Chapter OneSurfing Spiritual Waves
I am the Lord your God, who churns up
the sea so that its waves roar.
Southern California is well known for its beaches. It's the part
of the country that popularized the music of the Beach Boys,
beach party movies, and of course, surfing. Although the surfing
fad has evolved into skateboarding for most American kids
(who have no surf), the real sport is still popular in southern
California. Many of our schools offer physical education courses
If you take a class on surfing, you'll be taught everything
you need to know about surfing: how to choose the right equipment;
how to use it properly; how to recognize a "surfable"
wave; how to catch a wave and ride it as long as possible; and,
most important of all, how to get off a wave without wiping
out. But you'll never find a course that teaches "How to Build a
Surfing is the art of riding waves that God builds. God
makes the waves; surfers just ride them. No surfer tries to create
waves. If the waves aren't there, you just don't surf that day!
On the other hand, when surfers see a good wave, they make
the most of it, even if that means surfing in the middle of a
A lot of books and conferences on church growth fall into
the "How to Build a Wave" category. They try to manufacture the
wave of God's Spirit, using gimmicks, programs, or marketing
techniques to create growth. But growth cannot be produced
by man! Only God makes the church grow. Only God can
breathe new life into a valley of dry bones. Only God can create
waves-waves of revival, waves of growth, and waves of spiritual
As Paul pointed out about the church at Corinth, "I planted
the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow" (1 Cor.
3:6, italics added). Notice the partnership: Paul and Apollos did
their part, but God caused the growth. The sovereignty of God
is a factor overlooked in almost all current church-growth
Our job as church leaders, like experienced surfers, is to
recognize a wave of God's Spirit and ride it. It is not our responsibility
to make waves but to recognize how God is working in
the world and join him in the endeavor.
Watching surfers from the shore makes catching waves
look pretty easy. Actually, it is quite difficult and requires great
skill and balance. Catching a spiritual wave of growth isn't easy,
either. It takes more than desire or even dedication; it takes
insight, patience, faith, skill, and most of all, balance. Pastoring
a growing church, like surfing, may look easy to the uninitiated,
but it isn't. It requires a mastery of certain skills.
Today, God is creating wave after wave of people receptive
to the Gospel. Due to a plethora of problems in our world, more
people seem to be open to the Good News of Christ than at any
other time this century. Unfortunately, because our churches
haven't been taught the needed skills, we are missing the spiritual
waves that could bring revival, health, and explosive
growth to our churches.
At Saddleback Church we've never tried to build a wave.
That's God's business. But we have tried to recognize the waves
God was sending our way, and we've learned to catch them.
We've learned to use the right equipment to ride those waves,
and we've learned the importance of balance. We've also learned
to get off dying waves whenever we sensed God wanted to do
something new. The amazing thing is this: The more skilled we
become in riding waves of growth, the more God sends!
In my opinion, we live in the most exciting time in history
for the church. Unparalleled opportunities and powerful technologies
are available to our congregations. More importantly,
we are experiencing an unprecedented movement of God's
Spirit in many parts of the world today. More people are coming
to Christ now than at any other time in history.
I believe God is sending waves of church growth wherever
his people are prepared to ride them. The largest churches in
the history of Christianity are in existence at this very moment.
Most of them are not in the United States. While the stories of
these churches are exciting to hear, I believe that the greatest
churches are yet to be built. You may be the very person God
chooses to use in that way.
God's Spirit is moving mightily in waves around the world.
My prayer at the start of each day goes like this: "Father, I know
you're going to do some incredible things in your world today.
Please give me the privilege of getting in on some of what you're
doing." In other words, church leaders should stop praying,
"Lord, bless what I'm doing" and start praying, "Lord, help me
to do what you are blessing."
In this book, I'll identify some of the principles and processes
God is using to reach this generation for Christ. I would not presume
to teach you how to create a wave of the Spirit. It can't be
done. But I can teach you how to recognize what God is doing,
how to cooperate with what God is doing, and how to become
more skilled in riding a wave of God's blessing.
The problem with many churches is that they begin with
the wrong question. They ask, "What will make our church
grow?" This is a misunderstanding of the issue. It's like saying,
"How can we build a wave?" The question we need to ask
instead is, "What is keeping our church from growing?" What
barriers are blocking the waves God wants to send our way?
What obstacles and hindrances are preventing growth from
All living things grow-you don't have to make them grow.
It's the natural thing for living organisms to do if they are
healthy. For example, I don't
have to command my three
children to grow. They naturally
grow. As long as I remove
hindrances such as poor nutrition
or an unsafe environment,
their growth will be
automatic. If my kids don't
grow, something has gone terribly
wrong. Lack of growth
usually indicates an unhealthy
situation, possibly a disease.
In the same way, since
the church is a living organism, it is natural for it to grow if it is
healthy. The church is a body, not a business. It is an organism,
not an organization. It is alive. If a church is not growing, it is
When a human body is out of balance we call that disease,
which indicates dis-ease of the body. Likewise, when the body
of Christ becomes unbalanced, disease occurs. Many of these
diseases are illustrated and identified in the seven churches of
Revelation. Health will occur only when everything is brought
back into balance.
The task of church leadership is to discover and remove
growth-restricting diseases and barriers so that natural, normal
growth can occur. Seventy years ago Roland Allen, in his classic
text on missions, called this kind of growth "the spontaneous
expansion of the church." It is the kind of growth reported in
the book of Acts. Is your church spontaneously growing? If that
kind of growth is not happening in a church we should ask,
I believe the key issue for churches in the twenty-first century
will be church health, not church growth. That's what this
book is really about. Focusing on growth alone misses the point.
