Monday, April 24, 2006

Assignment: What is Church Growth? 

I really see this question as having two different types of answers. Most obviously, church growth is when new members keep joining and current members aren’t leaving; or, when this Sunday’s attendance is n and next Sunday’s attendance is at least n + 1 (or on Easter and Christmas nx). However, this kind of analysis does not describe what is going on in the life of the parish and the parishioners so much as it describes a column in the church register. Before we completely eschew such numerical data though, it is important to note that numbers are important in the life of a parish. (The trickier question is, ‘What kind of numbers?’, but I will address that later.) Acts 2:41 reports that on the day Peter gave his inaugural address, 3000 persons were added to the ranks of those who followed the Way. This is to say that evangelism is important to Christianity and that we should try to swell our ranks. Jesus commanded us to go into all nations and make disciples of all people through baptism in the name of the Trinity. And so, the church which says ‘We’re not interested in growth,” is a church with a faulty communication line between it and the Gospel. Numbers matter. Without them, we have empty buildings and a follower-less faith. None of that is to mention more mundane consequences such as lack of compensation for church professionals or financial outreach.
However, were you to simply plop 3000 new parishioners into any given parish on any given Sunday, the result would certainly be chaotic and might be disastrous. So, how should we go about the business of church growth, then? Intentionally and carefully, to put it into short terms. A family sized parish cannot sustain the addition of 15 new parishioners without some careful preparation work, let alone 3000. There are important transition issues that need to be addressed with and among the parish clergy and parishioners. New expectations of leadership need to be developed and perhaps new styles of leadership need to be learned or appropriated. This, then, is the work of church growth - preparing the hearts and minds of current parishioners for what it means to be good evangelists and a welcoming community.
Yet, church growth also has a more subtle meaning that may have little to do with numbers, at least at first. This is the “if you build it, they will come” phenomena. If you develop, as a clergy leader, a solid, faithful, welcoming community who yearns to learn about their faith and deepen their relationship with God in exciting ways, others will naturally be attracted to your community. It will bear a certain kind of glow that says to the hearts of those who see, “Something is happening there and I think I want to be a part of it.” Programming and liturgy (including preaching) are the two biggest parts of the portion of the equation for me. We need to move beyond the Sunday morning monotone reading of Eucharistic Prayer A and potluck supper model of being community. Because that kind of community is boring. Sunday morning liturgy needs to be alive, creative, intense, both evolving and traditional. Evolving to connect us to today and where we are headed, traditional to teach us from where we come and connect us to the great communion of the Saints who have gone before. Likewise, programming needs to be fun, educational, community building, and constant. An idea needs to reside in the heads of the parishioners that if they go by the church, something will be going on. The key to this is empowered and excited lay leadership. If you can promote all of these qualities in a parish, your church will grow spiritually in tremendous ways. Parishioners will be excited about what’s happening at their church and tell others. Non-members who are seeking will be attracted as if by a gravitational force. And, what do you know, you’ve got more numbers too, almost as an added bonus. Church growth therefore is about numbers, but it is also and more deeply about growing a faith and an excitement for God in the hearts and minds of all those who pass through your doors.



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