Spiritual Priorities for a Significant Church
- 2004 12 Jul
A significant church is one whose priorities allow a powerful God to
carry out His plans to redeem sinners and defeat the enemy of the church.
Whenever my family rents a movie to watch, and if I have a voice in the selection, I sometimes choose science fiction. Many of them, like those featuring Godzilla, for instance, have a very important message to relay: Size does matter! Gigantic problems call for gigantic solutions. In our world today, the Prince of Darkness has created a Godzilla-size problem which the church is called to address. Fortunately, the Lord Jesus Christ is raising up churches of significance which are equipped with God-size power through the Holy Spirit to destroy the work of the enemy and make a difference in our world.
In order for churches to be relevant in the task of destroying the works of the devil (I John 3:8) we must move beyond our own limits. In and of ourselves we do not have the ability to overcome and destroy the barriers Satan is erecting to halt the advance of God’s kingdom. Just as size matters, priorities matter as well. I believe the following priorities should be at the top of every pastor’s prayer and vision list. Churches which live out these priorities will play a significant role in ministry for Jesus Christ.
Prepare for Greater Things
The person who expects to have a completed house to live in tomorrow must lay a foundation for that house today. Likewise, if we expect to see spiritual revival and renewal in the community and nation where we live, we must first lay the appropriate foundation.
I was reading my Bible on New Year’s Day, 1999, when I believe the Lord spoke something clearly to me from John 1:50 and John 14:12. The first verse says, in part, “You will see greater things than these,” and the second, “. . . greater works than these he will do . . . .” I was puzzled when these verses were quickened to my heart, for I felt the Lord had already done great things in our ministry. At that time our church had been established only a few years and we had between seven and eight thousand people attending. We had planted 45 new churches. We sponsored a Christian school and were broadcasting our services over Asia’s most powerful satellite television network. I was overwhelmed with what God had done, and was humbled and grateful. And yet, He seemed to be saying to me that day that I should believe Him for greater things. While I did not know what those things would be, I knew that great things needed to be accomplished before the return of Christ. So I took His word to me to mean that I should prepare “today” for what He is going to do “tomorrow.”
I believe that message was not just for New Year’s Day, 1999, but for every day. We need to live our lives in a constant state of preparation for that which God wants to do through us. Wherever we are in our personal life or in the ministry of our church we need to prepare for greater things to take place. I believe that is the message of Joshua 3:5: “Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.” Sanctifying ourselves means making ourselves holy--repenting from sin and cleansing our lives to become vessels of honor fit for His service (II Timothy 2:20). The uncleanness of sin can disqualify us and delay us from God’s mission. It will not do for us to take the Lord’s service casually. We must hunger and thirst for righteousness (Psalm 42:1; Matthew 5:6). We must intensify our prayer life with times of intercession accompanied by fasting. We need to search the Scriptures and teach our congregations principles of revival and renewal, which includes them sanctifying themselves as well.
I was struck that day that if God wanted to do greater things through me than what He had done, I had to prepare myself spiritually in a greater way than I had up to that point. The person I was that day had been sufficient for what God had done but would not be sufficient for what He was going to do.
Seize a Vision for the Lost
In John 4:35, Jesus said to His disciples, “Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.” A vision for the lost is the second priority of every significant church. God burdened my heart for the lost in an unusual way and brought that burden to fruition by stretching my faith as never before.
Before returning to the Philippines to start our church, my wife and three children lived in Dallas, Texas where I worked in a Wall Street firm. I served on the volunteer staff of a church in Irving, Texas area and felt we were living what I can only call “the American dream.” We had a large, custom home and nice cars in the garage. At one time I even had a speedboat. My wife had a nice job, we were investing on Wall Street for our future, and the kids were doing well in school. I couldn’t imagine the Lord wanting us to do anything different with our lives. For some reason, over a period of several days, I found it difficult to get to sleep at night. One night around midnight while watching CNN on television, I sat with my eyes glued to a report about the “people’s power revolution” in the Philippines. As I sat watching the camera pan across a sea of faces in the streets, the Lord spoke to my heart and said, “David, I want you to go back to your own country and people deliver to your people the message of hope.” My response was, “Yes, Lord, if that is Your will, I will do it.” Little did I know what that response would entail in the months ahead.
