Reluctant church growth guru

You aren’t anticipating to hear the pastor of the fastest-growing United Methodist congregation in the United States confess his struggle with discouragement and self-doubt. Nevertheless, half an hour before our interview, Adam Weber told an attentive audience at a packed-out Seedbed conference in Houston about a Sunday evening text conversation he recently had with his best friend. 

“Hey man, I’m struggling,” Weber began his text. 

“And I wanted to say that I’m wondering if God can use me,” he told the audience. “I feel unusable. And I’m struggling with discouragement.” Weber asked his friend for prayer. His buddy prayed for him but also addressed his discouragement by countering the lies that were sneaking into Weber’s heart and mind. He reminded Weber of who God is and how “God uses me and how God sees me, that I’m a son of the king. Reminding me of the simple truth that God loves me, and how God can use anyone, He’s simply looking for someone who’s willing and available to be used. That’s the requirement.” 

Weber was strung out on ministry and needed a boost. “My friend was cheering me on: ‘Keep going, you’re doing good, just keep running you’re doing well.’ Sounds strange to share but it was one of the coolest gifts I was given last year, just my friend being present in this moment. I was just reminded of how much we need friends.”

The phenomenal growth of Embrace, a multi-campus United Methodist congregation based out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, accentuated Weber’s dependence upon prayer and friendship. Speaking in the jargon of our social media age, he points out that there is a gargantuan difference between Instagram followers and true friends, as well as Facebook likes and heartfelt, actual love – especially for leaders. “We can have so many relationships through church, but so often we don’t have one friend that we can call and be real with. We might know half the earth but we don’t have one friend that we can call when we’re broken,” Weber said. “It’s completely crazy.”

Along with my colleague Courtney Lott, I sat down with Weber to talk to him about ministry and his new book Talking With God. 

You give a very sobering description of what it means to be pastoring the fastest growing United Methodist congregation in the United States. And, you’ve written a book on prayer. You experienced dramatic ups-and-downs in leaving seminary to launching a church to getting burned out, and then seeing your church explode. In what way did prayer change for you in those different stages?

That’s a great question. At the start of the church, it was a lot of praying for things: “God, help me to find a staff person.” “Lord, help this family to come to our church.” “God, grow attendance.” “Lord, would you do this?” “Would you do that?” Then during the season of burn out, I just sort of hit rock bottom and it really became, “Lord, I need your help, I need you personally.” I think that was probably the biggest change that happened. I switched from praying for things to praying: “I need more of you, Jesus. I need more of your word. Your word is a light, you know I need you, for my path, from moment to moment I need you.” 

And I think my prayer life now is, “I still need you. I have those moments of where I’m broken, I’m desperate, but I just love being with you. I just want to spend more time with you, not just because I need you, because I do, but because I just want to be with you because I enjoy your presence so much.” I think that would probably be my three stages of what my prayer life has done since starting the church.

Did seminary prepare you for something outside of your control? Obviously, you’ve worked hard. But there’s an aspect to which you couldn’t have conjured up pastoring the fastest-growing church.

Never, that wasn’t even a desire of my heart. If you had said, what is your crazy goal, Adam? I’d have been like, gosh, if we could see 200 people come and pay our light bill and see a life change, that’s what my answer would’ve been. So there was no concept that something crazy could happen. So I think two things. During my very first semester in seminary I read Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. The book was given to me by Steve Martyn, my seminary professor, not the actor. [Laughter.] He prepared me. I think I needed even more tough love than he gave us. Because he was tough love, but my skull was even ten times thicker. I truly thought that if you leave ministry you just don’t have a call on your life and that if you leave ministry you just don’t want to work hard and that’s not the case at all, we’re not robots. 

I wish I would have pushed even further into the disciplines. The most important thing today? Time in God’s word. The most important thing today? Talking with the Lord. The most important thing today? If there’s sin I need to confess it. I wish I’d realized how crucial it was to have a close brother in my life who could sharpen me and I could sharpen him back. 

