Vision and Strategy for Church Growth
Rev Lawrence Khong has a degree in business administration from the University of Singapore and a master’s degree in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. He led his Baptist church in Singapore from 350 to a weekly attendance now over 8,000, with a strong emphasis on expository preaching and the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. This article is reproduced with permission from Chapter 14 of The Transforming Power of Revival edited by Harold Caballeros and Mel Winger.
On August 17, 1986, I stood on the platform in a rented auditorium in Singapore to preach in the first worship service of a brand new congregation. As I approached the pulpit, the Holy Spirit spoke clearly to my heart: “Son, today the new baby is born!” Then the words of Haggai 2:9 flooded into my mind: “The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house, ... And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty” (NIV).
I was too emotionally worn out to be excited about the “greater glory.” I simply took comfort in the fact that in this new church there will be peace. I had just emerged from more than a year of leadership struggle in my former church. I had grown up in this church, a Bible-believing congregation that had been growing consistently. This had been my spiritual home throughout my teenage years. The leadership of the church had clearly and lovingly affirmed my calling into the ministry. They sent me to pursue my theological training in the United States. I returned to be the pastor of the church. Within five years, it grew from 350 to 1,600 under my pastoral leadership.
During the fifth year of my pastorate, I had an unexpected encounter with the Holy Spirit that opened my heart to the reality of God’s power. In that encounter, I began speaking in a new tongue. It was something I had always told my congregation would not and should not ever happen in this day and age. I clearly taught them that this particular gift, together with other power gifts of the Holy Spirit, had ceased at the end of the apostolic age. I taught them so well, in fact, that the leadership of the church rejected the validity of my experience and its theological implications immediately. I realized they were doing the very thing I would have done if I were in their shoes.
I was confused. My experience completely devastated my neat and tidy theology. I could not at that point give a clear biblical understanding about what happened. On the other hand, I could not deny the reality of that experience without compromising the witness of the Holy Spirit in my heart. Meanwhile, my ministry began failing apart. Before long, theological differences within the leadership degenerated to attacks on my personal integrity. After many months of painful struggles, I was finally asked to relinquish my role as the senior pastor of the church.
In the midst of this agonizing process, the Lord gave me a clear word from Scripture: “A woman, when she is in labour, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world” (John 16:21).
The lord told me He was bringing forth a “new baby” in my life that would launch me into a new ministry. The painful struggles I was going through were the labour pains needed to bring forth this new birth.
When the Lord said, “Son, today the new baby is born!” on August 17, 1986, Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC) began. It brought unspeakable joy to my spirit. Since then, the promise of God has been true. The glory of this ministry has far exceeded what I would ask or think. Indeed, in the last 10 years of our church, there has been peace.
As I am writing this (1998), the baby has grown considerably. The attendance in our weekly worship services has reached close to 8,000. In the past 10 years, we have baptized more than 6,400 new believers. During the same period, some 16,000 persons have made professions of faith for the first time. Most significantly, in my mind, almost every person who worships with us is also part of a cell group ministry during the week. In these small groups, we train every member to be a minister of the gospel, calling forth a higher-than-average level of commitment.
As I reflect upon the grace of the lord in Faith Community Baptist Church during the last 10 years, the Lord has impressed me with four major factors that have contributed to the phenomenal growth in this local congregation. These four factors include
(1) a clear vision and strategy for growth;
(2) a cell church structure;
(3) a reliance on the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit; and
(4) one strong and anointed leader.
During the first 12 months of FCBC, I had the leaders of the church join me in seeking the Lord for a clear vision and strategy for growth. We were determined not to be another church that religiously maintained traditional programs. With all our hearts, we sought the Lord for a blueprint that would enable us to take our city for God. The Lord showed us that to do this, we must move in unity, we must share a common vision and we must agree on the appropriate strategies to fulfil the vision. As early as 1987, we developed a three-part vision that has guided our programs ever since. This three-part vision has seen refinements through the years. Today, it stands as follows:
By God’s grace, we will, by the year 2000
(1) establish integrated ministries of outreach, discipleship and service that encompass the whole of Singapore;
(2) be a model cell group church that provides quality pastoral training and equipping resources for transitioning cell group churches in Singapore and around the world; and
(3) establish 50 cell group churches around the world by sending out teams to reach hidden or responsive people groups.
