Looking for Leaders: Gaining by Losing

The first time I had the (dis)pleasure of reading anything written by the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein I realized very quickly that I was in far over my head. After finishing a dense introduction written by famed contrarian Bertrand Russel, I timidly opened my notebook, bracing for what was to come. What I found was jarring:

1. The world is everything that is the case. 

Okay, this isn’t so bad. What’s next?

1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not things.

My head bobbed underwater.

1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and these being all the facts.


This was going to be a long night, and I knew it. The path that was laid out before me was pretty clear: 11 more pages of Wittgenstein and I would be done with my homework for the weekend.

And yet, I, still to this day, have yet to complete this assignment. I was in over my head then, and I still am today. My understanding of Wittgenstein was cloudy at best that week, and if not for a study guide prepared by a gracious instructor, I would remember exactly nothing that I read.

I felt this same way as I was starting out in ministry. I knew, or at least thought I did, what needed to be done. Ministry was for Christians and my job was to gather them. That’s why we hosted multiple mid-sized gatherings, multiple small groups, countless discipleship meetings, and even Church on Sunday morning! My assumption was that the best ministries were really good at gathering and keeping Christians together.  But even so, the means and strategies to doing that were hazy at best, and I was now leading this ministry.

So here was the de facto goals checklist I developed to help me:

  1. Go get the Christians – they’re good.
  2. Christian “leaders” are even better. Find lots of those.
  3. Discipleship (whatever that is) is what we need to do.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3.

These goals didn’t work. At first, it was nice to see people gathered together with a common faith. We heard lots of people talking about being refreshed after our gatherings.

But soon, people stopped showing up with as much regularity. Leaders started losing motivation to serve. We stopped seeing new faces and stopped our growth trajectory.

All that I could do was to ask, “What happened?”

Expecting much, amounting to little

“You expected much, but then it amounted to little. When you brought the harvest to your house, I ruined it. Why?” This is the declaration of the Lord of Hosts. “Because My house still lies in ruins, while each of you is busy with his own house.” (Haggai 1:9)

At one of our staff meetings, our lead pastor drew our attention as a staff to Haggai 1. His question was simple: what are you doing that you think is good, but ultimately doesn’t show fruit or reveal God to people?

I immediately began to think about some of the plateauing we were seeing. As I began asking the Holy Spirit to reveal to me the places we had gone wrong, He began to show me that the lack of numerical growth mirrored the lack of growth in faith and trust in not only our leaders but for me as well.

Talk about a humbling moment!

In this passage, the people of Israel were doing things that resembled worship of God, but God didn’t see it that way. He saw through their ‘going through the motions,’ even if they were well-intentioned.

This was certainly true for me at that moment. I failed to seek God’s heart for my city and campus and was left with a lot of what I thought we should do. So I began searching the Scriptures for God’s heart for His people’s ministry.

Go, therefore, and make disciples

I returned to a familiar passage:

The eleven disciples traveled to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but some doubted. Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always,to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

Theologians call this famous passage the Great Commission because Jesus sends His disciples into the world with a clear mission: go and make more disciples. He commands them to multiply! In fact, Jesus does this a few times throughout His ministry. The early church does it. I began to see this theme all over the New Testament.

As I read more, the Holy Spirit began to convict me of a new definition of what successful discipleship looks like. I started out asking questions like, “how many people am I discipling?” and “how many people came to ________ event?” While I believe there are helpful questions, they are insufficient to paint the whole picture of discipleship.

I think that the Great Commission redefines our discipleship question as, “how many people am I sending out?” Obedience to what Jesus commands in Matt. 28:16-20 results in more people being sent out on mission to make more disciples. It follows, then, we should be measuring our sending capacity, not merely our storage capacity.

By merely asking how many are coming, we were only concerned with the space in our spiritual storage container. It was no different than buying different storage bins at the local store. But by measuring our capacity for continuing the mission of Christ, we changed what we cared about. We began to value starting new small groups, not just swelling our current ones. We began to value sharing the Gospel, not just number of salvations.

In so many words, we began to value faithfulness to Christ over fruitfulness for Christ.

Gaining by Losing

One of the most helpful texts for us as a ministry team was the book Gaining by Losing by J.D. Greear. Greear is the lead pastor at The Summit Church in North Carolina. In Gaining by Losing, Greear does a masterful job of unpacking the Scriptures which reveal God’s heart for discipleship multiplication. I would highly suggest that text as a starting point for anyone who is interested in this conversation about leadership development. You can head on over to heartsandmindsbooks.com/order to get a copy.

I want to share with you a few different metrics we started using in order to keep our attention on the right things. It really is true that you value what you measure. We tried to focus on the things we could control, not just what we wanted to see.

For example, we wanted to see more people coming to faith. But the truth is that you or I can’t do a darn thing in willing someone to saving faith in Christ. In this case, simply measuring how many people came to faith wasn’t a good metric. But we can effectively measure how many times we are sharing the Gospel. That seemed like a better thing to measure because, as the Apostle Paul says, “how can someone believe if that have not heard of [Jesus]?” So we started measuring the number of Gospel conversations we were having as a ministry.

The result of us paying attention to this particular behavior meant that we were thinking and talking about it more, holding each other accountable to those behaviors, and praying about it more. We saw more people come to faith in one year than the previous 3 combined!

Let me be clear, I don’t think that it was anything that we did or didn’t do which lead to those people coming to faith. But I do believe that we discovered a clearer picture of God’s heart for the lost and out of obedience tried to align our will with what we believed the Scriptures were saying. In other words, it was all God and we had the privilege of seeing it because we were paying attention to it.

Below are a few things we started to keep track of. We tried to keep track of the behaviors that would lead to change, not just the change itself. Keep in mind that if you don’t measure anything, your deficiencies don’t go away and you’re just ignoring them. The Gospel allows us to admit failure because of Christ’s victory on the Cross. This allows us to start from a posture of repentance instead of pride.

  • Gospel Presentations, not just conversations – measure the number of times we share the Gospel, not just folks we see make decisions to follow Jesus.
  • Leaders who participated in small group leadership training, not just the number of small groups – Measure the number of folks you train, not just the existing groups.
  • Percentage of congregation tithing, not just the dollar amount – what percentage of our people are attempting to be faithful with their finances, not just how much money is coming in.
  • Leaders being sent, not just number attending – measure the number of leaders saying yes to serving and starting ministry, not just the number of people we have coming.

I hope these are some helpful thoughts. What would you add? What did I miss?