How the Oikos Grew High Desert Church to 11,000 Attenders
Tom Mercer more from this author »
A line from the movie Three Amigos has made a huge difference for High Desert Church. Despite a diminishing fan base, the three stars (Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short) go to their studio boss and ask for a raise. The boss dismisses them with one sentence: "When you stray from the formula, you pay the price." That line could well explain the reason that your church hasn't grown like you'd hoped. The staff at SermonCentral has asked me to briefly share "the formula" that grew HDC from a fledgling, at-risk congregation to what it is today. I'll explain:
- How we avoid the thing that could destroy the success of our mission
- How "the oikos" works incredibly well for growing our church
- An essential approach to discipleship that has been dynamically productive in our church.
Twenty-six years ago, my wife and I began serving a small church in the high desert of southern California. We minister today at that same church with a remarkable team of men and women, ministering to 11,000 regular attenders. Throughout those 26 years, we've been blessed with an incredibly diverse congregation coming to HDC from dozens of different traditions, yet we have experienced little staff turnover, virtually no political infighting and, thankfully, no church splits. I wish I could say that the church's success is due to the fact that I am that powerful of a leadership presence, or am that gifted as a communicator. But it has much less to do with me or with what we have done than it has to do with what we have not done. While some of the most creative people I've ever met regularly introduce innovative strategies to facilitate our mission, the essence of our corporate task is based on one of the simplest and least innovative formulas that Jesus ever introduced to His Church.
In Acts 15:19, James makes a statement that has actually framed our ministry since the very beginning: "We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God." There is a context to this statement, to be sure, but the essence is clear. The Apostles were like us. Left to our own devices, we tend to make everything more difficult than it should be. Even from the beginning, there has always been a dangerous trend toward complexity in the Church. In this case, the Gospel was the ultimate potential victim.
So you know the story…before any further damage could be done, the Apostle Paul called them out. At the first council of the Church, James and the rest of his legal team were forced to deal with what the Gospel really was. Before the day was over, they at least came to grips with what it really wasn't—it wasn't complicated! James' words reflect deep concern: Could he have been part and parcel to the unthinkable, to have actually made it difficult for those turning to Christ? Paul later wrote about his own recurring nightmare, "I fear, lest by any means…your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ" (2 Corinthians 11:3).
Thousands of years later, we still tend toward complexity. It is a simple task to meet people, but when we agree to engage a common mission, things can "simply" get complicated rather quickly. I mean, if Paul and Barnabas can't figure out how to work together, how are 11,000 non-apostles supposed to? The bottom line is that complexity creates its own weather. The tendency toward complexity is effortless. "Meyer's Law" is right: "It is a simple task to make things complex, but a complex task to make them simple."
Embracing Theological Diversity
Diversity is a complexity accelerator. Failing to embrace it or understand how it impacts ministry will mitigate any organization's potential. But for a church, doctrinal diversity can be flat-out crippling. The more doctrinal issues you put on your "you-have-to-agree-with-this-to-be-a-part-of-us" list, the smaller your church will be. This is one of the primary reasons the ecclesiastical landscape is sprinkled with so many small churches, even in large population areas. Diversity demands that we shorten that list! There's nothing wrong with a small church, unless it's small because we make it too difficult for people to come to Christ!
No question, orthodoxy is incredibly important to me. At HDC, we teach the truth as we understand it and are more dogmatic where the Scriptures are clearer. But as you know, the Bible is simply not completely clear on many topics. The same Paul who championed truth also made quite a case for differences of opinion on "disputable matters," all because he understood the church's mission. He knew that, if the Church would be successful in her mission, then she would need to become increasingly diverse. You think it's difficult to maintain doctrinal homogeneity in your church today? What's going to happen if your efforts actually succeed and a ton of new believers start attending? I've heard a lot of church leaders muse, "Oh, wouldn't it be wonderful if large numbers of people would come to Christ and then come to our church!" Really?
You want all of those diverse, opinionated, amateur theologs coming to your church? If you do (and you should), before those people actually get there, you'd better start framing the debates that will take place!
