Episode 32: “Becoming a Rapidly Growing Church” featuring Matt Miofsky

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 32: "Becoming a Rapidly Growing Church" featuring Matt Miofsky

Why do some congregations grow more quickly than others? In this episode we speak with Matt Miofsky, founding and lead pastor of The Gathering in St. Louis, about the book he wrote with Jason Byassee, 8 Virtues of Rapidly Growing Churches.

Listen on Apple PodcastsListen on StitcherListen on Google Play MusicListen to more Leading Ideas Talks episodes


Why do some congregations grow more quickly than others? In this episode we speak with Rev. Matt Miofisky, the founding and lead pastor of The Gathering in St. Louis, about his co-authored book 8 Virtues of Rapidly Growing Churches.

Leading Ideas Talks is brought to you by the e-book Right Questions for Church Leaders. Leaders don’t need answers. Leaders must have the right questions. And this e-book offers key questions that can change the direction of a church. Right Questions for Church Leaders is available at churchleadership.com/books.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I’m Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Reverend Matt Miofsky, the founding and lead pastor of the Gathering in St. Louis, MO. Our focus for this podcast is the virtues of rapidly growing churches.

Matt, you have co-authored a book with Jason Byasse “8 Virtues of Rapidly Growing Churches” that I believe can help any congregation to look at its core practices and a book that I believe every congregation really should pick up and put to use. But I really want to begin our conversation by asking you, why did you all use the term “virtue” to describe the characteristics of rapidly growing churches?

Matt Miofsky: Hey yeah, that’s a good question. Thanks for having me on Doug.  It’s good to be with you. And you know, I’ll have to be honest, part of that word was kind of a feeling that characteristic or attribute –you know, both of those were both alternatives — eight attributes, eight characteristics. First of all, those words didn’t seem to mean much. Maybe they’re a bit overused. They also didn’t necessarily note something that was good, just the commonalities that things have. And we really wanted, we love the word virtue because it has a little bit of a root in the Christian tradition. But it also denotes not only eight similarities, but these are eight things that we think every church would do well to strive for. They don’t just happen to be common characteristics but they’re actually aspirational. Every church, we think, ought to be going for these kinds of things anyways. So, we thought the nuance of the word virtue got at that better than just simply being eight commonalities or eight characteristics.

Doug Powe: I really like the word aspirational that you’re using because I think that it points to something that is important for congregations and I appreciate the way you frame that because I think, too often, congregations think in terms of goals or, I can do this, and figure out how to accomplish this, then I’m done. But when you think aspirational, it means it’s something that’s ongoing. Is that sort of the hope that you all were having, that this would be a thing?

Matt Miofsky: Yeah. You know, that really was the hope. I didn’t want to simply come up with a recipe for churches but I loved about these is, even in doing the research for these, and I can talk a little bit about where the book came from, you know. Jason Byasse, the co-author, he came to me. It started out because he was interested in five Methodist Churches that had grown over 1,000 in worship but were started in the past ten years. He said there were five at the time. This was several years ago. And he listed off the five and the Gathering in St. Louis, the Church I pastor, was one of them. And he said “I want to write this profile on these five churches, I think that’d be really interesting.” I kind of said to him “you know, hey Jason, respectfully, I don’t think anyone wants to read that book.” What I meant is I don’t think what people need — pastors, church leadership boards, parishioners — I don’t think what they need is to hear about five churches that are “hitting it out of the ball park.” I think what they need is to figure out “what is it that we can do in our setting to take our ministry from where it is to where we want it to go?” For most churches, I think it’s to reach a younger, more diverse people for Jesus. And so, what if we use those five churches as a starting place, a launchpad, and broaden the pool, which we did. And let’s look at churches. All of them are growing rapidly but some of them are in urban areas, some of them are in rural areas, some are led by men, some by women, predominantly black churches, white churches. Look at a mixture and say “in an environment where most churches are in decline, what are some of the virtues that these churches that are growing have?”