To achieve this vision, we have adopted the following strategies:
1. Develop an exciting and meaningful celebration every Sunday through music and the pulpit ministry;
2. Minimize committee meetings by decentralization of operations to full-time staff;
3. Commit to active staff recruitment to establish a multiple-staff ministry.,
4. Establish a discipleship network for evangelism, prayer and Bible study;
5. Provide lay leadership training for all leaders of the church;
6. Develop and establish specialized ministries of outreach;
7. Train, equip, send and fully support missionaries from the church to the mission field; 8. Build a “Touch Centre” consisting of an auditorium seating some 3,000, including other ministry facilities for both the church and the community;
9. Develop within every member a deep commitment to regular, disciplined and intense warfare prayer for spiritual revival in Singapore and around the world;
10. Strengthen the family so as to provide a solid base for reaching the unsaved with the love of Christ.
From the beginning, we were filled with a sense of excitement that God was going to fulfill these visions among us. In FCBC, every one of us is given a corporate challenge to fulfill the vision the Lord has given us. We believe that “everybody’s job” becomes “nobody’s job.” Members of FCBC believe that if no one else will do it, we will assume the responsibility of winning our nation to the Lord. Before long, most of us would begin to realize that we could no longer possess this vision. Rather, this vision has now totally possessed us with a consuming zeal from the Lord!
In the last five years, FCBC has organized an annual “International Conference on Cell Group Church.” Thousands from around the world have come to learn the principles and operations of a cell group church. Every year, I begin the conference by proclaiming a statement that has become a major landmark of my teaching about the cell church. My statement is:
There is a heaven and earth difference; an east and west difference between a CHURCH WITH CELLS and a CELL GROUP CHURCH.
Just about every church in the world has some kind of small groups. Some of these groups are Bible study groups, fellowship groups, counselling/therapy groups, prayer groups and many others. However, these are churches with cells and not cell churches. The major difference between the former and the latter is a structural one. Hence there is a fundamental, not a superficial, difference between them.
In a church with cells, the cell ministry is only a department within the total ministry of the church. Members of the church have many options. They can choose to serve in the missions department or the prayer department or the Christian education department or the fellowship department. They can choose between the Sunday School or the adult fellowship. The cell ministry is just another one of the options.
This is not so in a cell group church. In a cell group church, the cell is the church. No menu of options is open to every member except that they be in a cell group. Every department of the church is designed to serve the cell ministry. Departments do not have any constituency of their own. All are designed to support the ministry of the cells.
In FCBC, every believer is assimilated into cell groups, similar to military squads. Each cell is trained to edify one another and to evangelize so that it will multiply within a year to a maximum size of 12 to 15 people. These cell groups are not independent “house churches,” but basic Christian communities linked together to penetrate every area of our community.
Approximately three to four cell groups cluster to form a sub-zone, and a volunteer zone supervisor pastors the five cells and its cell leaders. Five sub-zones cluster to create a zone of about 250 people pastored by a full-time zone pastor. Five or more zones cluster to form a district, and a seasoned district pastor shepherds as many as 1,500 people.
From the start, we created zones that were geographical (north, east, west) and generational (children, youth, military). Later, we added our music zone for those participating in our choirs, bands, orchestras, drama and dance. Even these music cells are constantly winning people to Jesus Christ. Every year, more than 2,500 make first-time decisions for the Lord in the cells.