"I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought" (1 Corinthians 1:10). For many of us, this has historically meant, "Let's argue until we all agree." But maybe it actually means, "Let's stop arguing, because it's not vital that we all agree on everything."
HDC's church family has mostly Roman Catholic roots with an added hodge-podge of Protestants and some theological nothin's. Left to our own devices, our group would default to argument over doctrine or worship style, as any other group would. But over time, even healthy bantering between Paul, Apollos, and Cephas would lead to mission failure, and "the cross of Christ would be emptied of its power" (1 Corinthians 1:17).
Imagine that we assembled representatives from every Christian denomination and sect in the world and, after a lengthy conversation, settled all of the arguments about every doctrinal question that any of us have ever had—we finally agree on everything. Further, let's say that everything we agreed on was actually correct. Obviously, I'm dreaming here, but even if we could pull this off, we would only accomplish what is going to be accomplished anyway when we're all dead! So what's the purpose of life? Can simply vying for doctrinal purity really be the point of the Church? I'm not saying that theological debate is not important; I'm just asking if it really is our purpose. Or did God just provide essential truth—sufficient insight to accomplish our purpose—while also giving us varying views on most things as we work together with humility to build His Kingdom?
Now I've got some pretty specific and unwavering views on most every topic you want to throw on the table. When I teach the Word, I speak with conviction and believe that I am correct about every issue. If someone challenges me, saying that I "think I'm right about everything," I always respond, "Of course I do! If I thought I was wrong about something, I'd change my mind so I could think I was right again!" But after all of the arguments are over about who's right and who's wrong, what are we doing together to change the world? Isn't that the point? We simply refuse to allow our differences to become divisions among us.
One of the first things that people want to know about HDC is how large a church it is. A typical conversation goes something like this:
"How big is your church?"
"We have a little over 150,000 people."
(With an incredulous look) "My goodness, you have 150,000 people in your church?"
"Yes, but 139,000 of them don't attend yet!"
In fact, it is for those 139,000 that the other 11,000 have been asked to live another day. Can you imagine how much more diverse HDC would be if those 139,000 people actually came?
Jesus commissioned us to reach the lost, and He both modeled and taught a strategic formula that would facilitate that great endeavor. Throughout the New Testament, when God's Spirit changed a life, a world-changer was born. Whether it was a demon-possessed man, a swindler named Zacchaeus, a royal official with a dying son, a tax collector named Matthew, a Centurion named Cornelius, a businesswoman named Lydia, or a recently unemployed Philippian jailor, they all were sent back home to their oikos. Oikos, the Greek word for "extended family," encompasses our relational worlds—anywhere from eight to fifteen people, on the average, whom God has supernaturally and strategically placed in our spheres of influence. And, if those relationships frame our primary evangelistic targets, then that reality must frame our primary ministry strategies for the church.
Our mission is simple—not easy, but simple. Christians who believe that it's their job to witness to everybody usually don't witness to anybody. But when believers, representing any generation or culture, come to understand their specific evangelistic assignment, oikos becomes the great equalizer in any church—the simplest, yet most important common denominator in any ministry. It doesn't matter how good-looking or unattractive you think you might be. It doesn't matter how tall you are or how short you are. It doesn't matter if you have money or if you're flat broke. Your ethnicity, theological background, language, and age don't matter either. We all have eight to fifteen people whom God has supernaturally and strategically placed in our extended families, our relational worlds. We are all Christ's partners in world-change.
Oikos is not an evangelism program. It is essentially a worldview, a paradigm through which a Christ-follower evaluates life, its purpose and events. Not only is the oikos formula not new to the Church, it's not new to yours. The overwhelming majority of the people in any local church came to Christ through an oikos relationship. I've asked the question of countless groups through the years, across America and in other cultures: "If you were to isolate the primary vehicle that God used to draw you to Himself, how many would say that it was someone in your oikos?" Virtually everyone raises a hand—and most of the ones who don't raise a hand didn't understand the question!