And so, just in writing the book, Doug, it was one of these things that I noticed that as I was listening to people talking about their church, all these virtues are things that we do at The Gathering. I thought, as I listened to these other pastors, oh, we can do that better. Or you think about it differently. Or we used to emphasize that, but if I’m honest, we’ve let that slip over the past three or four years and we need to make that a priority again. So these aren’t so much boxes to check, yeah we have them, but more like how are you doing in this category and how are you doing with this virtue? And all of them, I really do think are ongoing practices, things that we, I think, ought to always be doing but we’ve never quite accomplished. And in that sense, I think every church can pick it up and say “hey, we’re doing pretty well here but here’s how we think we could do that better. And we’ve really let this one slip, I think we need to put that one back on the forefront.”


Doug Powe: Yeah, I agree. And I think that what I really appreciated about the book is it really doesn’t matter what size your congregation is, that when you engage the book, you will find something helpful in terms of what you can do. In terms of trying to be aspirational in the practices that you’re living out. I want to pick up a little bit about what you were just talking about in terms of the congregations because I think you share an important insight in the book that we often miss. You say “don’t try to copy or replicate what you read in the book.” And I think that’s also true when people attend workshops and events. They go and they get excited and they try to replicate or copy exactly what they heard. What is your suggestion for how we should apply or engage what we would learn from congregations like yours or the other congregations?

Matt Miofsky: Sure. Well you know, what I always tell people, is, when you go to a workshop or when you go to a big church that maybe has a conference, I think we get way too caught up in what churches are doing or how they’re doing ministry. So, we look at their worship, we say “well they had a band” and “they had great lights” or “their worship was 45 minutes long with just a sermon and some songs,” or whatever it is. We focus, we really obsess on what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. So we focus on the answers that those churches have arrived at. We try to export those answers into our setting. What I think is a better way to approach it, what we try to do in the book is, when you go to a workshop, when you go to a conference, when you go to some church that you think is doing it well, what were the questions they asked early on? Or what are the questions they’re continuing to ask? And you can look at how they’re answering them. You might get some best practices there, some insights, but I often think that for most churches, just the questions themselves are important. You can export, take those [questions]back to your church and say “you know what, I think these are some really important questions we need to ask. Now here’s how church A, B, and C answered those questions. How do we answer the question?” And you may find that you’re similar to church A, B, or C, but you may find that you have some different answer. Answer D. But I think what’s important is the questions. So, with our virtues here, we do certainly give best practices, we give insights that are common to all these churches, but we don’t try to over-prescribe “here’s how this virtue needs to look in your church.” In fact, I would urge churches, don’t take a virtue and say “well how did this play out at The Gathering?” or “how did this play out at Church of the Resurrection?” or something like that. Rather say “how would this play out for us? How would we live this virtue out?” And the answer might be really different. And so I think it’s an exercise not simply in a best practice, or even primarily in that, but really here’s a virtue – this is something that’s true in growing churches, no matter what context they’re in. That was intentional, we didn’t want this to be about context so much. This isn’t “well here’s a virtue that works just in cities or just in rural areas.” No, these were, we threw a lot of virtues out that we started with that seemed to be highly contextual. But these seem to be true where ever you are – growing churches are engaging this virtue. But we wanted to write it in such a way that says “we don’t want to tell you how you need to do it” or “what you need to do with it.” But we think this virtue needs to be on the radar screen of your church if you want to grow.

Doug Powe: Yeah. I think that’s helpful and makes a lot of sense. The importance of asking questions. And we don’t spend enough time really asking questions. We’re always looking for the quick fix or the answer. What also struck me, and I really appreciated the way you approached this, you sort of, talk about leaders being led by the spirit and my question is how can a leader help a congregation to act like the spirit is already at work? I think often times our leaders believe, or they have the faith and they want to act like the spirit is at work, but you also need the congregation to act like the spirit is at work for the community to experience transformation. Do you have any insights of how you can help leaders to really help their congregation to act like the spirit is at work?

