it's also, I think, one of the strengths of the healthy small church. I'm gonna quote you from this, under solution number one, Why didn't biblical teaching work. And the answer that you give - and it's in bold, at least on my printed copy, because I believe it's in bold in your original - quote, I didn't model the specific works that might have brought the growth that the scripture promises. So you were saying it, but you weren't modeling it for them. And one of the great strengths of the healthy small church is that we can be close enough to the pastor and the pastor can be close enough to the congregation members to actually live amongst each other and model for each other, rather than simply seeing somebody from a distance. And again, this is not… Anybody who knows me knows I'm not anti-big church, I'm just focusing on the strength of the small, which is that intimacy, which allows the example to really take place in real life.

Corey Hartman: Yeah it really is. Like, there are things that large churches have to really bend over backwards to figure out how they're gonna pull off. Small churches have the natural advantages, but usually don't have the awareness or ability to seize those things. And I can tell you for myself, and this might bleed into some of those other possible solutions as well, if I could go back and do it all over again, if I could go back and talk to myself when I took on my second church in 2007, I would tell that 30-year-old pastor, Look, you're getting hired by an organization to do an organizational job, but you know what, the people who hired you, they have no idea what your job actually is, they have no idea what you're doing all through the week. And you know what, you could probably put in 8 to 10 hours a week doing the organizational stuff, including preparing to preach, and nobody would be any the wiser. They have no idea.

Karl Vaters: That's true.

Corey Hartman: So my counsel to you, 30-year-old Corey, is to spend your 10 hours a week on the institution, and spend 30 hours a week talking to people about their lives and about Jesus. Eventually, that will begin to take over the institution, and then you can actually shift some of your time to actually doing some significant strategic restructure of the organization. But you have to get the disciple making movement started before there's really any reason to start tinkering with organizational structure or priorities or any of the other stuff that in principle you're being hired to do.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. Just like you mentioned that there's a gap between people wanting to do what you talked about and then the actual doing of it, there's also a gap between small churches have the opportunity to model more directly, but the actual deciding to and following through on modeling it for people, that's often a… Just cuz we have the chance to do it in a small church doesn't mean we're necessarily doing it. And some of it is time, especially if you're talking to bivocational pastors who barely have enough time to get their secular job done during the week and then prep a sermon for Sunday, and now you're telling me I’ve got to sit for dozens and dozens of hours with people during the week. How do I even figure that out time wise is part of the challenge. But if we don't understand the importance of it to begin with and begin to work towards it, we'll never get there if we don't at least begin to reframe the question.

Corey Hartman: It's true. And really the genius for bivocational pastors too, is that the advantage they have, and I'm not making light of the huge burdens of just the responsibilities and all the times between job and church and family, it's crazy. But one thing that it does provide is oodles of time to be shoulder to shoulder with people. Their people in the workplace, their customers, their clients, their coworkers, their employees, their employer, whatever. But to be with people that you can really bring Christ to. And that is itself a pretty cool asset right there. And I do believe that even in large churches, there's gonna be a lot more elevation of bivocational pastors moving into the next 20 years for that very reason, because of the mission as it is.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. I see that coming too, as well. I've got a couple real important questions, I don't wanna short change. But let's go through the other three solutions in this. So solution number one, Why didn't biblical teaching work, and the shorthand answer to that is because you weren't modeling it in addition to teaching it.

Solution number two, why didn't gifted leadership work? Doesn't everything fall and rise on leadership? How can gifted leadership not be the entire answer? Come on.

Corey Hartman: How can that be? I know. So this actually is really something of a pet peeve of mine. I believe… And this is not just a church thing, this is in the wider culture. I believe that one of the myths of our time is the myth of magic leadership. And what I mean by magic leadership is this idea that if only we have the right leaders, then everything is gonna work out just fine. And the truth in the myth is that nothing gets better without good leadership. Nothing. So gifted leadership and good leadership and moral leadership is crucial. There is no positive change among a group of people without good leadership. The myth is that basically that's the sole ingredient. If we just get the leadership part right, then everything else is going to be fine. And the main thing that does is it excuses us followers from our responsibility to contribute to the positive change. That involves us as church members. I'm an ordinary Joe blow church member now. That's not entirely true. I get asked by my pastor and friend to preach from time to time. But still, I'm not getting paid by a church today in what I'm currently doing. But for us as church members, it applies to us as citizens, it applies to us as workers in our jobs, whatever, we have a responsibility too. And so the gifted leadership thing, especially how that can really cause problems in the small church setting is that in a small church setting where there is one paid ministerial leader, whether that's the person's sole job or that is a bivocational situation, is that whatever are the peculiar gifts and passions and perspectives that God has placed in that person, glory to his name for that, they have an outsized impact on the rest of the church, for good and for bad. And so there is easy to have the lack of the balance that comes from the whole body of Christ, all the apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers all rising up together to become a mature self in Jesus Christ, under Him as head.