In the days following that event, my thoughts were to raise funds through a sponsoring organization--sort of a Western, organizational approach to solving the problem. But I soon realized that was not the method I was to use. To shorten a long story, I simply went to Manila on my own to preach the gospel. I preached in a number of different settings and events for six weeks, at the end of which I came to this conclusion: “Lord, I cannot return to the Philippines. This is not a place for my family. We are settled in the United States and I don’t want to uproot what we have there--unless you are really telling me to do this.” God’s answer was, “Yes”--the same thing He had said originally. He directed me to go to what was then the largest shopping mall in Asia and rent a place for a Bible study and meetings. But I was told there was no space available. The officials at the mall suggested I try the Paramount Theatre which was across the street. As Providence would have it, the theatre owner was there and I heard myself telling him I wanted to rent his theatre for a church to meet in. Of course, he thought I was the pastor of a large church with thousands of members, but not only did I not have church members, I didn’t even have a church. But he told me to bring him an offer in the form of a real estate rental contract, which I did. He told me to come back in seven days and he would give me an answer. After a week I returned to the theatre with this prayer: “Lord, if it is your will for our family to return to the Philippines let him agree to my offer.” When I arrived, the owner of the theatre said, “The place is yours,” and he handed me the signed contract. At that moment, I lacked two things that make the knees of any pastor tremble: I had no money, and I hadn’t asked my wife!
After a few more days in the Philippines, I returned to Dallas arriving late at night (and so avoiding a long debriefing with my wife). The following day I called her at work and told her I would like to take her out to lunch--so we went to the best Chinese restaurant in town. I told her all about the meetings in the Philippines, but not the heavy part about our returning. The next day I did the same thing. We went to another very nice restaurant for lunch where I talked with her about our commitment to the Lord--but still no return-to-Manila discussion. The third day, when we were waiting to be seated for lunch in a nice steak house, she cornered me: “What are you doing? You’ve never taken me out to lunch three days in a row! What do you want?” I finally had to come clean: “Honey, God is speaking to us about going back to the Philippines.” I can’t tell you what she said, but I will tell you that God worked a miracle in her heart.
With my wife’s agreement, we began taking steps to move. The Dallas real estate market was soft, so I asked our mortgage holder if they would buy our house for what we owed on it, and they jumped at the chance. I signed the papers on the spot and promised him the keys in five days. We had a missions auction of all the stuff we had collected over the years we didn’t really need, and what we didn’t sell we took to the Salvation Army. My wife and I left our two younger children in Seattle with family and took our oldest son with us to Manila to start a church in the theatre.
When I arrived in Manila I went immediately to the theatre owner and signed the contract. We built a huge platform, added new wiring, printed thousands of flyers to distribute at the mall across the street, and began advertising the opening of the church on three radio stations, eight times a day, for two-and-a-half weeks. And the rest, as they say, is history. Today the Word of Hope Church (remember the burden God gave me that night while watching CNN? “Take the message of hope to your people.”) has over 13,000 members and we see 50-55 people every week give their lives to Christ. In our main sanctuary we have five services on Sunday and one on Saturday, plus Sunday services in eight other facilities we rent.
We returned to the Philippines to win the lost. Evangelism is the most important task of every Christian, of every church. Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10) which is the work closest to the heart of God. Churches of significance will not be significant because of their size or their budgets or their staff. They will be significant if they win the lost to Christ.
Demonstrate Compassion Toward the Destitute
“Loving the unlovable” is another way to say “demonstrate compassion to the destitute.” Love those who have no way to return anything to you. In Matthew 25:35-36 Jesus said, “‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”
I believe what Jesus said represents a mandate for the church--to show compassion to the needy and destitute among us (not just the ones somewhere far away in a foreign country). General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, said, “When you preach a sermon to a hungry man, make sure you wrap that sermon in a sandwich.”