The other thing I didn’t have exposure to was just seeing what it looks like to lead a church that does that. And there’s not a lot of patterns for that. So I took Christian Leadership, but they don’t do Christian leadership for that. So that was something I’d never seen before. We weren’t big in numbers when we first started growing so I was kind of alone and I didn’t realize how fast it was growing and then once the word got out I was already burnt out. There weren’t people who could come along side me and say, “Hey.” 

After I went through that season I started having lots of people speaking into my life. Who had seen rapid growth or pastored larger churches. And they just said, “Hey, you need to make a change.” I can remember sitting down with a Baptist pastor who had pastored a church that was 2-3,000. He asked how I was utilizing my week and I told him. And he just said, “No way…no way.” And I said, “Yeah, is that weird?” He was just horrified by how I was leading, by what I was doing. “You need to hand that off.” I can remember the restaurant I was at when he met with me and was encouraging me. 

In one part of your book you write about The Practice of the Presence of God. Are there other books that are very influential in your prayer life besides that one that you would recommend? 

Again, I’d mention Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. Also his book on prayer. The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer is so good. Knowing God by J.I. Packer isn’t directly about prayer, but it kind of is. Those would be the first few ones I’d list off. Foster’s book on prayer was shaping for me. Just those different aspects because he talks about different kinds of prayer. Prayers I never would’ve thought about praying before. Like the prayer of examination, just examine your heart – Psalm 139, “search me oh God and examine my heart.” That was a huge shaping book. The Pursuit of God by Tozer was my first old school book that I can remember reading. It was even an older version of it because it even smelled funky because it was old. I can remember going through it and thinking “wow,” just coming alive and hearing someone’s passion and heart for the Lord and their own pursuit for him was strengthening to mine. That was shaping. 

There was a time before you grew that your district superintendent told you, “Yeah, we’ll just close this church.” Describe the drive home after that meeting.

Yeah and it was never said in a threat-filled way or anything like that. [But] I was totally broken. On my drive home, I was totally broken. I was already tired and so unsure of myself and yet I knew I loved the church. And I just had this feeling with a few changes I felt like we’d grow, but I didn’t have any proof of that. You know you have gut feelings, but after three years of trying to grow and you haven’t, gut feelings don’t really do a whole lot. 

Then we got assigned a pastor type coach a week or two after that. He’d met with our team and had heard the story and he said, “Next month, you guys are going to grow, and you’re going to grow and grow.” 

And I said, “I think you’ve not listened to anything we’ve said to you.” I said, “How did you get to that?” It was so crazy I almost didn’t want to listen to him. The last thing he said to us, which was so ironic, he said, “I want you guys to start praying about when you’re going to launch a campus off this church.” 

I thought to myself, “You’ve officially went in the loony bin because our church is going to be closed here pretty soon if we don’t grow.” And sure enough, we moved in and started to grow. What was so cool was that that coach met with myself and the conference leadership. And he said the same thing to them. He said “They’re going to grow and you’re not going to know what to do with them.” And I thought, “Okay, maybe don’t say this to my bosses.” And yet he was spot on.

What is your prayer for the United Methodist Church?

My prayer for the United Methodist Church is that we would rediscover our passion for Jesus. I’m reading through the sermons of John Wesley right now. And he said a whole bunch of things we often quote, but what we don’t often quote is his desire to reach people for Christ. First and foremost, I need to tell as many people as possible about Jesus. Because he’s everything, he’s our savior, he’s our Lord. We’ve got the greatest news that’s ever been told: “Behold I bring you good news of great joy, a savior has been born, he is Christ the Lord.” 

Personally, I need a savior, and I need the Lord right now. My whole life I’ve needed those two things. We need to rediscover that. We always get asked, “What’s the secret sauce to growth?” I say, “It’s going to be really profound: Tell people about Jesus.” 

You’re broken? He can make you whole. You feel like you’ve had regrets and you’ve screwed up in life? He’s able to take our regrets and use it for good. He’s able to wipe the slate clean. I’m like, man, I need both of those things. You read Wesley and that was his message. Ω

Steve Beard is the creator of the Thunderstruck Media Syndicate. This article appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Good News. 

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