Why is it happening?
Five priorities that cause amazing church growth overseas
By L. John Bueno
Most fellowships of the worldwide Assemblies of God are
growing at an unparalleled rate, yet the U.S. Fellowship seems to have reached
a plateau. People often ask me why so much of the church overseas sees such
significant growth. Following are five significant reasons I believe most
churches overseas see greater growth.
1. They emphasize and practice the priesthood of the
Our forefathers in the Assemblies of God believed strongly
in the priesthood of all believers. Everyone is of equal value in God’s sight.
While church organizations may have a hierarchy in which members have different
callings, everyone has equal access to God.
I notice that in many U.S. churches, emphasis on the
priesthood of the believers has gradually declined. We hire people to do almost
all the ministries of the church. Staffs increase in size, diminishing the need
for volunteerism and lay ministry. Christians risk becoming accustomed to
letting the professionals do the job. While having paid staff conduct all the ministries
of the church has many advantages, in the process we can lose a main ingredient
of the Pentecostal ethos — the priesthood of all believers. We will never
have enough money to pay people to do everything in the church. Even if we did,
the church would still suffer.
Involving believers in our services is vitally important to
future growth and ownership. Somehow, we must address this. In almost every
overseas fellowship, you will find significant numbers of believers active in
ministry and church development. Believers do the church planting and start
outstations and cell groups. This results in a church that is active and ready
to take full ownership of its future growth.
2. They prioritize ministerial training
The U.S. Fellowship began with a high priority on preparing
believers for church ministry. In fact, this was one of the original principles
our missionaries took overseas. Establishing a Bible school or training center
of some kind was of utmost importance in developing the church.
Bible schools are still one of the main emphases of our
overseas ministry. The Assemblies of God has significantly more Bible schools
overseas than any other denomination, even though some agencies invest more
money and have more missionaries. In some restricted-access countries, we don’t
have the liberty to open a Bible school, but we still provide correspondence
courses and other means of training for the development of national leaders.
Our early leaders believed this was essential.
Ministry training needs to be a priority among U.S. churches
if we want to continue growing as a fellowship. Liberal arts colleges are
necessary and should be a vital part of our outreach to the world. But in the
pursuit of accreditation and an increasing variety of liberal arts degrees, we
cannot lose sight of the importance of ministerial training. A minister’s task
is to “prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ
may be built up” (Ephesians 4:12, NIV). He or she plays a vital role in
equipping the body of Christ to grow in faith and evangelize the lost.
With escalating costs of higher education in the U.S., many
people who are called to full-time ministry face significant economic
challenges attending a resident college. While alternative programs are
available that are also helpful to those pursuing God’s call — such as
district schools of ministry, Global University and Master’s Commission —
I believe a greater emphasis is needed to challenge even more young people to
train for ministry.
Schools overseas keep ministerial training as their primary
focus. Students attend because they are called to serve the church in some way.
These schools cultivate fervor not only for knowledge, but also for putting
into practice the principles of church growth and evangelism. Many of our
schools overseas will not allow students to go on to their second year until
they participate in church planting or some other type of church ministry.
While this may sound extreme, I believe it is a key to the growth of many of
our national fellowships overseas. Ministry is the focus of Bible school
students’ education, and as a result they are well prepared to become
evangelists, pastors and teachers.
3. They focus on growth rather than maintenance
Among U.S. churches, leadership can succumb to a maintenance
mentality — finding ways to keep the system operating. In the process, we
can develop an infrastructure that is expensive and, in some ways, hinders the
church’s primary purpose.
Among overseas fellowships, the vision of the leadership is
focused much more on growth than on maintenance. Leaders have a vision for
reaching the lost and for making the infrastructure serve the main purpose. The
infrastructure is smaller, partly because of the lack of funding, but also
because the focus is intent on reaching the lost. The perspective that men and
women are lost if they don’t have Christ compels church leaders to continue the
One African leader recently said it so well: “We have never
forgotten how spiritually lost we were until Christ found us, and we have never
forgotten how great a price He paid to redeem us.”
We need to remember in America that no matter how large our
churches become and how many churches we have, in most of our cities a
significant majority of the people are still lost and headed for eternal
judgment. He has placed our churches in communities to be life-saving stations.
Our task is to enter into our Lord’s work of bringing many sons to glory
4. They depend on and expect the miraculous
All of us believe that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday
and today and forever. All of us believe in the miracles of the New Testament
as well as the Old Testament. These beliefs are part of our faith and core
values. However, depending on the miraculous is not practiced as often here as
it is overseas. We don’t preach it or expect it as much. How often do we preach
about the supernatural and about signs and wonders? How often do we actually
put our faith for the miraculous into practice?
We often have prayer for the sick at our altars, but we need
more than that. We must go back to believing that miracles happen in our day
and in our churches — and not just during a time of revival or a youth
camp. Miracles should happen continuously in the life of our churches. People
should come with an expectancy that, when they enter our churches, they’re
entering the realm of the miraculous that can extend to everyday life.
Many people today have a rather cynical approach to the
validity of miracles. When they hear stories about miracles happening
elsewhere, they exhibit a kind of ho-hum attitude because they haven’t seen
them personally. Young pastors have even said to me, “John, we enjoy hearing
the stories of the miraculous, but we don’t see miracles. We have never
experienced them firsthand.”
It’s time for U.S. churches to go back to an emphasis on the
miraculous through the extraordinary activity of the Holy Spirit. We need to
see the supernatural works of God in our congregations — as well as in
our everyday lives.
5. They focus their resources on ministry rather than
Some might argue that in the U.S. culture we need to have
adequate facilities in order to reach people in our communities. That point is
well taken, but it may be one of the major differences as it relates to
reaching the lost. While storefront buildings and basement churches may no
longer be adequate for reaching people in the United States, I believe an undue
emphasis is often placed on a church’s physical facilities. Many millions of
dollars can be spent building beautiful campuses, but there can come a point
when so much of a church’s resources are tied up with physical structures that
little is left for other aspects of ministry.
Overseas, multimillion-dollar facilities aren’t required to
start another church or to develop outreaches in other areas of communities. In
countries such as Burkina Faso, the Fellowship sends hundreds of missionaries
to work among the nation’s unreached people groups. Burkina Faso is one of the
poorest countries in the world, but believers are willing to make the
sacrifice. This story could be repeated many times over as churches with few
resources grow and develop because they are so focused in purpose. Among U.S.
churches, we need to honestly evaluate how much of our resources are really
focused on reaching the lost.
Our Fellowship came into being as Pentecostal believers were
gripped by a vision of lost souls living around the world and across the
street. They believed in Christ’s imminent return and were passionate about
reaching as many people as possible. Everyone took part in the process, and no
price was too high.
Christ’s return is still imminent, and souls are still
without Christ. Everyone’s participation is still needed to complete the task.
When we as a fellowship recapture that focus, we will see our churches grow and
multiply. Are we willing to pay the price?
L. JOHN BUENO is executive director of AG World Missions.
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