In the early years, we worked hard to create the foundations for our ministry. Pastors who had no previous experience with cell church structures were trained and cell leaders were equipped. Nonexistent equipping materials had to be written. Soon we had a nickname: “FCBC-Fast Changing Baptist Church”! Every experimental step helped us learn how to equip and evangelize in the new paradigm. We were determined to discard anything that did not help us achieve our goals, so we revised our strategy again and again as we gained experience. Indeed, we are still doing so!
Like other cell churches, our life involves three levels: the cells, the congregations (a cluster of five zones) and the celebration on Sunday. We quickly had to go to two and then three celebrations of 1,000 people to accommodate the growth in the cell groups. We presently have one evening service on Saturday and four services on Sunday of two hours duration each. A completely different congregation of people worships in the Saturday evening service. We have studiously avoided advertising “seeker-sensitive services,” choosing instead to grow through the ministries of our members in the cells.
Our cells are seeker-sensitive, but our celebration is not. For us, the celebration is an assembling of the Body of Christ rather than a means of attracting the unconverted. Nevertheless, many profess faith in Jesus Christ as a result of the intense anointing that comes through worship, as well as my pulpit ministry that focuses on down-to-earth life issues.
What we call “The Year of Equipping” has become an important part of our cell group life. Each incoming member is visited by the cell leader, who assigns a cell member to be a sponsor for the new person. A “Journey Guide” is used to acquaint the cell leader and sponsor with the spiritual condition of the person. Guided by private weekly sessions with the sponsor, this person will complete a journey through the “Arrival Kit” and then be trained to share Christ with both responsive and unresponsive unbelievers.
Another major part of The Year of Equipping consists of three cycles of training for evangelism and harvest meeting in the cells throughout the year. One such cycle begins in January, where new members of the cell are sent for a weekend of evangelism training. This is followed by further practices during the cell meetings, leading up to the Good Friday weekend.
In these months, every member of the cell is asked to pray for unsaved people whom they would invite to a special Good Friday evangelistic cell meeting. On that one Good Friday evening, we will have as many as 4,000 unsaved people in all our cell groups spread throughout the city. More than 10 percent of them will give their lives to the Lord for the first time. In that meeting, every member of the cell shares the gospel with unsaved friends. We do this three times a year. In this way, equipping for evangelism is an ongoing lifestyle of every cell. It is my intention that every cell becomes a fit fighting unit in the army of the Lord!
Because of our strong desire to penetrate the society around us, we have formed the Touch Community Services. This is the neutral arm of our church designed to relate to the community. Through this separate corporation, we conduct childcare, legal aid services, after-school clubs, marriage counselling, a workshop to train the handicapped and many other social ministry areas. This has earned the respect of unbelievers around us and has provided openings for the gospel we would not otherwise experience. It has established good will for us among the many racial groups that live together in harmony in our nation.
Our community services have found so much favour with government authorities that much of our service ministry is actually funded by the government. As of now, the juvenile courts make it mandatory for their offenders to seek counselling from our youth counselling services. The registry of marriage has invited us to conduct premarital counselling for all who are getting married in Singapore! This is our “root system” into the unconverted world.
The structure of the cell church is nothing but a conduit for the power of the Holy Spirit. Unless the living water flows, the cells are lifeless. A major spiritual breakthrough came for us in those early years as we began to recognize the place of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in our midst. As our cell groups were confronted by the need for spiritual power in caring for people, we saw a gracious outpouring of His presence in our midst.
I shall never forget a certain Sunday when the Lord visited us powerfully. We were then conducting four worship services in a rented auditorium that seated about 800. On that particular Sunday, I preached a message about repentance. Many came forward to repent of their sins. As I prayed for them from behind the pulpit, the Holy Spirit came into our midst. Most of them fell under the power of the Spirit. This was something we had never experienced in our church. It surprised everyone in the auditorium, especially the people who found themselves lying on the church floor for the first time in their lives, completely unable to move.
The presence of the Lord was so overwhelming that by the beginning of the third service, members who were just walking into the auditorium for worship fell under the power of the Spirit, having no idea what had been happening in the preceding services!
