A Friend of Mine (an Episcopal priest) is applying for a job another church. She asked me how I would answer a question they were asking about “Church Growth”? She was hoping I had the answers. At one time I thought I did, but that’s no longer the case. Thus I wrote the following for my friend to consider. The question comes first and then my suggested reply, that she’ll have to put in her own words, of course.
April 18, 2013
Dear Friend in Christ,
I’m glad you sent me the exact question. When we were talking on the phone you framed it as a question about renewal. And that’s the question they should be asking, even though it looks like they feel that the church is too small. So here’s what I think I’d say, if I were answering their question.
b. Drawing on your experience, your observations and education, describe how you would build a strategic plan for congregational growth?
I don’t know that there really can be a “strategic plan” for congregational growth, if that means “growth in numbers.” I do know it’s a question often asked by churches that have diminished in size and are feeling the need for more money just to maintain what they have. Even though we don’t want to say it publicly, the hidden text in pleas for a larger congregation is to have more pledging units.
If we are really thinking that being a larger church (number-wise) is our goal, then we need to ask “Why we want congregational growth?” Is this what God is calling us to do? In what ways are we a better church if we are larger? We also need to face the truth about the internal changes we might have to make in order to be ready to accommodate numerous new members. How adaptable are we to meet the needs of others? Those are tough questions. It’s a lot harder to do this work given the realities of the world today.
In the world of fifty years ago, when a great many churches were growing, you could use a number of methods to attract people, and that’s because going to church was far more normative than it is today. Looking around at most mainline churches you’ll find people who still like to come to church (Thanks be to God!), but the average age keeps creeping upward year by year, and yes, the numbers of pledge units are decreasing. Asking our regular faithful members where their children or grandchildren attend church, means hearing that many of them don’t go anywhere. So the field seems ripe for the harvesting. Indeed, the largest religious group in the country are now the “Nones” When asked, “What church do you attend?” more people than ever “None.”
Another large segment, so it seems, are those attracted to mega-churches, which are found in nearly every community. The truth of the matter is that their growth has often come at the expense of other congregations. It’s like one team trading for some players, but they don’t really trade, they just take on more players.
I think we need to talk about another kind of growth—the one related to the concepts of “renewal”, “spirituality,” and most importantly of all “discipleship.” I think a good case can be made is that if we are truly becoming the people of God, knowing more and more about the love of Jesus, and sharing that love and the reconciliation sustained by such love, then we can be what leads people to know Jesus as Lord. I like the translation by Eugene Peterson who translated 2 Corinthians 2:15-16 this way: “Through us, he brings knowledge of Christ. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God, which is recognized by those on the way of salvation — an aroma redolent with life.”
So what do I see us doing to be that “aroma redolent with life”? It happens in so many ways, but especially in worship marked by joy and gratitude for God’s blessings. Imagine being in a church where people smile and sing with joy for the gifts they know in Christ and in the active life of the Holy Spirit in their midst. That last sentence is meant to describe each and every community that gathers in the name of Christ.
There’s one more thing in all this that’s essential as the framework for congregational growth—even the kind that involves reaching more and more people. If the church, isn’t missional—meaning that it’s sent—then it’s not the church. It begins at the door of each church, and with the premise, given by our Lord, that we love not just each other, but the stranger in our midst. For all of us, if we are honest, know what it means to be an alien or a stranger. (It’s what the letter of Second Peter, says we were, prior to becoming God’s people.) Our call is to see every person who comes to our door as “Christ’s own” and to treat them as an “honored guest.” It’s not a strategy—but it ought to be what marks us off as a “People of God’s Making.” Which we are! Thanks be to God.