The Rock Conference - How Big, How Many, How Much

I’ve been reflecting on whether The Rock Conference hit the mark earlier this month, as we focused on the theme: Building commitment to biblical success in the local church. In building that commitment, we also wanted to take a chisel to the miserable tyranny of how big, how many and how much. The conference was, uh, a Success. We achieved our mission to Edify, Protect, Encourage and Support pastors and church leaders.

No need to say how many were at the conference. (There were plenty; more than expected.) And no need to say how much money we lost on the event. (We lost plenty, but no more than expected.) Kent Hughes was riveting and remarkably humble in his teaching from the Scriptures and from his 41 years in pastoral ministry.

One pastor—Mike Thorburn of Bayside Community Church in San Jose, Calif.— took me aside during the conference and stuck me with many observations that I wanted to remember. Problem was that I remembered the gist of what he said but not the exact specifics. So I called him. We talked, and then he sent me his comments in writing. They get at the core of things. I’ve pasted Mike’s comments below:

We live in a performance-based culture. What you do for me is more important at times than why you do it or the character with which you do it.

This is true for many modern ministry models. If a person is getting results, is talented or fulfills a perceived need we often do not question the person’s motives or character. We’ve created a ministry model that values performance and results over godly character. Sometimes we even overlook obvious character faults due to the person’s success. There are a multitude of examples of how this is evidenced in today's church.

FiveStone Churches is unique in that the core values are character-based. Integrity, authenticity, trust, leadership and service are qualities that are easily found and supported in Scripture and are qualities which work hand-in-hand with the fruit of the Spirit and the Pauline leadership qualities for elders and church leaders.

In fact, Paul's call for leaders to be men who are gentle, faithful and persevering shepherds seems to be a distant memory for what we should be in light of the CEO, rancher, business model for ministry that is taken for granted today. While Paul could write from prison that he had fought the good fight and finished the race, today we read of victory through the breaking of attendance records and the square footage of facilities.

The new paradigm of FiveStone Churches is really a call to return to the biblical foundation of leadership based on character. But this new paradigm creates a tension in many pastors. Today's message to pastors is that church size is the single most important factor in determining success. The second most implied message, and perhaps the most dangerous is that true godliness always results in quantitative growth, not qualitative growth. In conjunction with this is the message that you do spiritual things in order to get visible results. The debate used to be doxological versus soteriological. Our culture now says that you do not seek godliness to glorify God (doxological), you pursue godliness to achieve personal success (egological).

I can't say that numerical success isn't biblical. For example, we have Pentecost as a huge numerical growth because God was working. But for every Pentecost in Scripture there is also an Isaiah (no one listens), a Jeremiah (no one cares) and a Jesus in Capernaum (John 6:67 - everyone leaves).

So at a conference like The Rock Conference where the focus is shifted away from numerical success there is a definite tension. All of the questions we normally ask just don't seem to fit. That's because we've been conditioned to ask questions that have at their core the desire to be successful in the bigger, better, how many, how much realm rather than at the realm of faithfulness and character. Man looks at the outward appearance. God looks at the heart.