Matt Miofsky: Yeah, there’s a couple things I would say about that. You know we wrote the first virtue in the book is “rapidly growing churches believe in miracles and act accordingly.” And what that’s really about is this fundamental belief that the spirit is at work here, wanting to do incredible things. And our job is to kind of uncover what the spirit is up to. So I said the leaders who believe the spirit is at work in their congregation or community end up being more bold than leaders who don’t believe that. Because if you believe the Holy Spirit is up to something and doing things, then all of the sudden you’ll ask for things, or you’ll do things, you’ll expect things that might seem a little bit crazy. When the Holy Spirit’s in the mix, all of the sudden it doesn’t become so unrealistic. So leaders become more bold. But what I would say to help a church uncover it, since that is. I think one of the things that we don’t think about enough, in most churches, is celebrating where the spirit is at work in our congregation. And just sort of relentlessly celebrating where we see the spirit at work. I think most churches are so focused on what’s coming up next. Easter’s right around the corner. What’s on the calendar up ahead, that we forget to just stop and celebrate where we’ve seen the spirit, the Holy Spirit, at work in our congregation.

So, at The Gathering, one of the things we’ve tried to do is build into worship regularly, weekly, certainly monthly, if not a couple times a month, celebration. Sometimes they’re really big things, Doug, maybe we’ve had a tremendous Christmas Eve offering that each year we give away to Mozambique, and that’s a big celebration. Sometimes it’s really small. Something that happened in the student ministry last weekend that we think the whole congregation needs to know about as a sign that the spirit is at work here. At our church, we record those, we do them as videos. At other churches you could do them as live testimonies or even just a story that the pastor tells. I think the more that you celebrate with people and point out “Hey look, that’s the spirit right there.” And “look over here, I don’t know if you all have noticed this, but here’s the Holy Spirit.” We had baptisms in the first quarter and that hasn’t happened in ten years. What a cool thing to celebrate. And the more you do that, the more people begin to, first of all, have a sense that “Oh, God really is up to something here in our church.” And, secondly, they begin to do it then. “Hey pastor, I don’t know if you saw this, but I wanted you to know this story.” And when they hear you celebrating stories they’ll start to better be able to see those stories themselves.

Doug Powe: I think you’re right. That people model, sort of, what the expectation is. So when celebration becomes a part of the ethos of a congregation, and that’s modeled, then they’re gonna copy what they’re experiencing.

Matt Miofsky: Absolutely

Doug Powe: You, and this is, I thought, you talked about boldness, was really bold. You talked about, in the book that churches do not close because they risk too much. I found that line really interesting. But I sort of want to take it in a slightly different direction. I wonder what insights do you have to help churches, maybe not go from 0-10, but from 0-1 or 2 because, I absolutely think you’re 100% correct, but I also guess, and you know this also, when dealing with congregations, it’s hard to get them to go from 0 to 10. But if we can even get them to start going from 0 to 1, that can make a difference. Do you have any thoughts about how to help them to take that first step?

Matt Miofsky: Yeah, I’m gonna use an example.  It’s a narrow example, but it does illustrate, I think, a larger point. I think one small step a lot of churches could be willing to take is simply to be honest about evaluating where certain ministries are. So maybe you have – So I’m gonna use the example of a preacher because, you know, maybe there’s some pastors listening to this and this gets really personal. You might listen to certain preachers you admire, whoever that might be. Or listen to podcasts and think “man, I wish I could preach like that.” or “I wish I could tell stories that way.” “I wish I had those same ideas for sermon series.” And I suspect every preacher, deep down, kinda looks around with a little bit of preacher envy. We look around and say “Man, I wish I could do it like that.” And then there seems like this huge gap. How would I ever get from where I am to some person I love listening to? And it seems insurmountable. And so we go back to doing it our way. And, in one place, to start, and I did this in my own preaching years ago. One place to start is inviting people to evaluate your preaching. And that step alone is really hard. I mean, it’s really difficult to say, every Thursday now I preach my sermon to a group of three staff, they can be congregation members too, and for a half an hour, I tell them “just critique it. What made sense? What didn’t? What connected with you? What didn’t? What did you hear in it? How could it be better?” And I’ll tell you, Doug, it’s really painful sometimes to just sit there, and what you really want them to say is “oh pastor, that was such a great, great message.” I’ve poured hours of my life into it. But what you actually invite them to do is to begin to evaluate. Well, of course, that’s only a small part of what it means to get better. But it’s a really critical first step. So to take that, and I tell churches, you might look at worship at some church and say “God, I wish our worship could look like that.” It has an amazing band. or organist, or whatever it is. Then you look at yours and you say “we’re so far from that. I don’t see how we could ever get there.” One small step that I think every church could do is just beginning to be more comfortable with honest evaluation. Let’s just be honest about where is our worship right now? What works? What doesn’t work? What isn’t connecting? Can we ask the musicians, or the pastors, or the liturgists, or the people who work on it? Are they comfortable enough in their own skin that they can get five people out of the congregation together and say “just tell us honestly, where do you think worship is and where does it need to go?” It’s not a big step, but I think it’s a critical first step in going from where we are to somewhere new where we hope to be or where we want to be.

