Talking about church growth

I don’t much like talking about church growth.  It leaves me feeling like an ad man pitching a campaign for a new product. However, I’m a pastor.  As a pastor I am concerned about the vitality of churches.   Moreover, as a follower of Jesus I’m concerned about the gospel of the Kingdom of God expanding and spreading in the world.  That means I have a few opinions about the topic.  In the spirit of extroverting what often goes on inside my head, here are a few things to ponder.

First,  strategically speaking, most anecdotal evidence isn’t that helpful.   A person may very well walk into your church as say, “Wow, I was expecting it to be more contemporary (or more traditional, what have you).”  That’s interesting, but all it reveals is that person’s expectations.   You need more data in order to determine if acting on that feedback would be helpful.  If there are 1,000 people in your community just like that 1 visitor, it’s helpful.  If there are 10, not so much.

Second, your children and grandchildren aren’t average.  This is similar to the first point.  If you have children they engage or disengage with congregations for various reasons.   It’s not helpful to project their perspectives and habits onto all people their age or other people, period. Research gleaned  by respected research groups is more beneficial because it takes a snap shot of an age group more generally.  For example, my daughter runs in activists circles and connects more deeply with the Jewish faith tradition.   Trying to reach out to 20-somethings based upon what I know of her wouldn’t be that helpful.  It would be better to know what 20-somethings in our culture thought more generally.

Third, you aren’t average either.  This is similar to the first and second points.  There are things that you like and don’t like for various reasons.  Don’t assume that other people – even other people your age – feel the same way.  “There is no accounting for taste”; “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, etc., etc. If it were up to me, church music would be led with a Gibson Les Paul through a distortion pedal and a Marshall stack.  What can I say, I’m a child of the 80’s.  Here again, research gleaned by respected research groups is more beneficial.  General trends will show where a majority of people are likely to be in your community.

Fourth, church growth books/methods come  from a particular perspective and out of a particular context.  It’s not one-size fits all.  For example, The Purpose Driven Church by Rick Warren is a good book.  It has helped many churches.  Yet, it comes from the perspective of a staff driven church plant.  Try implementing it in an existing church with congregational polity.  Diana Butler Bass wrote and excellent book entitled Church for the Rest of Us.  It was largely a response to the mega-church movement and methodology.  It comes from the perspective of mainline congregations. It’s not as helpful if you are not a mainline congregation.   Neil Cole has written excellent books on organic church and house church movements.  However, they don’t translate well into mainline or older congregations who have property, existing polities, and a “way of doing things.”   A book has actually been written entitled Who Stole My Church.  It’s about what happens when leadership implements one methodology that comes from a context dissimilar from the churches existing methodology and practice.   Two good sources of information are churches like yours, in communities like yours, that are thriving and churches in your community that are reaching who you are trying to reach.

Fifth, there are many factors at play in a persons decision to connect with a particular faith community.  There are socio/economic, theological and cultural issues in play.  Some people care more about a churches theology than their style of worship.  Other people care more about the style of worship than the theology.  Some folks want to go to church with people like them.  Others are seeking out more culturally diverse congregations.   You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to sort all of that out.  (see the first three points)

Sixth, people don’t care much about denomination anymore, but they do care about what you believe. It’s difficult to tell if this is anti-institutionalism or what, but denominational loyalty is waning.  People grow up in one tradition and then switch to another later in life.  Others will go from tradition to tradition looking for something they like.  Denominations are so diverse these days that it’s really hard to tell what kind of church you will discover inside based on the name on the sign on the outside.   Trust me, those who are looking for your particular denomination in your particular town have already found you or a church of the same denomination they connect with better.  In Metamora, IL, where I Pastor, there are not a whole bunch of lost Mennonites that just can’t find our church.  However, most people are looking for a church that fits them – their beliefs, socio/economic position, age, tastes, etc..

Seventh, church growth is ultimately about connecting on three levels.  It is about connecting with the needs present in your community; its about bringing the teaching of Jesus to the community in a way they can hear and receive; and it’s about creating a space that people can call home.  If we ever forget that we will fail.  That puts some things into tension.  What if you prefer traditional worship styles but find out a majority of seekers in your community tend towards contemporary styles?  Do you change what you like for the potential of reaching those that aren’t present yet?  What if people resonate with your theology but not the churches cultural expressions?  Do you give some of them up?  What if they love the style of worship but don’t resonate with your theology?  Do you change what you believe?  This leads me to my next observation;

Eighth, if you don’t know who you are, don’t try to grow your church.  Church growth can seem like a cold and calculating, if not manipulative, endeavor.  If all you want is more people in the pews, bigger budgets and newer buildings you will lose your soul.  You have to define the non-negotiables.  Then you have to make sure you don’t compromise those non-negotiables.  You also have to define what is negotiable.  That allows you the flexibility to move towards some changes in methodology that aligns you better with the needs in your community.  For us, we realize that as Mennonites who practice nonviolent resistance, our church is a bit of a hard sell theologically, especially in America when we are engaged in armed conflicts around the globe.  We know our theology doesn’t play well.  Some have even suggested we soften our stance for the sake of growth and outreach.  The problem is, it is who we are.  We believe our position is faithful to the life and teaching of Jesus.  So, we’re content with the limitation. Paul says he became all things to all people so that he might win some.  What he doesn’t say is that he compromised what he believed in order to do it.  His flexibility came in areas that were nonessential to his beliefs.  He always preached Christ and Christ crucified.

Finally, make sure everything you do you do for the glory of God.  Someone once said to me, “It’s easy to grow a church.  Just give me $500,000 and three years and I’ll have a 300 – 500 member faith community.”  I think they are right. We know quite a bit about making churches big.  We also know you can make churches big without making them faithful or really believing anything, really.  Billy Graham once said (I’m paraphrasing) that he learned early on that if you say the right words and tell the right stories and play the right music at the right time that you can manipulate people into coming forward.  But that’s not conversion, it’s something else.  If you don’t revel in the reality of transformed lives, transformed families, transformed communities and a transformed world you may be able to get people in a building, but you aren’t growing a church.  God’s shalom justice is at the center of everything good in the world.  As followers of Jesus we are a part of that or we aren’t following Jesus.  The same goes for our faith communities.

Francis Chan once said he’d rather be in a church with 12 people who are following Jesus than 12,000 who weren’t.  I’m with Francis on that one.

That’s my two cents!  What lessons have you gleaned about church growth?


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