And so for me, I actually did a lot of really good stuff but when you look at my church, when I was done with it, it's exactly what you would expect from somebody with my gifting and passion without the sufficient help from, and my own submission to, others with very different abilities and passions that would've made it a much more healthy and balanced sort of a thing.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. People in leadership of people, leaders of leaders, I've often heard them say things like after five years or after 10 years, your church will look like you as the pastor, and sadly, that's true. But I didn't think that the church looking like the pastor was the goal, I thought the church looking like Jesus was the goal.

Corey Hartman: Yeah, amen.

Karl Vaters: But when we have this model, the magic leader, was that what you called it, the magic leader model?

Corey Hartman: The myth of magic leadership.

Karl Vaters: The myth of magic leadership. When we're under that, then that's really where we end up, and that's not what we should be aiming for. So if just preach the word isn't the panacea, and if everything rises and falls in leadership isn't the panacea, certainly you have to structure for growth. Organizational health, that's got to be the answer. The reason our church isn't getting bigger is because we haven't structured for growth, and if we properly, healthfully structure for growth, that will get us there, that must have been what worked. But no, it was solution number three that didn't work for you, right?

Corey Hartman: That's right.

Karl Vaters: Why didn't organizational health work?

Corey Hartman: Yeah, that's a great question. I remember that I heard this slogan, and you've probably heard it too, Karl, lots of us heard it. This idea that healthy things grow.

Karl Vaters: I’ve heard that, yeah.

Corey Hartman: You remember that, healthy things grow.

Karl Vaters: I continue to hear it.

Corey Hartman: Yeah. So I heard it from a guy and then found out that prior to him, Rick Warren said it. So in The Purpose Driven Church, you see it there, healthy things grow. I don't know if Rick Warren invented that phrase or if he got it from somebody else. But let's take Rick Warren and Saddleback in the eighties and nineties as an example, and I do this with the utmost respect. So that's a church, it was healthy, it did grow. Because its health was an essential part of it growing, no question about it, That's very true. But the other thing that was going on with Saddleback and with Rick Warren in the eighties and nineties, which we talk about a little bit in a later chapter of Future Church, and we also really expound on deeply in another one of these bonus chapters that you can find online, is that in 1980, Rick Warren planted a church in one of the fastest growing areas in the country. So loads of people moving in, and these were people who were largely baby boomers with young families that were raised - the parents, that is - in the 1950s during the era when there were more people in church or synagogue on a weekend as a percentage of the population than any other time before or since in American history.

So the quote, unquote unchurched people that Rick Warren was reaching were people who grew up in church, and they already had the mindset that if I'm looking for God, church would be the natural place that I would go. So when Warren and then Bill Hybels in the Chicago suburbs and so forth, when they went back to the drawing board and tried to strip church down to the studs and say, What would happen if we built a church from scratch, that would be the kind of place that these people would want to come, the people came and it actually worked, right. Which is wonderful and fantastic, and praise God. And there were loads of people who came to Christ through that.

But the deal is today, in 2020, that is not our mission context. It's not. We're not in churches, surrounded by people who expect to go to church to find the answers to their spiritual needs. They aren't. They have a completely different set of assumptions, there are many people who are literally multiple generations unchurched. People are disinclined to literally go anywhere. People don't go to stadiums to watch football and baseball games, they watch them on TV. They don't go to a movie theater to watch a movie, they watch that on TV. So everything is very different. So pure health, like get everything arranged and if you build it, they will come, that is no longer our mission context. And even in the eighties and nineties, it was really your mission context if you happened to be in a crazy, fast growing suburb. And if you weren't, then it wasn't working then for you either, frankly. So that's why that one didn't figure it out, didn't fix it all for us.

