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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 believers

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 growth process.

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 (Hebrews 2:10).

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 buildings

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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