The profound conclusion to draw from this simple exercise is that the oikos paradigm is already alive and well in every ministry. Embracing the oikos phenomenon is not about introducing a new idea to any local church; it's about accelerating it through intentionality.
We don't get to vote on the purpose of the Church. Your opinion about the purpose of the church you lead has about as much value as my opinion about the purpose of the church I lead…zero. The Church's purpose was settled before its birth; our job is to simply execute it. Christ's Church is the only one He promised to build. His is the only one that will overcome the gates of Hades. His is the only one worth serving. We can never afford to think so highly of ourselves that we believe the Church is ours, or we run the risk of fulfilling the Great No-mission. The parameters of our mission objectives were clearly articulated by our Commander-in Chief: We are here "to seek and to save those who are lost." By definition, all Christ-followers have one thing in common—they actually follow Him!
After explaining oikos in a recent phone conversation, a pastor asked me, "What do you do for the mature Christians?" I said, "We don't have any." (After an extended awkward silence, I continue.) "We don't have any mature Christians, but we do have 11,000 maturing Christians!"
A typical model for local church ministry reflects two distinct classifications of Christians: the mature and the immature. The New Testament describes the goal of the Christian experience as becoming "mature," but it also reminds us that we will never actually reach this ideal this side of eternity. So HDC has dropped this traditional "have and have-not" mentality and focuses on the description that all believers share: the maturing believer. Certainly, some church leadership positions should not be available to a Christian novice; on the other hand, I'm not sure that developing fully devoted followers of Christ is even possible in this life.
A church's determination to relationally separate new believers from their pagan pasts and re-inculturate them into our "fellowships" can actually sabotage its ministry by short-circuiting the organic process of world-change. The traditional paradigm for discipleship requires time, fellowship, and formal discipleship training to prepare Christians to begin their active role in evangelism. But after the required regimen is completed (usually lasting months, if not years) these now "mature" believers find they have not only wasted their best season of oikos potential, but often they find themselves disconnected from the group they would have most likely reached.
After reading my recent book on the topic of oikos, Dr. Walt White, a missiologist in Asia, expressed:
"Many of us feel that we have failed to take the principle of the oikos seriously. We have somehow applied a different process for evangelism and the establishment of the Church among tribal societies than we have among those from the major historic religions. Our individualistic Western thinking led us to a style of evangelism termed ‘extractionist.' That is, it disregarded the inquirer's oikos and even viewed it as a barrier rather than a gift from God! So we ripped a new believer from their oikos, often doing so even before the person had come to faith in Jesus, or certainly before they had the opportunity to come to any degree of maturity. Then we wondered why they were unable to reach their own oikos with the Good News. One obvious reason was that it sounded like horrible news to the believer's birth oikos, not good news. So we then had to provide him/her with a new oikos, almost always made up entirely of people who were already Christians. If there were non-Christians in their new oikos, those non-Christians had to ask themselves why they should trust this new believer when their birth oikos does not! And we wondered why it seemed they could reach almost no one, no matter how profound their salvation experience."
After a cursory evaluation of the oikos phenomenon, many evangelicals ask, "What about discipleship?" I typically explain that the purpose of the Church—to change the world—is the reason that we engage a process of discipleship in the first place. Actually, most churches wishing to adopt an oikos focus would not need to change many of the functional elements of their present efforts in discipleship; they would simply need to re-address its purpose and calibrate it more effectively to the endgame: the eternal salvation of the lost.
You might assume that HDC is a church for "seekers," but we are not. We're not necessarily looking for seekers or believers—we want "partners." Simply stated, HDC is a support group for world-changers existing for the sole purpose of preparing believers to change their worlds for Christ:
- To encourage every believer to identify their evangelistic niche (their oikos)
- To motivate every believer to intentionally engage that relational "world"
- To prepare every believer to both defend and demonstrate their faith in Christ.
It's been said that you can't do everything; you can do many things, but you can only do a few things well. We have not only chosen to focus on oikos well, but to do it so well that those who attend HDC can actually expect to personally experience the joy of the only thing that really matters—changing the world by introducing our oikos to Christ.