Karl Vaters: I moved to North Orange County, 10 years into Saddleback's growth in South Orange County, so I'm really close to Rick Warren here. And I was at his church growth conference, and we got spiral notebooks of notes that eventually became Purpose Driven Church. So it was like…

Corey Hartman: Yeah, early draft.

Karl Vaters: Super early into this thing. And I applied his stuff to our church, like religiously, and some of it worked, most of it did not. So even at that time, in the same county, it wasn't universally transferable. So the idea isn't that what Rick did was wrong, it's that it is not as universally transferable as some of us perceived it to be. And now that 40 years have gone by, it's even less automatically transferable because so many things have changed.

Corey Hartman: Yeah, amen. Absolutely, absolutely.

Karl Vaters: Okay. So those are the three. The fourth one, and I'm gonna just let people read this for themselves, why didn't spiritual growth work. So those are the four things that… Preach the word, that's supposed to work. Everything rises and falls on leadership is supposed to work. Structure for growth, that's supposed to work. Just feed into spiritual growth, that's supposed to work. None of those four things worked. So let's jump to the answer that what does work. And maybe even before we get to that, what do we mean when we define that something works. What do you define as what works?

Corey Hartman: Yeah, absolutely. And this actually is part of the fourth thing of why spiritual growth didn't work, and so to try to be as concise as possible on that. In my ministry, there were a lot of people who really grew spiritually, but we had a pretty cloudy ideal of what the end game really was. And specifically, let's think about it this way, let's think in terms of the Great Commission. So the Great Commission of Jesus, Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I commanded you. The interesting thing about the Great Commission is that the teaching them to obey everything part includes the Great Commission. Just think about it. So Jesus gives His apostles a whole lot of commands. The last command He gives is the Great Commission. So if you're going to teach people to obey everything I commanded you, that includes the Great Commission. So it's self including, so it's a spiral, right? And I think in our perception of what a good Christian was or what a mature Christian was, we didn't have a real clear sense that a disciple maker is in fact a mature Christian. That in fact, if you had been following Jesus for 70 years, and if you had oodles of the Fruit of the Spirit coming out of your life, and you knew the word deeply and well, and yet you had not made a disciple during those 70 years of following Jesus, then you still were not obeying everything that Jesus commanded and you are not a mature believer in Christ. And that is an explosive concept. If you really internalize that, that pushes the finish line that you're aiming at just as an individual follower of Jesus to a whole different place than we're accustomed to putting it.

Karl Vaters: As you're bringing it up though, let me interrupt you with this question. Because you're talking about, you've gone through all this, you've matured as a… You haven't made a disciple. Distinguish that for me, from making a convert.

Corey Hartman: Okay. So actually what I'll do is I'll say that they're the same thing, but I'll redefine convert. A convert can mean different things, of course. A convert the way it's generally used in the world, especially people outside the Christian faith, you'll notice that among evangelical Christians, we usually use converted in the past tense, like, I was converted, but people outside evangelical Protestantism, when they say convert, they use it in active voice. They say, I converted. So if you talk to a Jew and you talk about conversion, they think - or Catholic, oftentimes - they say, I converted, meaning I chose to go from this team to that team.

Karl Vaters: That is a very distinct language difference that now that you're saying it, I have absolutely heard, but didn't pay attention to.

Corey Hartman: But you don't recognize it. And so it leads to all kinds of miscommunications across religions. It really does. Because because people who are not evangelical Protestants, when they hear us talking about conversion, they think that we are trying to steal people from their team and get 'em onto our team, that's what they think. And that's not what we mean. What we mean by conversion, at least by classical evangelical theology, is the change of heart, that I was converted, that the Holy Spirit did something to me. I was passive, but Jesus changed my life. I was born again from above, I was changed. And that's what we mean by conversion. So real disciple making is making a real convert of somebody who's really changed. Not just somebody who's changed from one team to another, put on a different uniform, although that is part of the process. Really in a way, that's some of the baptism part. But they're actually truly changed all the way down, that they don't think the way they thought before, and they don't act the way they acted before, and they don't feel the way they felt before in terms of their responses to things. And that is a long process that happens with people. It doesn't happen on our own, it's a team sport. And that doing it with people and others who are further along in the conversion, helping me to continue to convert, to be converted, that's being a disciple, and that's discipling.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. So discipleship is not just simply bigger than the moment of conversion, but the way you're talking about actually helps, I think, to redefine more biblically, even what we mean by conversion. It becomes more of a verb and less of a noun.

