There’s been a lot of ink spilled in recent years on the subject of what makes congregations grow. Behind a lot of the discussion is an assumption that bigger is better. The assumption isn’t necessarily true. Bigger is not always better. It depends on what is growing and how it is growing. If a cancerous tumor grows bigger, it is hardly cause for joy.
Increasing the body count, or reconciliation?
When we talk about growing congregations, the focus is almost always on attendance. How can we get more people in the door and on the pew? Now I fully agree that evangelism should be a major concern. We need to tell the lost about Christ and do all we can to help them become reconciled to God. But it seems to me that, these days, true evangelism often takes a back seat to increasing the body count. Have you noticed how the terminology has changed? We used to talk about the “saved” and the “lost.” Now it’s the “churched” and the “un-churched.” We used to speak about sin. Now we hear about mistakes or poor lifestyle choices. Conversion has become an ugly word in a culture which emphasizes inclusion and tolerance. We hear more about the need of being sensitive to “seekers” than the seekers do about the need to repent. Dare I suggest that the strategy of growing a congregation bigger by adding unconverted people is not only unhealthy, but disastrous? May I also suggest that achieving numerical growth at the expense of spiritual growth is counterproductive? If a choice must be made between numerical and spiritual growth, I’ll pick spiritual growth every time.
Now that that’s off my chest, what are some of the factors which affect whether a congregation grows numerically or not? There are all kinds of answers to this question. Each church consultant will trot out his own pet stable of reasons. It seems to me, though, that much of what the consultants say applies more to the corporate world than to the Lord’s church.
For example, it’s common to hear that a congregation can’t grow because of inadequate facilities. It’s like saying that you need to open another assembly line to turn out more widgets. In the church context it’s the “Build it and they will come” mentality. This has just enough truth in it to cause many a congregation to start a capital-giving campaign. It is true that a given facility has a limited seating capacity. It’s also true that some rooms are easier to worship in than others. But seating capacity and beautiful surroundings do not tell the whole story. There are plenty of small congregations rattling around in facilities which are much larger than they can use.
Another limiting factor which is often mentioned is inadequate staffing. In the corporate world it’s equivalent to saying that the company can’t grow any larger until more secretaries are hired to shuffle the extra paperwork. But the assumption behind this thinking is that the church should follow the corporate model. I happen to be of the opinion that if a congregation follows the New Testament model instead of the corporate model, talk of staffing levels no longer applies – there is no staff in the corporate sense.
Another thing which prevents a congregation from growing, they say, is short ministerial tenure. What the consultants mean by this is that a congregation won’t grow very fast or large if it changes its Pastor too often. The analogy is that a company which changes its CEO every few years is probably in trouble. But should the church be organized along hierarchical lines with a so-called Pastor acting as CEO? I think not. That’s not how the early church was organized and the apostolic period was arguably the period of fastest church growth in history.
In my younger days, I thought that the biggest factor which prevented growth was the incompetence of church leaders. In a sense I was right, but in a different way than I thought. Here’s the problem as I now see it: Leaders are not matched to the type of organization they are trying to lead. On the one hand, a leader in the biblical pattern is ill-suited to lead in a congregation which is patterned after a secular corporation. On the other hand, if he is a secular-type executive, he won’t fit well in a congregation organized on New Testament lines. In practice what happens, all too often, is the worst possible combination: Leaders are neither following the biblical pattern of leadership nor are trained as secular executives, yet are placed in congregations which are neither organized fully according to the New Testament example nor do a good job of emulating the secular corporation.
There’s another notion floating around as well. While going through a bunch of old seminar notes, I was struck how speaker after speaker said that in order to retain the people you get to come to church you have to get them involved right away. Upon reflection something bothered me about what I read. Perhaps it was not the intention of the seminar speakers, but it came across like involvement meant participation in various programs and activities. I have to wonder what value an activity has if it does not engage the soul or spirit. Activity is not equivalent to ministry. In fact, busyness may eventually breed disillusionment and be a hindrance to spiritual growth.
Who makes it grow?
In a very fundamental way, though, all this talk of growth is based on a false premise. It assumes that growth is dependent upon human effort. But the Bible is clear that it is God who gives the increase (See 1 Corinthians 3:6). It is perfectly possible to go through all the motions and programs that the church growth gurus say are necessary for growth without growth taking place. “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain…” (Psalm 127:1 NIV)
An alternative model
Assuming, then, that our priorities are right and we trust in the Lord, rather than our own wisdom and efforts to bring about growth, what factors will encourage healthy and biblical growth? I suggest the following:
1) A biblical Eldership. What I mean is that the Elders are truly servant-shepherds-overseers instead of the board of directors-business managers that they have so often become. As much as possible, the Elders leave the details of church business and benevolence to the Deacons so they can concentrate on spiritually nurturing the flock. Instead of relying on a “Senior Pastor” to provide vision and direction, the Elders are fellow servants who share the oversight of the body equally. Instead of relying on ministerial staff they, themselves, are actively involved in the teaching and speaking.
2) Biblical outreach. Most of the congregations I know suffer from a sort of schizophrenia. On the one hand there is a recognition that the purpose of the assembly is to feed the flock. On the other hand, the assemblies are used to preach to the unsaved. Preachers are hired to speak to the congregation and the congregation is urged to invite the unsaved to the assembly to hear the preacher.
In contrast to this, according to the biblical model, the church assembly is for nurturing and building up of the body. Taking the gospel to the lost is done outside of the church assembly. Preachers (or Evangelists, to use their biblical title) as a general rule, do not address the congregation during the assembly, but spend their time evangelizing the unsaved. They go out to the lost instead of expecting the lost to come to them. Instead of inviting the unsaved to church in hopes they will hear the gospel from a professional, the members of the congregation invite the lost into their homes, small groups or Bible studies in order to share the gospel with them in person.
3) Putting the doctrine of “The Priesthood of all Believers” into practice. Though we say we believe the doctrine, we are conditioned by training, culture and natural inclination to rely on the services of a professional clergy. My use of the term “professional clergy” will raise howls of protest from many but, in truth, that is what our preacher system has all too often become.
In contrast, we need to foster an environment where each member of the congregation actively ministers to each other. I do not mean getting people involved in programs. Programs and activities can often become smoke-screens which hide real spiritual needs. Active ministry involves at least two things: a) Mutual edification. People must have the opportunity and be encouraged to share their spiritual insights with one another. This can happen in a variety of ways, but the goal is to transform spectators into participants. b) Mutual caring. The support base for the people in the congregation needs to be within the congregation itself. They need to learn not only to rejoice with each other, but to also bear one another’s burdens. In short, our congregations need to act as family rather than acquaintances.
4) Multiply by dividing. Our natural tendency is to want bigger and bigger congregations. But the most healthy growth might result from learning to let go. I mentioned in another blog entry that we have a limited ability to process social relationships. A group loses its cohesion when it grows larger than about 150 people. Simple, natural and informal relationships and communication must be replaced by formal structures and systems before a larger group can function effectively. In order to retain simplicity and the feeling of family, a congregation must consciously plan to spawn off other congregations before it nears the 150 limit. A corollary to this principle is that congregations must also consciously prepare and train leadership for the new congregations they spawn.
Physician, heal thyself!
No doubt, many who read this will want to know to what extent I’ve been able to put these principles into practice. It’s a legitimate question. I confess that I was unable to fully implement these ideals at the congregation where I served as an Elder. Unfortunately, my fellow Elders succumbed to the siren song of cultural expectations, church tradition and the corporate model. However, after seeing the results from what we did implement, I have no doubt that following the biblical model of church growth will result in much healthier and long-lasting churches.