This visitation of the Holy Spirit brought about a six-month period of deep repentance among the members of the church. The anointing of the Spirit filled every cell meeting. The sick were being healed. The demonized were set free. The church grew rapidly as our cell groups learned to minister in the power of the Spirit.
At the risk of misunderstanding me as being arrogant, I have always told audiences around the world that one of the main factors that has contributed to the growth of FCBC is the gracious gift of leadership the Lord has entrusted to me. FCBC has grown rapidly because of my strong and anointed leadership. In the early years of the church, the leadership team carefully studied a chapter written by Oswald J. Smith in his book Building a Better World. He began his chapter with these words: “Behold, I have given him for a witness to the people, a leader and commander to the people” (Isa. 55:4).
God’s plan is that His flock should be led by a Shepherd, not run by a Board. Committees are to advise, never to dictate. The Holy Spirit appoints men. To Bishops and Elders is given the care of the churches, never to Committees. They are to be the Overseers, the Shepherds. Each one has his own flock. Because men have failed to recognize this, there has been trouble. When God’s plan is followed, all is well.
The cell group church is vision driven. It needs a strong leader to rally the people toward a God-given vision. It is also structured like the military. It calls for a strong commander to instil a sense of strict spiritual discipline needed to complete the task. At the inception of the church, my core leaders asked, “Pastor, what sort of leader will you be?”
My answer was unequivocal, “I believe I will be a strong leader, one who believes what the Lord wants me to do and who pursues it with all my heart.”
Traditionally, the church has been suspicious of strong leadership, especially when it is centred in one person. As a result, many man-made systems of checks and counterchecks have been built into traditional church polity to ensure that there can be no one-man rule. Although I agree that there is a need for mutual accountability, these checks have more often become major roadblocks for God’s appointed leaders to lead His people into victorious ministry. Many lay leaders have expressed great fear of so-called “dictatorship” behind the pulpit. After 20 years of ministry, however, I must say that I have seen more “dictators” sitting in the pews than those standing behind pulpits.
One day I was praying about this issue of leadership and the Lord impressed upon me to write down these words about leadership:
Leadership is rallying people to pursue a vision. A leader successfully instils in those he is leading a deep desire to fulfil that vision. He gains the trust of his people by virtue of his character, his integrity, his resourcefulness, his zeal, his good judgment, his people skills and, most importantly, his anointing from God. As a result, the people grant him the freedom to decide and the authority to supervise and control. Such leadership can never be provided by a committee or a board. If, indeed, such leadership is provided by a group, it is because within that group someone can provide such strong leadership first to the group and through that to the rest of the people.
We often talk about New Testament leadership as if it is completely different from Old Testament leadership. I believe that biblical leadership is consistent throughout the New and Old Testaments. Whenever God wants to do a work, He chooses a man. We have leaders such as Moses, Gideon, David, Elijah and others in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, we have leaders such as Peter for the Jews and Paul for the Gentiles. In FCBC, I assert my clear leadership in three areas:
Casting the Vision
I lead the people by casting a clear and concrete vision for the church. In the early years, I spent countless hours sharing, discussing, praying and formulating the vision and strategies of the church. I realize that a vision is only powerful when it is fully owned by the people. Our vision and strategies were clearly set by the third year. Since that time, I have constantly shared and reinforced this for my leaders and members. I speak to every new member of the church about this vision in our new member orientation called “Spiritual Formation Weekend.” I challenge every member to consider seriously our vision before joining our church. If someone is not able to subscribe to the vision, I strongly recommend that the person join another church.
Once the vision and strategies have been forged, I expect every leader in the church to support them. This is especially so for pastoral staff. They are selected on the basis that as lay cell leaders and group supervisors they have demonstrated their commitment to the vision of the church. Today, the church has a paid staff of almost 200. In the last 10 years, we have had a staff turnover of fewer than 10 persons. There is a tremendous sense of unity on the team. The reason for this is that I have clearly provided leadership in casting for the people a clear vision and articulating specific strategies from the Lord.
