Pastor, church-planter, and writer Steve Sjogren is the father of Servant Evangelism, a unique approach to outreach that was popularized by his groundbreaking book, Conspiracy of Kindness (Vine books, 1993).
Dave: Sorry that I haven’t kept up on “All-Things-Sjogren” but the last I heard you had planted a church in Florida, then I heard it was Portland and now it appears you are in Newberg, Oregon. What happened in Florida and what’s happening in Newberg?
Steve: We have been on the move in the past year. We planted a church in Cincinnati of course and were there for over 20 years. Following my catastrophic medical injury and recovery I stepped down from leading that church. Some years later Janie and I helped plant a church in the Tampa area. After a couple of years there we felt called to expand our borders by doing something more traditional. We had never attempted to lead an existing congregation — something 99% of pastors do! We prayed briefly and a door opened with the Free Methodists in Newberg, Oregon, located just southwest of Portland. We are with an established congregation that has a heart to reach out, but hasn’t had a model for it. I think this group, Northside Church, is like the vast majority of churches across the land with the typical challenges. It is about 500 on weekends. They had never heard of Servant Evangelism so we are starting from scratch in leading these folks into outreach and and outward discipleship. In short, this is all good for us and good for them! We are learning a tremendous amount about launching outreach at a church where none of it was going on. We’ll have a LOT to say about all of this in a bit!
Dave: You not only have a lot of experience in planting churches, you also have a long history of working with church planters. What would you say are the three most important foundations for a pastor to lay when planting their church?
Steve: 1. Train your people to get a heart for God. Soaking in Scripture and prayer are the keys here. I have a saying, “Five chapters a day keeps the pastor away!” Help them learn to value hearing God’s voice. Teach them in weekend series about prayer at various points each year. Make prayer illustrations common in your messages. As God speaks to you share that on Sundays.
2. Train your people to get a heart for people. The way you as the leader connect with people will show how this is done. As your heart goes so goes the people. It’s almost scary how much influence your spirituality influences your people. If you feel a lack of love for people ask God for more, then step out and begin to serve. Your heart will change. Start taking bags of groceries door to door. Give them away. Then ask if you can bless them. Pray a 10-second prayer for them. One pastor friends just says, “I bless you in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” People often begin to weep. Talk about getting a heart for people!
3. Train and model to your people how to quickly obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit without reservation. If they think about this too long they will talk themselves out of obedience.
Dave: I work with pastors from every denomination you could imagine. I’m amazed at how many are doing Servant Evangelism. I say to them, “You know that was popularized by a guy named Steve Sjogren?” and they say, “Who?” Why do you think your approach to evangelism is so attractive to so many?
Steve: I don’t mind being a little hidden. I prayed early on that this would be the case actually!
Servant Evangelism (I use the term Kindness Outreach when talking to newbies in my church — it’s less intimidating) has turned out to be a zeitgeist, that is, a timely message and discipline for our age. People have grown weary of talk and are incredibly hungry to do something practical to bring God’s love. Our culture is hungry for real spirituality. It might be realistic to say it demands that kind of spirituality. When we marry together the showing of God’s love with hopefully the verbalizing of the Gospel strong things happen. This is the model of Jesus and the Apostles. It works! Plus it’s so much fun it’s almost illegal!
Dave: Let’s say we have a pastor who has been at a church for a while and their church has never had much of an outreach mentality but the pastor wants to move them in that direction. What steps should they take?
Steve: That’s not too different from my current situation except that I haven’t been at this church for long. I’m learning how to take an existing church that has grown used to the status quo outwardly. Here’s what I’m learning:
A. Start to reach out yourself. As leaders we tend to immediately think in terms of delegation. Yes you will enlist others but the first step is to catch the outreach virus yourself!
B. Ask God to give you his heart. As you reach out notice the pain of those around you. His impression on your heart will give you an enduring spirit.
C. Develop a cadre of fans. You don’t need many to start a veritable movement in your congregation. In all the churches I’ve led — small and large (I’ve done a lot of both) — it has always been the small minority of gung ho Marine types that have led the way outwardly. I mean the minimal percentage of people. In Cincinnati we had over 6,000 on weekends, but our entire outreach team was only about 30-60 people. Here’s something amazing — that 30-40 served right at 1 million people one year a while back! Yes we did some larger outreaches now and then, but the lion’s share of the outreach was done by those several dozen people. It’s always about Gideon’s Army — which is the 1% (he had 300 out of 30,000).
D. Do outreach consistently for 6 months. I have seen it takes consistent outreaches (weekly!) for six months to rightly launch this stuff. That’s a LOT of course, but then again, who said reaching people would be easy.
I recommend you invest a little in this by joining my coaching site for more help http://ServeCoach.com for the help you will need to persevere in this.
Dave: Wow, you’ve got like five websites out there, not to mention Facebook and twitter. I can’t find any reference to the Vineyard. Are you still connected to them?
Steve: I was a part of the Vineyard longer than anyone until a year ago — that was a 35 year history (since 1975). The Vineyard was the only group I had ever been a part of. I dearly love the Vineyard movement. Prior to my assignment with the Free Methodists in Oregon I looked into taking an existing church within the Vineyard (again we wanted to try our hand at leading an existing church) but could find no open doors. We reluctantly stepped out of the Vineyard at that time. We are still highly connected relationally with Vineyard people. I’m sure those relationships will endure for our lifetimes, but no, I’m not officially connected with the Vineyard. I still speak at Vineyard churches now and then. Who knows — our lives might intersect with the Vineyard movement once again down the road. I’m pretty convinced we will yet plant retirement focused churches in coming years wherever that happens to be.
Dave: You used to pastor a mega-church but not any more. What do you think is an ideal size for a church and why?
Steve: I’ve led (or been on teams) churches of various sizes. Our first church experience was something that grew from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand in two years in West Los Angeles. We started something in Oslo Norway that eked out an existence by slowing growing from just Janie and I to about 70 people over a year’s time. We were in an environment that was downright hostile. Janie didn’t know the language at first. My word, church planting is a young person’s sport!
Having done it all I am now convinced there is an ideal size — for me it’s about 500 in weekend attendance (I need to clarify that versus “membership” which is often unclear). Looking back to my experience in Cincinnati, we were at our most efficient stage when we ran about 500. Not that 6,000 didn’t have its assets. All things considered, when it comes to evangelism (I’m convinced that is God’s main concern) we were at our most efficient at that stage. The mean average disciple we were producing was superior at the 500 stage than at any other stage. At 500 we had enough momentum financially that we could do some cool things that tapped into vision that wouldn’t have been possible with a smaller group. When you have 500 you don’t freak out when a couple of families leave in a huff (a predictable reality sadly). The church of 500 can spin off daughter churches without a tremendous level of pain and sacrifice as long as that is done with wisdom and is well-timed.
At this point my plan is to spend the rest of my life working toward building lots of 500-sized churches!
Dave: Thanks Steve