When congregations are healthy, they grow the way God
intends. Healthy churches don't need gimmicks to grow-they
Paul explained it like
this: "It is from him that all
the parts of the body are
cared for and held together.
So it grows in the way God
wants it to grow" (Col. 2:19
NCV). Notice that God wants
his church to grow. If your
church is genuinely healthy,
you won't have to worry
about it growing.
Twenty Years of Observing
For the past twenty years, I have been a student of growing
churches, regardless of their size. In my travels as a Bible
teacher, evangelist, and later as a trainer of pastors, I have visited
hundreds of churches around the world. In each instance I
made notes on why some were healthy and growing and why
others were unhealthy, had plateaued, or were dying. I've talked
to thousands of pastors and interviewed hundreds of church
leaders, professors, and denominational leaders about what
they've observed in churches. Years ago I wrote to the one hundred
largest churches in America and spent a year researching
their ministries. I've read nearly every book in print on church
I've spent even more time going through the New Testament.
I've read it over and over, studying it with "church-growth
eyes," searching for principles, patterns, and procedures. The
New Testament is the greatest church-growth book ever written.
For the things that really matter, you can't improve on it. It's
the owner's manual for the church.
I've also loved reading church history. It is amusing to me
that many concepts currently labeled "innovative" or "contemporary"
are not new ideas at all. Everything seems new if you are
ignorant of history. Many methods parading under the banner of
"change" have been used in the past in a slightly altered form.
Some of them have worked and some of them haven't. It is a
well-known truth that if we are ignorant of the lessons of the
past, we usually end up making the same mistakes as the people
did before us.
My greatest source of learning, however, has been watching
what God has done in the church I pastor. It gave me an education
that no book, no seminar, and no professor could have ever
given me. I started Saddleback Valley Community Church in
Orange County, California, in 1980, and spent the next fifteen
years testing, applying, and refining the principles, processes,
and practices in this book. Like a research and development
center, we've experimented with all kinds of approaches to
reaching, teaching, training, and sending out God's people.
Saddleback has served as a laboratory for everything written in
this book. The results have been very gratifying and have, I
believe, brought glory to God. I am continually humbled by
God's power to use ordinary people in extraordinary ways.
I've waited twenty years to write this book because I did
not want to write it prematurely. Instead, I've let the concepts
percolate and develop and mature. Nothing in this book is theory.
The last thing we need is another church-growth theory.
What is needed are answers to real problems that have been
proven effective in actual church settings.
The principles in this book have been tested over and over,
not only at Saddleback Church, but in many other purpose-driven
churches of all sizes, shapes, locations, and denominations.
While most of the illustrations are from Saddleback, that
is only because I am most familiar with our church. It seems
that every day I get a letter from another church that has
adopted the purpose-driven church paradigm and has been able
to ride waves of growth that God has sent their way.
To Pastors with Love
This book is written for anyone interested in helping his or
her church grow, but because I am a pastor, my writing style is
naturally slanted from a pastor's perspective to other pastors. I
come from a long line of pastors. My great-grandfather was converted
through Charles Spurgeon's historic ministry in London
and came to the United States as a pioneer circuit-riding pastor.
Both my father and my father-in-law have been pastors.
Both recently celebrated their fiftieth anniversaries in ministry.
My sister is married to a pastor, and I spent part of my childhood
growing up on a seminary
campus where my
father served on staff. So I
have a deep love for pastors.
I love being around them. I
hurt with them when they
hurt. I believe they are the
most underrated leaders in
My greatest admiration is
for the thousands of bivocational
pastors who support themselves with a second job in
order to shepherd churches that are too small to provide a full-time
salary. They are the heroes of the faith, in my view. They
will receive great honor in heaven. Because I have been fortunate
to afford training and experiences unavailable to them, I
feel an obligation to share what I have learned with them in this
I also believe that pastors are the most strategic change
agents to deal with the problems society faces. Even many
politicians are coming to the conclusion that spiritual revival is
our only solution. Recently I read this statement from former
Cabinet member William Bennett in American Enterprise magazine:
"The most serious problems afflicting our society today
are manifestly moral, behavioral, and spiritual, and therefore are
remarkably resistant to government cures." Does it seem ironic
to you that at a time when politicians are saying we need a spiritual
solution many Christians are acting like politics is the solution?
While there is no doubt that the moral decline in our
society has produced a battlefield, it also has given us an incredible
mission field! We must remember that Christ also died for
those on the other side of the cultural war.
It is a great privilege and an awesome responsibility to be
a pastor of a local church. If I didn't believe pastors have the
best chance of making a difference in our world, I'd be doing
something else; I have no intention of wasting my life. Today
the pastoral ministry is a hundred times more complex than it
was just a generation ago. Even in the best circumstances, ministry
is incredibly difficult. But there are also many more
resources to help you if you avail yourself of them. The key is
to never stop learning.
If you are a pastor, my prayer is that this book will encourage
you. I hope it will be both instructional and inspirational.
The books that have helped me most have blended facts and
fire. My desire is that you'll grasp not only the principles I share,
but also the passion I feel about God's purposes for his church.
I love the church of Jesus Christ with all my heart. Despite
all its faults (due to our sinfulness) it is still the most magnificent
concept ever created. It has been God's chosen instrument of
blessing for two thousand years. It has survived persistent
abuse, horrifying persecution, and widespread neglect. Para-church
organizations and other Christian groups come and go,
but the church will last for eternity. It is worth giving our lives
for and it deserves our best.
"I've Heard This Before!"
As you read through this book I'm sure you'll come across
concepts and think, I've heard this before. I hope you have!
This book contains many of the principles shared in the
Purpose-Driven Church Seminar, which I've taught to over
22,000 pastors in the past fifteen years.