Creating an environment for Growth
As leader, I am concerned about creating an environment conducive to growth. We have written a clear mission statement and we have agreed upon specific core values that define the uniqueness of FCBC, both in terms of belief and of practice. I will reproduce the mission statement here: We seek to fulfil God’s role for us in bringing the gospel to the world by developing every believer to his full potential in Jesus Christ within a vision & value driven environment and a God-centred community.
Preaching and Teaching from the Pulpit
The main vehicle by which the growth environment is established comes through dynamic teaching and preaching during the celebration. Some think that the cell church consists of only cells. This is not true. Although the cell is the church, the church is more than just cells. The cells come together in the celebration meeting, absorbing the apostolic teaching that shapes the direction, commitment and spiritual atmosphere for the whole Body. The church in Acts 2 met in homes, but they came together to listen to the apostles’ teaching. I spend some 20 hours every week preparing my sermon. The sermon each week is more than teaching the Bible. Every sermon conveys a passion for God and communicates His purposes for His people.
There is no doubt that the growth of FCBC is the result of God’s special grace in and through my life. As long as I walk humbly before the Lord in intimacy, the Lord will lead us from glory to glory. I realize that as I promote and support strong apostolic leadership, there is always the danger of abuse. It is altogether possible for apostles to abuse the authority God has given us as His apostolic leaders. Nevertheless, this apparently is a risk God is willing to take with us because, in His grace, He has chosen to do just that. God is more than able to bring down His erring servants just as quickly as He raises them up. Meanwhile, I believe in affirming God’s appointed leadership over His people.
I believe that God’s leaders need affirmation and encouragement as they agree to take positions of leadership. Yet they must have the humility to serve. Strong leaders have often been misunderstood to be dictatorial and proud. For my part, though, I would rather affirm them, pray for them and release them to become a blessing to the Body of Christ.
When FCBC started, my heart was completely shattered by the rejection of the leaders of my former church. The issues that finally brought about the split of the church turned personal. I was attacked for being controlling, dictatorial and even dangerously influential. At the inception of FCBC, I had lost my confidence to lead. Thus I became laid back, relinquishing the leadership to my core leaders who, together with me, started the church.
In the beginning of 1987, a few months after the church had started, we invited Pastor Bill Yaegar from the First Baptist Church of Modesto, California, to speak to us about leadership. Pastor Yaegar was in his 60s and since then has retired. In his visit with us, Bill Yaegar noticed how discouraged I was. I could never forget his parting words to me at the Singapore airport. He said, “Son, I was praying for you this morning. The Lord told me He was giving you a new name. Your name shall be called ‘Ari.’ This is a Jewish name that means ‘lion.’ Lawrence, the Lord tells you that you are the ‘Lion of Singapore.’ You are to stand up and roar. And whenever others forget that you are the ‘Lion of Singapore,’ stand up and roar again!”
No one had ever previously affirmed me that way. It was an extremely important moment in my ministry career. I realized in that instant that through all my years of Christian ministry, people were constantly warning me to go slower, to be more cautious and to be more “humble.” This was the first time a seasoned servant of God had actually encouraged me to take charge, to lead and to press on. Something burst forth within the depths of my spirit. I have been roaring ever since for the glory of God and the advance of His kingdom!
© From Chapter 13, “A Vision and Strategy for Church Growth”, in The Transforming Power of Revival edited by Harold Caballeros and Mel Winger (Peniel, Buenos Aires, 1998), excerpted from The New Apostolic Churches edited by C. Peter Wagner (Regal 8ooks, Ventura, 1998), used by permission.
© Renewal Journal #15: Wineskins (2000:1) www.renewaljournal.com
Reproduction is permitted so long as the copyright acknowledgement remains intact with the text.