Doug Powe: I appreciate your answer and I think that it’s – you’re right on target and it’s very practical. It’s something, again, that every congregation can take that step and it can make it different in what they’re doing.  I think my favorite line in the book was this next part where tongue in cheek, you are right, every dying church has a community garden and you say “of course we have a community garden.” But your point, of course, is really about discipleship. And I think discipleship is one of those terms we use often but I’m not sure people have a clear understanding of what discipleship is. So can you talk about, from your perspective, what is discipleship and how can we be more intentional about actually doing it, or helping to help people become disciples.

Matt Miofsky: Well, first of all, it’s funny that you lift up that line because I – it was tongue in cheek and it’s simultaneously the line people love and the line people hate. You know, we’ve gotten many emails “Hey, we have a community garden! I can’t believe you’re making fun of the community garden and that’s important in our community!” And we have to back them up and say “of course a community garden might be a fine idea.” Just like the cycling club on Saturday morning, or the Volleyball league that uses the gym. Or the knitting club that meets there. So, it wasn’t so much meant to poke fun at community gardens, but to say that one virtue of rapidly growing churches is that they put a disproportionate amount of time and energy on, we call it in the book, “integrating new people quickly.” But it’s really about discipleship. So, they realize that as good as all these activities might be, and I think, particularly Methodist churches, we are good at activities. Typically, I’ll go to a church and they’ll tell me about all the things that they do. They can list 10, 11, 12, twenty, thirty groups and things that meet in the church. But when I ask them a simpler question: “tell me, how does someone who’s new become a deeply committed follower of Christ in your church? What do you do with them?

First of all, what’s a deep disciple? Have you defined that or figured that out for yourself yet? And if you have, what are the steps, or what are the processes that you use to take a new person and lead them to that place of deep discipleship?” And most of the time I get a little bit of a glaze. People look at me a little bit glazed over and, notice in that, I’m not telling churches what their definition of a deep disciple has to be. I think this is one of the instances of the questions we were talking about earlier. You have to come up with your own answer but what’s a deep disciple of Jesus for you? I think different churches are going to define that differently. The next question is “what processes do you have in place that are intentionally leading people to that? And are they working? Are they effective?” For me, discipleship, I mean I could get theological about discipleship, we could talk biblically about it, but I’m talking, now, kind of practically speaking, however you answer those questions – what we’ve found is that rapidly growing churches put a lot of time and energy on that core process of: when a new person walks in our doors, here is what we are offering them in order to get them to a place of deep discipleship. And the answers can vary widely. So, what I find in a lot of churches is, it’s been a long time since they really thought about that. Traditionally, and I’ll say I used to be this way, hey if they come to our church that’s Step 1. If they come back, that’s Step 2. Let’s just get them connected to something. Put them on a committee; put them in a Sunday school class. Sign them up as an usher and then our job here is done. And what we’re saying is that our job really isn’t done. It’s just beginning. So what’s your church’s process for a new person? And how would they become a deeply committed follower of Jesus?

Doug Powe: I think that, again, that’s right on target and I believe, at the end where you were talking about the way many congregations approach the topic is, you come a couple times and we can get you on a committee or in a ministry, then we’ve done our job. But we haven’t actually thought about how do we help people become deeply committed followers of Christ? And that’s something that all congregations really need to take seriously and, unfortunately, not enough do.

Matt Miofsky: I think that’s right, yeah.

