Last week marked the 24th anniversary of Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck); a church I had the privilege of planting in October 1992 and where I have served as pastor ever since. We started humbly with 112 people despite a tropical storm hitting Charlotte. Through the strength of my preaching, we were down to 56 by the third week. Over the years we've grown to around 10,000 active attenders, with 40,000 or so in our wider orbit.
So it's been quite a ride.
We didn't do anything to mark the anniversary as a church (we're saving that up for next year's 25th), but the month of October always causes more than a bit of reflection on my part.
One thought came to me this season that I felt would be worth reflecting openly about. Specifically, the ways Meck could have been bigger that I do regret, and the ways Meck could have been bigger that I do not regret.
Consider this part one of that conversation.
Bigger isn't everything, I know. It's not even always better. But I am from the school of thought that numbers matter because they represent people, and people matter. So how you "get" those numbers matters, too.
Here's the first one: three ways Meck could have been bigger that I truly regret.
1. I could have hired better.
I wrote as honestly as I knew how in What They Didn't Teach You in Seminary (Baker) that some of my biggest leadership mistakes revolved around hiring. In Meck's early years, I would often hire out of expediency, on the basis of personality contests, or in direct violation of my (now) "Five C's" principle. Those "five c's" are calling, character, chemistry, catalytic and competence. There is an entire chapter on them in the book.
Now, in addition to always following the "Five C's" principle, I've also become a fanatic about hiring from within, rather than from outside of the church. And I mean people who truly are within – ideally, won to Christ at Meck. They are the ones who truly "get it."
What a bad hire, or series of bad hires, does is catastrophic for a church. It can poison a church's culture, create conflict and discord, reduce a ministry's growth to the status of maintenance or even decline, and squander precious resources that could have gone toward expansion.
When you have the right people on the bus, and in the right seats (see the writings of Jim Collins on this), it makes all the difference in the world.
2. I could have addressed disunity faster and more directly.
One of my biggest leadership mistakes cost our church at least three years of growth and forward progress. You have no idea how just writing that line makes me sick to my stomach.
My leadership mistake was simple but profound: I allowed a staff infection to take root that manifested itself in a spirit of division and dissension, and then I failed to confront it in a timely manner. As a result, it took hold and spread like a cancer, infecting people and teams, families and leaders, in ways that - in many cases - were irreparable.
If you want the bloody details, it's all in the aforementioned Seminary book.
So what should I have done? What had I done in the many years leading up to this with success, and have followed passionately ever since, that have kept such things at bay?
I should have fired the person who started it long before I did (And he was, eventually, let go.). I should not have tolerated those select individuals who engaged in parking lot conversations, hallway snipings, "sharing" in small groups, and so much more as they vomited their own junk. At the earliest of manifestations, there should have been immediate confrontations on the basis of Matthew 18:15, not allowing it to get a foothold in the life and spirit of the church. And those unwilling to be confronted and brought to repentance should have been removed from their positions and, if needed, be brought under church discipline.
Why don't we, as pastors, jump on this? It's simple. We are by nature pleasers and non-confrontational. It's like having a toothache but continually avoiding the pain of the dentist's chair. So we live with the ongoing, throbbing ache that grows in its infection until it takes over our bodies in blinding pain – when thirty minutes in a dentist's chair would have solved everything.
Go to the dentist.
3. I could have skewed younger sooner.
There are natural flows to every church that most leaders do not want their church to take. Only diligent, interventionist leadership will correct it.
The least talked about - and perhaps the most deadly - is that left to itself, the church will grow old. And no church has a "one and done" desire for its generational life.
I had a wakeup call on this several years ago. I was asked to speak at one of the fastest growing churches in the United States, which was made up almost entirely of 20-somethings. The pastor was a former student of mine. I will never forget standing with him, waiting to speak, and watching the band that took the stage, the people who filled the seats, and the staff mingling between the services. I was overwhelmed with one thought of my own church: "We're old." That was hard to accept, because Meck had always been known as the new church, the young church, the cutting-edge church.
Now all I could think was that we had become the old church.
I went back to Meck the next weekend, and it was as if God wanted to make sure the message had been received. Though it was a bit of a scheduling fluke, every person on stage that weekend - every musician, every singer, every person speaking - was in their forties. Except two. They were in their fifties.
Though in my forties myself at the time, I was the youngest person on the stage that day. The irony is that we were still young as a church in terms of our attenders – mostly people in their thirties. But we were losing the 20-somethings, which meant we would soon be losing our 30-somethings, and on the creep would go.
My goal was never to simply be a church for young people. But the vision was never to be a church for old people, either; nor to have one generational lifecycle before we closed the doors.
Right then and there I made a vow: We will not die of old age! If the natural flow of the church is to skew older, then that means the leadership of the church has to invest a disproportionate amount of energy and intentionality in order to maintain a vibrant population of young adults.
At the time of this writing, Meck is now younger than it has ever been in its entire existence, growing faster than it has ever grown, and reaching more unchurched people than ever before.
So we did eventually skew younger. (If you want the specifics they're in the Seminary book, too.) But not before losing several years of reaching even more young people.
So there you have it: Three things (and I could have listed thirty more) that we could have done differently and been a lot bigger.
And they are all on me as the leader.
James Emery White
James Emery White, What They Didn't Teach You in Seminary (Baker).