Just a few years ago the Lord drove this need deep into my heart--the need to minister to those who were desperate for help and who had no resources to turn to. Our church is in Quezon City, a suburb of Manila, and there are literally thousands of street children and beggars all around. So to reach out to them we formed a Compassion Ministry to feed the hungry on the streets of Manila, especially the children. Last Christmas, for two weeks every day we set out a long table in front of our church building on the main highway where I had seen the sea of faces on CNN years before. We strung up a banner that invited everyone to come for a good meal. This ministry generated so much attention that the President of the Philippines came to see me in my office to thank us for ministering to the street children. We also have a medical and dental ministry that treats not only the poor in our church but those in the city who are in need. The attorneys in our congregation provide free legal advice to those who cannot afford a lawyer. Recently one of the attorneys was able to have a 13 year-old boy, who had been framed for rape but was innocent, freed from jail where he had been for over a month. As a result, he, his parents, and brothers and sisters became Christians and now attend our church. Hallelujah!
We have seen amazing things happen since we began to “wrap the gospel in a sandwich.” Our main goal is simply to help those in need, but when people discover the Jesus who asked us to help them, many of them embrace Him as their Savior. No pastor or church can feed all the hungry, treat all the sick, or visit all the prisoners in jail. But we can reach some, and we should. Ministry to the poor and destitute is a mark of a significant church. We have recently built Hope General Hospital (6 stories with 120 beds), staffed with Christian doctors, nurses and medical personnel.
Build Relationships Through Cell Groups
The fourth priority for every significant church is the building of relationships--and we believe the best way to do that is through cell groups. It is through relationships formed in cell groups that people become empowered for ministry. In Hebrews 10:24-25 we are told to consider how to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” We are admonished not to give up meeting together but to encourage one another--and I assume that means by meeting together often.
Church growth expert Carl George tells us that people come to church for many reasons but they stay for one reason: Relationships. Our desire, and our experience, is that our cell groups will function as a place for developing new leaders; a means for broadening our leadership base. To grow taller, we must grow broader and deeper at the base; we must train servant leaders who form the foundation for growth. Today we have 2,700 cell groups in the church. They meet in the market place, on university campuses, in high schools, in sky scrapers, in trial courts, the Supreme Court, in Congress, in the Senate, and on the grounds of the Malacanang palace--not to mention in multitudes of homes throughout our area. Think of the relationships that can be built in 2,700 small groups of people meeting together!
Why do you think America and other nations are having such a hard time destroying the Al-Queda terrorist network? It’s because they function in cells all over the world. You will never find them all in the same place at the same time. Cells are very hard to destroy. This is especially important in cultures where the church is persecuted. As long as there are cells alive and functioning, the church will go forward with evangelism and church planting. A year ago our denomination adopted a vision we call “Harvest 5,000 by 2010.” It is a complete paradigm shift for us where we plan to start many churches through cell groups. The reason is because cell groups have unlimited potential. They keep dividing and dividing and growing exponentially. In fact, we view the church as nothing more than a huge collection of cell groups. Because there is nothing to keep cells from multiplying there is nothing to keep churches from growing. Cell groups are multiplying in churches all over the world: Korea, Singapore, South America, and Africa. Cell groups will flourish in every culture because relationship building is a basic human need. The picture painted in Acts 2:42-47 is the original cell group. It is a concept that significant churches everywhere are using to expand their ministry.
Manifest His Presence
Those from a Pentecostal background such as myself may find themselves identifying with this next priority more readily than others. But I am discovering in churches throughout the spectrum of God’s people that there is a new emphasis on the presence of God in worship. We have stopped viewing church services as a place no different than a meeting of a civic or secular organization. We are learning that church is a place where the saints gather to meet with God! We are re-discovering what Moses learned in the wilderness: “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:14-16) The Lord had proposed sending an angel with the Israelites but Moses would accept no substitute. If the Lord wasn’t with them, he wasn’t going.
