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I Led a Growing Megachurch, and We Were Losing

Photo of Jim PutmanJim Putman | Bio

Jim Putman

Jim is the founder and senior pastor of Real Life Ministries in Post Falls, Idaho. Prior to his role as senior pastor, he served as a youth minister in two small churches. In college, Jim won three All American titles in wrestling and went on to become a successful wrestling coach. Real Life Ministries began as a small group in 1998 and has grown to a membership of more than eight thousand. Ninety percent of its fellowship is active in small groups. Outreach Magazine continually lists Real Life Ministries among the top one hundred most influential churches in America.

At its three-year mark, Real Life Ministries enjoyed what other church plants achieved only in their loftiest dreams: a brand-new 25,000-square-foot building and 2,300 people. And yet…

 

We were overwhelmed. The largest church any of us had ever been in was three hundred. None of us had ever done what we were doing. I had never been a senior pastor. Aaron had never led a youth group. Brandon had never been in charge of small groups. Lydia had never been a women’s minister. Most of our elders had never been elders before. I can remember getting exasperated and thinking, What in the world was God thinking? How had we gotten ourselves into this mess? It is one thing to handle growth when you ready to deal with it—when you have the experience and a workable plan. We were in way over our heads!

 

We had a value system that drove everything we did. We believed in relationship and shepherding—in discipling those we won to the Lord. We believed in seeking out the missing. I remember the last week I called all the families that had been missing from church that week. I made 162 phone calls. I know I looked beat when I came into the office on that Thursday.

 

One of the staff said, “What’s up with you?” I explained I had finally called all the people and now I had to write a sermon. His question: “Why are you doing all of that?” I told him that a pastor is supposed to pastor his people. My co-worker said something that still sticks with me. He said, “No, your job is to make sure people are pastored. You always talk about raising up people to do what you do; now let us do what you do.” Our team realized that we were at a crossroads.

 

Each team member had to make a decision. I was beat; our staff was exhausted. We had a choice to make. If all we looked at were the numbers, we’d say the success was killing us. But we knew in our hearts this wasn’t success. We were on our way to losing. We were becoming a show.

 

I called in our leaders and said, “Here are our choices. There is only so much money and time. We have to make a decision. We are at a Y in the road. We can either spend our money and time creating a show in order to keep these people entertained, or we can attempt things we have never done here before.” I reminded them that our success had not come because of a show; we had never had the right equipment or a full-time worship person. It had come because God blessed us in our obedience to His Word, just as He promised. From church discipline to shepherding His sheep, to raising up new leaders to pastor others, we had purposed to follow Christ’s example.

 

Since two of our church values were to raise up leaders and to pastor our people, we had to make a decision. If we could not or would not do this anymore, then we had to change our church’s purposes, which we had written on the wall and in our weekly bulletin. It had become obvious that we could not do it the way we had done it anymore.

 

I put the decision before them. Did they want the show, or did they want to do what we said we would do in the beginning? If we chose to continue on the course we started, it would have to be in a whole new way.

 

Each had to make a decision. I knew what they would choose.

 

We had been under a lot of pressure to become more professional on Sunday mornings. Some had wanted us to try to find ways to hire people to lead the arts and worship. They wanted us to spend a lot of money on equipment and focus on becoming like many of the large churches in the U.S.

 

We decided to spend money, but not in the way that some would have liked. We thought for sure that our next move would slow down the growth. We actually thought we would lose several hundred people. However, we prayed and followed the way we felt God wanted.

 

The next Sunday, as a leadership team we stood in front of our people and explained our dilemma. We outlined the two options, reminded them what we had believed since the beginning, and told them what choice we had made. We would not seek to be like other big churches. We honestly shared our hearts and our convictions, and we let them know we were tired and needed their help if we were to be successful in the next step.

 

Then, we shared the plan. We would become completely small groups driven. We would spend our money on pastors who could disciple and release, rather than hire people who focused on the worship service. We would deemphasize the show and focus on shepherding, discipleship, and relationship. We let them know they would have to step up and become ministers, not spectators—after all, this church is called Real Life Ministries (RLM), and we must all be ministers. The people went nuts. They gave us a standing ovation!

 

In two weeks we grew another five hundred people. “Boy, did that backfire!” we laughed. . . .

 

We concentrated on building leaders. Instead of merely feeding those who had been Christians for years but had never really grown up, we were going to force those who stuck around to grow up and serve.

 

We would be taking a chance. We knew that. Most of these men and women had never done anything but sit in a church pew, if they had been in church at all. Most had no training, no history of service, and certainly no experience in church leadership. We recognized that most of those we would put into leadership had only been Christians for a short time or came from a church that had taught nothing about real discipleship, but we were determined to do the unthinkable. We would release them, rather than control them. With our community structure, we would not only provide accountability for the group leaders, we would turn this group of people into an army.

 

(Excerpted from Jim Putman, Church Is a Team Sport [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008], 31-34. Used with permission.)