Doug Powe: One of the things that, again, I think was helpful was that you suggest that churches need to avoid being pulled in 100 different directions and really, the key is, you really need to figure out your core focus. And make sure that you’re really staying true to that core focus. How have you been able to develop that core focus at The Gathering? What was it that helped you to figure that out so that you weren’t being pulled in all these different directions?

Matt Miofsky: Right. I’ll say that I started the church as a new church 12 and a half years ago. And part of it, back then, was just, by virtue of the fact that we didn’t have a lot of resources or didn’t have a lot of people, we couldn’t, right off the bat, reproduce a full-blown ministry that mimicked the church that had been around for 50 years. I remember there were a lot of people in the early years of The Gathering who were really troubled that we didn’t have an older adult ministry, and a mom’s ministry, and a women’s ministry, and a men’s ministry, and a youth ministry, and kid’s ministry, and a choir. And I mean we were just trying to have worship and get some people in small groups and that’s about all that we had the bandwidth to do.

I think as a church gets larger, has more resources, the temptation is to just keep adding to the portfolio, so to speak. Well now let’s do this, and let’s do this, and let’s do this. And so the challenge has been for us then, as we get larger, and as people expect us to have every niche ministry that they want to see in a church, how good are we at – we have to get good and stay vigilant about saying “No.” To say “No” to various things and saying “at this church, we really highly value and lift up these three things and this is what we’re about.” And I can give a lot of examples about that. So, that’s helped us to excel at what we’re really gifted to excel in and not get pulled apart or distracted. Everything grows thin when you try to overextend yourselves, your ministry, your staff, or your people. And, I think, probably everyone can identify who’s listening.  In some way you look at your church and you think “we can’t get enough volunteers for the things that we have. We certainly can’t add one more thing or two more things.” And I think that’s a feeling that a lot of churches have. So, if we’re going to get good at a few things, it probably means that we’re going to have to stop doing a couple of things and then say no to some good future things, but things that don’t fit what we’re uniquely gifted in.

And I should say, Doug, I have a, kind of, theory of the church – that God doesn’t need every church to be good at everything. God lifts up all sorts of different churches that have different gifts, that are good at different things, that are uniquely capable of reaching certain groups of people. And together, the kingdom, there’s a holistic way in which God uses every church to compliment what God is trying to accomplish in a place. So I tell churches “I don’t think God needs you to be good at everything. But God needs you to be really good at a few things. So what is it that God, you think, has uniquely gifted your church to do? And don’t get so distracted that you might not look the same as the church down the street, or the church you grew up in, or the large church you used to attend when you lived somewhere else.”

Doug Powe: I think, again, that was helpful, but a piece of it that I really picked up on, and I hope listeners picked up on this also, was, you talked about, when you started off, you didn’t have a lot of resources. I think, often times, we equate you have to have resources to be effective in ministry. But it actually ended up being a blessing in disguise because it actually helped you to focus more on finding what our true gifts, and then living those gifts out, even as you started to grow. And I think that what takes place is what you just said, people grow and then they try to do everything instead of sticking with that blessing they probably had of “this is what we have been gifted by God to do.”

Matt Miofsky: I think you’re exactly right, Doug. Sometimes I think more resources, particularly money, actually make this more difficult and it ends up getting in the way. When you’re smaller and scrappier, you have to choose, you have to. You have to exercise that. So I always tell people, even when The Gathering started, as crazy as it sounds, we just said, in the beginning, we thought we were uniquely gifted to reach people in their 20s and 30s, single, maybe married with young kids. So we just said, off the bat, we are not going to have a youth ministry. We’re just not going to have it. We don’t have the resources for it, we can’t be good at multiple things, so we’re going to try and be good at kid’s ministry. We’re going to start, put all our resources in that basket and we’re just not going to have a youth group because we don’t have enough people, critical mass, all that kind of stuff. Of course, that was really difficult because we’d get people in the first few years who said “we love your church Matt, but I’ve got a teenager. What do you have for teenagers?” And I’d be really tempted to over-promise. “Oh, you know, we’re gonna get a youth group going.” But what we did is we said “you know what, the truth is, we don’t have a strong youth ministry. We don’t have any youth ministry right now. What we’re really focused on right now are these things.” But here’s some other churches that really have strong churches and we recommend those. Now that’s a really hard thing to do when you’re small and wanting people to come to your church. But we actually found that it helped us, over a few years, to get really good at what we were focusing on. Then we grew from there. So, in time, we did add a student ministry and a youth ministry, but there was quite a few years, in our early days, where we just had to admit to ourselves, “we’re not going to do this. It’s not what God has uniquely gifted us to do.”