Corey Hartman: Yeah. And it becomes both…Well, when I was a kid, some of the light switches in my house growing up were dimmer switches that were the dial. But with the dial, it was a click at the first, at the beginning. Like if it was off and you turned it a little bit clockwise, there'd be a click. And the click was the difference between off and on. And the click is that irreducible moment of going from death to life, of going from dead to alive spiritually, going from the dominion of darkness to the kingdom of light. But then once there's a click, that switch keeps turning, that dial keeps moving and the light gets brighter and brighter. And so there's both a click element, an on/off, and there's an analog element, there's a growth over time. And both of those are real aspects of conversion, and they both need to be held onto for us to really understand how God works in people.

Karl Vaters: What a great illustration. So many different places we could go with this, but you've given us so much already. So we're gonna wind this thing down by subjecting you to the lightning round that everyone else has to go through.

Corey Hartman: Oh, fun. Great.

Karl Vaters: All right. Four lightning round questions as we conclude here. First of all, What are the biggest changes you've seen in your field of ministry in the last few years, and how have you adapted to it. We've talked a lot about around that, but anything specifically there?

Corey Hartman: That's a big question, but to accord with the lightning nature of this, I'll try to get it… Certainly, one of the biggest changes is the enormous explosion of digital. Of digital conveyance of what we do on a Sunday morning, but with the potential for all kinds of other digital discipleship, meeting, conveying of content and so forth. And there's still a lot of area to be explored in how to go from physical or digital, or physical sometimes, digital other times, to figital, as they're talking about, where there really is a continuous integrated inner penetration between the in person and the digital realities of what being the people of God in our time means.

Karl Vaters: Okay. And of course what we've gone through in the last few years of pandemic has accelerated our understanding of the need for that, and hopefully accelerated our learning about that as well, and our ability to adapt to it properly. But I think you're right, we've got a whole lot in that still to come.

Lightning round question number two, What free resource like an app or website has helped you lately that you would recommend for small church ministry?

Corey Hartman: Okay, free app or resource. The real tempting thing is just to shill some of our own free apps and resource stuff from the Future Church Company, but I'm actually going to not do that. And I'm going to say that one that really, really helped me a lot in 2017, my very difficult and pivotal and transitional year, and that really started to lay the groundwork for me, cognitively, for what I would end up writing in Future Church, is a resource from Exponential that is one of their free eBooks, that if I'm remembering the title properly is, Becoming a Level 5 Disciple Maker. I think that's what it's called. There are two co-authors. I believe that Bobby Harrington is one of them, I don't remember who the other one is. But that one took Exponential’s model, it's a five-step model for degrees of multiplication in churches, and applies that to stages of development in a disciple’s life, looking at reproduction and multiplication at the individual level. And I found it to be a very compelling description of progress in the Christian life that really started to change things for me as to what I was shooting for in ministry.

Karl Vaters: Great. We will link that in the show notes, as we will link to your apps that you did not bring up, and of course we will be linking to the article we've been talking about during this podcast as well.

Third, what is the best piece of ministry advice you've ever received?

Corey Hartman: Wow.

Karl Vaters: Or pick one of the top 10.

Corey Hartman: Okay. Wow. I'll tell you the first one that jumped to my mind. How about that? All right. When I was in seminary - or actually there was a gap year, a year between when I graduated from seminary and when I started in my first church. And during that year with my wife's whole family got together at a beach house in the outer banks of North Carolina, and one of my wife's two grandfathers, both of whom were pastors, one of them was there, here with the family, and I asked him, I said, Grandpa, you were a pastor for many years, I'm about to start in my first church, what advice would you give me? And he said, Just love them.

Karl Vaters: There we go.

Corey Hartman: Now, that's one of those pieces of advice that gets deeper and wider, the longer you go at this sort of thing. My ability to grasp what he meant on the front end was sincere, but very small. And over time, I came to know more of what that meant and the profundity of saying that the foundational piece of advice is love people, which sometimes I did really well and sometimes I really didn't do well at all. But I would say with each coming back to that concept of the first duty is to love people, there's a greater awareness of all the dimensions of what that really means, and so it never ceases to be good advice in ministry. Just love them.

