I once believed that if a congregation wasn’t growing that it must be doing something wrong. If the right changes were made surely any church could explode with growth and vitality. I’ve since come to think that there are no guaranteed formulas and I’ve observed situations that have destroyed both my theories and those of the church growth “experts” whose books I used to follow like blueprints. I once believed that if a church wasn’t growing that it was likely due to one of the following:
1) We’re not Progressive Enough – I’ve known of too many congregations that have seen a mass exodus out the door because they added progressive elements. A praise team (or band), a Christmas tree in the foyer, a more public role for women, the replacement of Sunday evening service with small groups, and a host of other changes haven’t brought the growth some churches thought it would. I’m not saying I’d be against every one of the changes listed above in any circumstance, but if we think that cosmetic changes, more perceived cultural relevance, or parting with long held traditions is going to make us grow, we might have another thing coming. We may only lose the members we have who are uncomfortable with said changes. If you’re a mega church you might be able to lose a few members in the hopes of gaining more, but in a small congregation we just cannot afford to routinely offend people and expect the institution to remain solvent. I’m not saying the preservation of the institution at all costs is necessarily biblical. I’m just saying that transforming a church into the mold you like better is no guarantee for growth.
2) We’re not Evangelistic Enough – As a young preacher, over two decades ago, I was knocking on doors making cold calls, showing evangelistic film strips, grading correspondence courses, spearheading campaigns, writing newspaper articles, submitting advertising, and studying the Bible with anyone who would give me 45 minutes. My zeal had ebbed and flowed, but is currently doing well. My methods, however, have changed. I once believed that a flurry of activity and intense follow-up were the keys to retaining visitors and new converts. Follow-up is still good, but I’ve been involved in huge coordinated, and well-executed, follow-up efforts that did not result in the retention of any new long term members. Maybe (and I’m speculating) the problem is that you just cannot program evangelism. Maybe our approach to people has to be genuine, not in any way mechanical, personal, and with some spontaneity thrown in. Churches, I think, grow better at a more casual pace than through one big event intended to turn everything upside down overnight. In fact, those events might have an opposite effect, destroying the morale of church members when the expected results don’t materialize. I tend to think that if enough church members have an authentic relationship with Jesus that it might just spill over to people they encounter.
3) We’re not Spiritual Enough – My motto used to be that if we just grow spiritually that we will grow numerically. So efforts were made to overhaul the education program. Get people through the Bible in four years, build up the church library, recruit prayer warriors to pray for church growth every day for six months, and increase fellowship through a myriad of new programs. While I do believe that a more spiritual congregation has a better shot at genuine growth, I’m not sure spirituality, like evangelism, is something that can be successfully programmed church-wide. Yes, we should make deliberate efforts to feed the sheep a balanced diet. But there is often no correlation between spirituality and big numbers. Some rather large congregations have some pretty shallow teaching, while some very spiritual people are in some very small churches.
4) Our Preacher Isn’t Dynamic Enough – Yet another theory bites the dust. I’ve known of churches with a pretty low key introvert in the pulpit but were nevertheless large and seemingly healthy. I’ve also known some evangelistic fireballs who could have made a living at motivational speaking whose congregations couldn’t seem to break the 200 member barrier.
5) We’re not Community-Minded Enough – I’ve seen churches serve in the soup lines, do community service projects, and house the homeless, but still not grow. Some have thought that opening their building to blood drives, daycare, voting, scouts, and support groups will somehow break down barriers and make people feel comfortable enough to start coming to church. Here is one of the most widespread, but disproven, myths. Just getting people into your building will not attract them to your church.
So the bottom line to all this is that there really isn’t a magical formula for church growth. There is a host of variables—everything from demographics, to location, to theology, and on it goes. But I think that a church is most likely to grow when a good core of the membership is using their unique gifts to serve God and his kingdom. Everyone is doing what he or she can do best as opposed to trying to fit into a mold for which they are ill-suited. This goes for “staff-members” as much as anyone. Just some thoughts.