Something greater than congregational growth

I listened to a lot of back episodes of Todd Henry’s Accidental Creative podcast recently.  Many times he referenced Curtis Martin’s Hall of Fame Induction speech from 2012 as something the called “the through line.”   I’m still not totally familiar with the concept but I think it’s about finding a common thread that weaves through all your roles, loves, and goals in life.

After the unveiling of this bronze bust, a few thank-yous, and the usual interaction with the crowd, Curtis dropped a bomb.  He tells of the day he was drafted.  Legendary coach, Bill Parcels, calls him on draft day and asks, “Curtis, would you like to be a New England Patriot?”  Martin replied, “Yes, sir.  Thank you,” and hung up the phone.  He then immediately turned to his family and friends and said, “Oh my gosh, I do not want to play football.”

Remember: this is Curtis Martin’s Hall of Fame Induction Speech.  Not only did he go on to play football, he played so well as to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio as one of the bests to every play the game.  He doesn’t want to play football?  Do you know how many young boys wait by the phone on draft day, praying that they might get an invitation to even a practice squad in the NFL?  Do you know how many players compete for years in the NFL, retire, and then pray that the phone will ring from the Football Hall of Fame?  Here’s Curtis Martin at the pinnacle of achievement in his field and he reveals that he didn’t even like football all that much.  He says he watched maybe five games for fun in his life.

Curtis continues the story.  He tells of a man in the room, Leroy Joseph, his pastor, who shares this insight.  “Curtis,” Pastor Joseph says, “look at this way… maybe football is just something that God has given you so you can do all those wonderful things you want to do for other people.”  What amazing insight from a godly man!  What if football isn’t an end in itself but a means to a greater end?

That idea got me thinking about my church.  Like almost any other church, we are worried about numbers: attendance numbers, offering numbers, and how many dates are filled on our calendar.   And, like most other churches, if these numbers go up, then we are successful; but if these numbers go down, we are failing.  These numbers also lead to a lot of comparisons.  A church with higher numbers we see as better than we are and a church with lower numbers is not as good as we are.  So, when we think of getting ahead, we think of increasing those numbers.  More things on the calendar should translate to more attendance on Sunday.  More attendance on Sunday should translate into more offerings.  More offerings allow us to put more things on the calendar. You see the pattern?

Just as many men would see playing in the NFL as the pinnacle of their career, so also many pastors have an idea that a certain attendance number would be the pinnacle of their career.  Or a building.  Or an event.  Or a ministry.  But that’s not what Curtis Martin thought.

Curtis Martin goes on to explain his rough childhood and how football was a means for him to escape.  First by keeping him out of trouble and then by providing resources for a number of charities.  Just as his pastor told him, football was a way for him to do the wonderful things he wanted to do. He always saw football as a means to an end and not an end of itself.  Maybe that’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame.

What if pastors remembered what lies behind their numbers?  It’s more important for people to be recorded in the Book of Life (Revelation 20) than in my church database.  It’s more important for people for people to acknowledge that all they have is from the Lord, rather than worrying about who’s giving more back to Him in offerings.  It’s more important for people to be prepared for the Last Day than it is to be prepared for the next event on the church calendar.

Pastors, church size is not the measure of our success; it’s a means to a greater end.  We are not less effective if we’re smaller than the next congregation; we’re not more effective if we’re larger.  These kinds of comparison have no place in the kingdom of God.  The “through line” for us is the salvation of souls and that isn’t always measurable.  There are people that we see every Sunday that we won’t seen in eternal glory and there are people that we will look at and say, “How did you get here?”

Don’t worry about the numbers.  Don’t worry about building a Hall of Fame congregation.  Equip people for the extraordinary mission that God has invited His Church to be a part of.  Worry about sowing as much Gospel seed as you can and let the Lord be responsible for the growth.  And rest secure in the knowledge that there is great rejoicing over just one sinner who repents.  Even getting just one is great to the kingdom of God.

Jesus said it best: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all of these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33) That concept of the Kingdom of God is our “through line.”  Focusing on that will carry us through no matter what our numbers.

It’s an idea that worked well for Curtis Martin.


What the NFL has taught me about leading my church

A big story in the NFL last week was the benching of Robert Griffin III.  As the story unfolded, what I picked up was the stress between Coach Mike Shanahan and Redskin’s owner, Daniel Snyder.  It sounds to me like Snyder was behind the drafting of RGIII, based on the latter’s success in the NCAA.  Drafting RGIII made sense.  He led Baylor into prominence while the quarterback there.  He graduated from Baylor, a decent academic school, with a 3.67 GPA.  He won Heisman Trophy in 2011.  RGIII showed he had brains and talent; why not draft him second overall?

These recent events reminded me of a page in the Tennessee Titans history.  In 2006, Bud Adams pushed for the Titans to draft Vince Young from the University of Texas.  Young had a stellar college career with a reputation for carrying teams to victory.  He finished second in 2005’s Heisman Trophy voting.  Jeff Fisher drafted Young but it took a direct mandate from Bud Adams for Fisher to play VY.  The strain between Fisher and Young became a local soap opera on sports talk radio.  The relationship ended with Adams allowing Young to be traded and Fisher was fired.

Two players with stellar careers at the college level and similar results in the NFL.  Why couldn’t they make the leap?  Because the leaders of each team did not consider the culture of their team.  The leaders of these teams assumed that what made the college players great could be copied into the NFL.

This is a classic blunder that I make as a pastor.  And I see other pastors making the same mistake.  As the pastor of a small church, about 200 members, I look at what other larger churches are doing and I assume that their vision or their program will work where I’m at.  Just like Dan Snyder and Bud Adams assumed that RGIII and Vince Young would be successful in their franchises, many pastors borrow a plan from someone else and assume that it will work in their church.  That’s not the case.  Each church has it’s own God-given identity that cannot be copied.

To show what I mean, consider Tom Brady.  Brady is a league and Superbowl MVP on multiple occasions but Brady was picked in the 6th round of the NFL draft, #199 overall, in 2000.  His college career at Michigan wasn’t as good as RGIII’s at Baylor of Young’s at Texas.  At first blush, it would seem that Brady was an after-thought or a throw-away pick.  But Brady was the right person for Coach Bill Belichick’s system.  Coach Belichick has a knack for finding the right players for his systems, not necessarily the best players.

And that’s what pastors need to consider. The best visions, programs, or people may not be right for our churches.  What helped the church up the street to grow may not work in our churches.  Bringing in a star talent to the team is not necessarily the answer.  Just because something was successful somewhere else does not mean it will be successful in my church.

This is why I’ve got to be about the hard work of discerning God’s unique plan for my church… for HIS Church in this place.  As Todd Henry says in his Accidental Creative podcast: “Cover bands don’t change the world; find your unique voice if you want to thrive.”