Karl Vaters: Yeah. That's great. And I can even sense the emotional connection to both the advice and to the person as you express that, which is very special, so that's great. Number four, and we'll end up with something a little lighter or at least stranger than what we just talked about.

What's the funniest or weirdest thing you've ever seen in church.

Corey Hartman: Wow. I've seen a lot of strange things that aren't funny. Okay. So let's just start with that. There's a lot of strange things that aren't funny. But oh, man.

Karl Vaters: It can be funny or strange. It doesn't have to be funny, it can be just strange.

Corey Hartman: Okay. Well, in my first church, there was a group of women that had a club called Women's Missionary Fellowship. Okay. And maybe you can picture, especially if you've pastored, like, an old established church, that's been around. These were women that could clearly remember that the way they would help missionaries overseas would be by cutting or ripping bedsheets into strips and rolling bandages, and putting them in a crate and sending them on a boat or something. So Women's Missionary Fellowship was abbreviated WMF, which my wife and I referred to between the two of us as Weapons of Mass Fellowship. So the Iraq war was going on at this time, by the way. So WMD was something we were hearing a lot, so WMF, Weapons of Mass Fellowship. This is something that I didn't personally witness, but my wife did and told me about.

So she, as this 28-year-old mother of two preschoolers goes to this WMF monthly meeting with all of these women her grandmother's age, and the leader of this had gotten from the state or national level of women's missionary people that a good thing to do is you could put on this particular skit that would illustrate the principles or the actions of women's missionary work. And it was inspired by Africans, I think in Kenya who would use the Swahili word Harambe, which is some very positive word that I don't know what it means. And so the leader of this said, We're going to do this skit. But there were exactly the number of parts in the skit as there were number of people in the Weapons of Mass Fellowship, and so they all then got the script and performed the skit about Harambe to an empty room because there was no audience left, because all of them were in this.

And there was this lady in the church whose name was Edie, who was from Vermont, and she had this beautiful, wonderful, dry, low key, sarcastic New England sense of humor. She and my wife - she's one of these older ladies - but she and my wife were silently, like, making snide remarks and mocking the whole proceedings while it was going on, without the others knowing it. And this lady, Edie, till her dying day, when she would send us a card or a note or something, she would write Harambe on it, to remind my wife of that day that they did that ridiculous skit in Women’s Missionary Fellowship.

Karl Vaters: To put a positive spin on it, instead of 20% of the people doing 80% of the work, you had a hundred percent of the people doing a hundred percent of the work.

Corey Hartman: Amen. Amen.

Karl Vaters: They were all active participants.

Corey Hartman: Can't argue with that. It was every member ministry in that group, man.

Karl Vaters: Hey, thanks so much for all of this. All of the links that we talked about will be in the show notes, of course. How can people find you online if they want to get more information or follow up in any way?

Corey Hartman: Yeah, absolutely. Please go to the website of Future Church Company, which is futurechurch.co, and that is the launching pad to find all kinds of things that we do to help churches. And not only churches, but also networks, denominations, regional entities of denominations as well, to forge this next chapter of church that we're walking into. Futurechurch.co is the best place to go.

Karl Vaters: Terrific. Thanks, Corey.

Corey Hartman: Yeah, thank you so much, Karl.

Karl Vaters: There is so much to think about from that conversation, from how Corey as a quote, unquote, failed small church pastor became co-author of a book about church growth, to the important upper and lower room distinctions, to the four can't miss answers for church growth that did miss in both of his congregations, and even how he redefines some important terms like church growth, success, and even conversion in more biblical ways.

So can this work in a small church? Is there a way to have real church growth even if our congregation doesn't get bigger numerically? Yes. If we refocus on biblical disciple making, if we bring our lower room ideas of place, personality, programs, and people under subjection to the upper room, which is about disciple making and vision, and if we model this in addition to preaching it.

This episode was produced by Veronica Beaver, edited by Phil Vaters. The original theme music was written and performed by Jack Wilkins of Jackwilkinsmusic.com. The podcast logo was created by Solomon Joy of joyetic.com. And me, I'm Karl Vaters, and I'm a small church pastor.

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The views of the blogger do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.

July 11, 2022

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