I recall attending a big event once where the main person, a performer, didn’t show up. A substitute showed up instead, and his performance was lacking. People began to get up in the middle of the show and leave; some began to “boo” the man. No concert is the same when the main performer doesn’t make an appearance. I have to ask myself all the time this question: “Whose show is our meeting on Sunday morning?” Between 10:00 and 12:00 a.m., all over the world, is God’s prime time hour. That is God’s hour, not ours. If we want our churches to be significant we have to make room for God to make an appearance. And this is not something we have to beg God to do. He wants to meet with His people. He wants to reveal Himself in ways that we haven’t even imagined (Ephesians 3:20).
If you will allow me, I want to suggest that we have defined too strictly the ways in which it is appropriate for God to make an appearance in our churches. And that can work both ways. We can have expectations on both ends of the scale and expect God to conform Himself to our desires. But if Sunday morning really is God’s show we must let Him have the stage to do as much, or as little, as He desires to do on any given Sunday. I believe, throughout Christendom, that we expect too little of God rather than too much. We have defined a very narrow theological box within which we insist He work. But often God will show up outside “our theological or denominational box”, and then we face a dilemma. What do we do?
I remember once when I was preaching in one of our Sunday morning services when a woman began crying convulsively. The ushers came quickly to see how they could help her, even possibly to escort her out. But I asked the ushers to stop, and I brought the service to a close. The woman was obviously under tremendous conviction from God, so I stopped the sermon and gave an altar call and people flocked to the altar to be saved. This has happened more than once. I have had to learn that if something out of the ordinary happens, it may be God telling us there is some bigger none-ordinary thing He wants to do.
No one would argue that we need the supernatural presence of God in our church services. While there may be some discussion in different quarters about how His presence is manifested, all significant churches will allow God to take center stage more and more. Sunday morning is His show, not ours!
Boldness to Walk on Water
The final priority of significant churches is a boldness to step out of the boat and walk on water. The story in Matthew 14 is familiar to us all, where Peter said, “Lord, if it’s you tell me to come to you on the water” (verse 28). All Peter needed to hear was Jesus’ “Come”--and he was out of the boat and onto the water. That is faith in action. It’s interesting that faith in the Old Testament was manifested by God removing the water so people could walk on dry ground--Moses at the Red Sea, Israel at the Jordan, later Elijah and Elisha. But in the New Testament we are called to walk on the water without it being removed. New Testament faith enables us to walk where there is no visible or solid means of support.
Two years after we started our church we came under tremendous pressure and persecution. The owner of the theatre where we were meeting told us we would have to vacate the property. We had no place to meet and no money to procure one--but there was a vacant property one block from the theatre. My deacons and I went inside the facility and prayed: “God, please give us this property.” We had no idea how much it would cost, and when we found out we almost fainted: More than a million dollars for less than one acre in the middle of town, across from the huge shopping mall I mentioned earlier. When I approached the real estate company that owned the property I told them we would like to buy the property, but on terms. They agreed and asked for $22,000 up front and 48 post-dated checks for $22,000 each to cover the balance. So we borrowed the money for the initial down-payment and wrote the post-dated check and began to pray.
As we began construction, the church’s monthly income was a little over 200,000 pesos (around $9,000) per month—and we had written 48 post-dated checks for $22,000 per month. Well into the construction, we began to run out of money to cover the checks, and our contract stated that if we defaulted three months we would lose the land and whatever improvements we had made on the property. I appealed to the congregation to give the biggest offering they could, hopeful around 1.5 million pesos—and the offering produced 200,000 pesos. I was devastated. But I remembered that when Peter stepped out of the boat by faith, and began to sink, he cried out, “Lord, help!” So that is what I cried out, too. We cried to the Lord for a solution to our dilemma. And the Lord heard our cry and answered.
The chairman of the board of the real estate company heard what was going on and about our need. Two days before one of the monthly checks was going to be deposited, which would have “bounced,” he wrote a check and sent it via courier to me. I opened the envelope and discovered a six-figure check from him to cover the checks we had written—and he did that five times throughout the project. The checks were loans, not gifts—but at least we were able to stay on track with our project.