Doug Powe: You also talk about, in the book, not in the way that I’m going to ask you this question, but you talk about understanding that individuals – understanding their role and relation to the mission. I’m going to change it up a little bit and ask you, how do you help leaders of different ministry areas to actually live out this idea of understanding their role and relationship to the mission? Because I often think that people get involved because they’re passionate about something, and they have ideas, and they want to do those things, but their ideas may not connect to the mission of the church. And you want them to be passionate, but it’s also important that it’s still connected to the mission.

Matt Miofsky: Right. Well. I’ll talk to churches who happen to have the resources to hire people. And I know, most churches it’s volunteer. But it starts with the kind of people that you pick to lead ministries. Whether those are paid or unpaid. I’ll call them unpaid staff so that all those in churches know that there are some people who work like a paid staff person, they just don’t get paid. I think one way to pick those people is to say “hey, I need someone to lead our kids’ ministry. So, I’m going to pick the person who’s the best at working with kids. They love working with kids. They have a degree in child education. And they work in a nursery throughout the week. I’m going to pick the person who’s just the best at working with kids.” And we don’t necessarily think about is that person passionate about our church? Are they passionate about the mission of our church? Do they have a love of God that they want to share with others? And some of these other questions. So, we think we’ll get around to that. So much so, and I know this is kind of controversial, so much so, we’ll actually hire experts in a ministry area that may not even go to our church or who don’t ever intend to be members of our church. But they’re good at finances, or they’re good at kids, or they’re good at music. Another way to approach that, and I think it gets at the question you’re asking, don’t start with who’s an expert at kid’s ministry, or music, or finances, but say “who loves our church? Who seems to really understand our mission? Who seems to have personally had a meaningful experience of how our church has changed their live and now want to see that offered to other people?” And find those people and then ask, what are they good at? Oh, you have the gift for finances, lets – maybe you could help us in the area of finances. Or you have a gift of music. Maybe you could be involved in our music ministry? I think it’s kind of reversing what we look for. I think it starts there. It starts with how we identify those people. And maybe moving away from thinking of competency or how good they are at something as the first criteria.

The second thing I would say is, once people are in play, churches get busy and they’re going. One of the rules the pastor can be constantly, almost badgering people, about how they’re staying connected to the mission of the church. So let’s take a simple mission statement. Ours is to “invite people to become deeply committed followers of Christ.” People almost get tired of me asking. If I drop into a ministry meeting. They’re going to do vacation Bible school. Let’s say, this summer, and they’re planning the week and what it’s going to look like and they’re arguing whether it should be in the day or the night, and what the activities should be. And you drop in there and say “hey, it looks like you guys are doing good work. Tell me how is vacation Bible school going to invite new people to become deeply committed followers of Christ?” Now, at first, people just stare at you, they might kick you out of the meeting. They might tell you to mind your own business. But say someone comes to you with a new ministry idea. And they’re telling you all about it. The first thing I ask: “tell me how this invites new people to become deeply committed followers of Christ.” and if the answers are too convoluted, or too disconnected, or too indirect, then I know I’ve got a problem in a ministry area where people aren’t really thinking about that. So I’m just constantly asking that question. And after a while people move from, maybe, annoyance, or anger, defensiveness, over time though, they’ll start asking the question. So when you pop into the meeting they’ll all laugh and say “Okay Matt, we know what you’re going to ask and here’s what we’re thinking on how VBS is going to think about inviting new people.” And it takes time. I’m not saying it happens over night. But there’s a real diligence, I think, on the part of the leader to constantly be reminding people of what we’re trying to do here.

Doug Powe: Yeah, the modeling aspect, again. Matt, as we get ready to bring this to a close, I want to ask you one more question and I believe that, particularly in our culture today, that this is a critical point that you all help people to think about more deeply. You say growing churches do well at engaging skeptics. And, of course, there are more skeptics today based up in every sort of Pew survey, or any other survey that we see nationally. Can you share how you have learned to do this well and any insights for others to do it well?

