The Matthew 16:24 Principle for Church Planting

I like to do things my way. But only when I was willing to lose my life was Jesus able to save it ... and accomplish things I never could have myself.

I admit it: I like things my way. It’s been that way ever since I came out of my mother’s womb. I have ideas on how things should go, look and function. Name a subject on the local church and I will have a lot of strong opinions. Couple that with the fact that (I am unashamed to admit it) a lion personality, and you have a person that is hard to work with. It was that way for years as I struggled in different environments of the church world. I served as a youth pastor for 20 years in various churches, ranging from 200 on Sunday morning to 20,000 strong. In each church, I would struggle at some point because I just didn’t always play well with others.

Why? Because, as I said, I like things my way.

Today, I serve as a church planter. Our congregation is 10 years into its existence. In the past three years, God has blown our church up in ways I honestly can’t describe on paper. Currently, we run 35% of our town’s population on a Sunday morning. We have grown by almost 1,000 in two years, and we have so many visitors each week that we can’t track them all. Now I would love to tell you that growth is because of my attention to detail, my love for excellence or my ability to communicate the Word. While I am sure these things have helped in the process, I will be the first to admit our growth is about so much more than that.

It’s actually the Matthew 16:24 principle. Early on in ministry, God placed this verse close to my heart. In case you aren’t familiar with the text, Jesus is describing how His ministry will play out here on earth, and Peter (Wow, can I relate to him) basically tells God that he wouldn’t do it that way – can you say “control issues”? Jesus looks at Peter and his buddies known as the disciples and explains to them that true followers would deny themselves, pick up their cross and follow. If they wanted to save their lives, they would lose them, but if they were willing to lose their lives, they would find them in ways they never knew possible.

As a young man in ministry, I knew I needed to deny my desires for this world and could grasp that big-picture thought. What I didn’t realize until later in life was that pride disguises itself like the best “Where’s Waldo” picture you have ever seen.

Let me explain. If you asked 25-year-old Matt Bartig if he would deny himself for Christ, his answer would have been an incredibly passionate “Yes!” Yet if you counseled the same Matt Bartig to share his ministry or allow others’ great ideas to penetrate his thinking, he would have probably walked away thinking “Why? We do it this way for a reason.”

In case you don’t recognize it (like I didn’t), that is pride, beautifully disguised.

Fast forward 20 years

I am now a church planter. Our congregation has grown incredibly fast. It makes a great story but it’s nothing earth-shattering. We’ve started a second campus that Covid has forced me to step back from to handle new regulations. Our new campus pastor is doing a great job and that congregation is growing.

And I feel … uh … conflicted. They clearly are thriving on their own. They are asking for elders and desiring the freedom to do it their way. (Did I mention I like things my way?) They were supposed to be a campus … our campus. (Can’t you just smell the stench of pride?)

I was at a crossroads. God was saying let them go. In my prayer life, I was telling God “but … but … but.” I came up with so many spiritual reasons that it was a bad idea. Then God hit me with the Matthew 16:24 principle in a new way. “Matt would you deny yourself for Christ?” “Yes!” “Then why won’t you let this campus go grow up on its own?”

Then God hit me with the big guns. “If you try to save this for yourself, you will lose it anyway. Why don’t you try losing yourself for my sake and see what happens?” So, with white knuckles, I released my grip on the campus and let it become autonomous. They developed their own elders, bought their building from us and ventured out on their own.

What happened next was nothing short of breathtaking. When I let my ego go and my pride slip away – guess what – I liked it! It was so freeing! I felt a weight lift. I liked it so much that it gave me the courage to do something else: hire the first person on my team that, honestly, is more talented than I am. She grew our women’s ministry to more than 200, pretty much overnight, and I was blown away! Which gave me the courage to do it again with a men’s minister who, again, is way better than me at so much. He also grew our men’s ministry, pretty much overnight, to more than 200 men.  I hired more people after them that were better at their jobs than I would ever be. And we experienced so much growth.

Imagine what would have happened if it had been my way! If I would never have let go of our other campus, or decided that one strong leader is enough for this church, we would have missed out on so much! It was like God whispered in my ear, “Lose your life for my sake and you will find it.” Thank God that He pricked my heart to listen!

Is He pricking your heart? Are you listening?

So many of us want to control it all and that will stop us from planting, growing and following. My encouragement to you is this: Let go. You don’t hold it anyway, even though you think you do.

Trust me, you will be so glad you did.

Published April 5, 2023

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