We called out to the Lord and ask Him to let us come to Him on the water, and He said, “Come!’ We got out of the boat and began to walk by faith. There times when we though the waves would overwhelm us, but by His presence and the strength of His hand we made our way through.
Pastors who exercise faith will grow significant churches. The world is hungry to believe there is something beyond the natural realm in this life. And who should be able to manifest the supernatural to the world better than the church of Jesus Christ? If you are standing at the side of the boat, looking at Jesus, step out and walk toward Him. Without faith it is impossible to please Him (Hebrews 11:6).
I began by saying that size matters--and it does. Our enemy is large but our Lord is larger. The priorities I have discussed will make it possible for God to do everything necessary through His church to defeat the works of the enemy in this world. The most significant church is the one whose priorities allow the Lord of the church to do significant things through it.
Moving Beyond Your Limits
1. Where do you see yourself/your church five years from now? What are you doing today to prepare for what you believe God wants to do in five years?
2. How flexible are you? That is, if God gave you instructions to begin a new phase of life and ministry, how quickly could you respond? What are the things that would keep you from responding quickly?
3. Is there a particular prayer you pray daily or weekly that keeps you on the cutting edge of preparedness for God’s movement in your life? If not, what might such a prayer consist of?
4. If God chose to multiply the size and impact of your ministry beginning tomorrow, would you be ready for such a change? What changes would you have to make to assume the changed roles and responsibilities that would come with such multiplication?
5. If a stranger spent 30 days in your church, how do you think he or she would answer this question: “What evidence is there that this church has a vision for saving the lost?” How much of your church’s vision for the lost, or lack of it, is reflective of your own priorities and ministry?
6. What investments does your church make in the lives of those who will never be able to repay what they are given? What is your personal response to those you meet on the street seeking help or a handout? Explain why you respond to them in whatever way you do.
7. What is your personal view of the cell group ministry that many churches have adopted? Is it biblical? A passing fad? What does your church do besides/instead of cell groups to fulfill the mandate of Hebrews 10:24-25?
8. If a pollster asked the members of your church whether lay leadership is encouraged or strengthened in your church, how would they respond? What evidence is there to support the answer you think they would give?
9. What degree of freedom does the Holy Spirit have in your church to change the order of worship on Sunday morning without prior notice? How would you judge whether a “non-scheduled” event on Sunday morning was God or not?
10. What is the riskiest thing you have ever done in ministry--a time when you stepped out of the boat onto rough water and began walking? What advice would you give to a protégé regarding such risk taking--how to know whether Jesus has bid you come to Him or not?
Possible Callout Statements:
1. The person who expects to have a completed house to live in tomorrow must lay a foundation for that house today.
2. We need to live our lives in a constant state of preparation for that which God wants to do through us.
3. I was struck that day that if God wanted to do greater things through me than what He had done, I had to prepare myself spiritually in a greater way than I had up to that point.
4. The person I was that day had been sufficient for what God had done but would not be sufficient for what He was going to do.
5. At that moment, I lacked two things that make the knees of any pastor tremble: I had no money, and I hadn’t asked my wife!
6. Churches of significance will not be significant because of their size or their budgets or their staff. They will be significant if they win the lost to Christ.
7. “When you preach a sermon to a hungry man, make sure you wrap that sermon in a sandwich.” General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army
8. People come to church for a variety of reasons but they stay for one reason: Relationships.
9. It is difficult to destroy terrorist movements because they operate in cells. Cell groups are nearly indestructible.
10. Because there is nothing to keep cells from multiplying there is nothing to keep churches from growing.
11. Cell groups will flourish in every culture because relationship-building is a basic human need.
12. New Testament faith enables us to walk where there is no visible means of support.
Dr. David Sobrepeña is the founding pastor of the Word of Hope Church in Manila, Philippines. He pastors a congregation of 13,000 members with more than 3,000 cell groups that meet each week. Dr. Sobrepeña is also overseer of some 3,500 churches as Superintendent of the Assemblies of God in the Philippines.
Visit the Global Pastors Network at www.gpn.com