Matt Miofsky: Sure, yeah. I’ll rattle off a few things. I think one is, it’s important to continue to be friends with normal people. I say that sort of half jokingly. Meaning that if you look around and say, “you know, Matt, all my friends go to church.” I’ll talk sometimes about – “I know you always want us to invite people but all my friends already go to church.” You know what I say to them, Doug, is “you need to get some new friends.” And I really mean that. I mean, it starts with, sort of, the pastor or preacher. I think a lot of pastors know we can easily fill up 40, 50, 60 hours of our week with insider church stuff. And being around insider church people. So, it starts by, almost making it a spiritual discipline to be listening to and forming relationships with people who aren’t in the church yet. It’s simple but it’s hard to authentically speak to skeptics if you don’t know any. If you don’t share meals with any or you don’t ever ask how they see things and what they struggle with. Why is church – why are they turned off of church? The more you hear it and you are around it, the easier it is for you to begin to think about those people when you write messages. So I think it starts there.

I think the second thing is to, to the extent that you can, remember those times in your own life when faith was hard. If you came to faith as an adult, you can literally remember a time when you didn’t know Christ or didn’t think about Christ. And then how you were drawn into that relationship. So that’s great. But I know a lot of us grew up in the church. If you’re like me, I grew up in the church all my life, but there were still seasons when I was in college. When I was a young adult. I can remember seasons where faith didn’t make sense. I was growing, maybe skeptical or tired about it. So tapping back into those own experiences and remembering that we weren’t always where we are right now. We’ve had to go through certain things and makes us, I think, more empathetic to people who are currently going through those things. And then, finally, this is kind of a practical thing, when we preach and teach, I think sometimes we, we assume that our job is to convince people. Sort of predict what the skeptic might say and then try to convince them with arguments. You know, those old apologetics classes. You know, some pastors might have taken an apologetics class. How to answer every question. How to spar with the person who doesn’t believe, so to speak. And what I’ve found is sometimes there’s a place for that, but most of the time, that’s not what people are struggling most with. It’s not so much about an argument as it is about relationships. And so, I think, instead of arguing with a person, or the church coming off as defensive, or having all the answers, or trying to convince you, sometimes simply naming what you know people are uncomfortable with goes a long way in establishing credibility.

I’ll give you a simple example, money. Preaching about money. A lot of pastors struggle with it, they taboo it in a lot of places, they might come out strong, “Jesus talked about money all the time and this is really important, and if you’re not thinking about money then you’re not really following Jesus.” There’s space for all that, but sometimes the best thing that you can do is to just stand up there and say “You know what, I bet when you heard I was going to talk about money, that part of you was like ‘I don’t know if I want to go to church today.’ and I gotta say, I understand that. If it’s weird for you, imagine what it’s like for me.” Or “hey, I know a lot of you are, you really want to give, but you look at your own lives and you’re stressed out. You’re stretched to the max. You maybe already have too many obligations, you don’t know where it’s going to come from.” So the topic itself is uncomfortable because money is just something that, in a lot of our personal lives, is already stressing us out. I think something simple, by saying “I get it, I understand what you’re coming in with, so let’s talk about that. What do we do with that together?” Rather than, you’re where you are and I’m where I am and my job is to convince you. Does that make sense?

Doug Powe: It makes perfect sense and I think it’s helpful for individuals to hear that because, still, too often people are trying to convince, through apologetics, or trying to debate with others instead of trying to take the approach you’ve outlined.

On the next Leading Ideas Talks, we speak with Reverend Doctor Jaqui Lewis of Middle Collegiate Church about multi-cultural and multi-racial congregations, plus the joys and challenges of being a multi-ethnic congregation.

Related Resources


About Author

Matt Miofsky

Matt Miofsky is pastor of The Gathering United Methodist Church in St. Louis, Missouri. He wrote Fail: What to Do When Things Go Wrong and happy?: what it is and how to find it and co-wrote Eight Virtues of Rapidly Growing Churches, available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.