Bipolar Church

bipolar — characterized by opposite extremes, as two conflicting political philosophies

janus dimonWhen I began doing congregational consulting in the late 1980s, I made a distinction between two core strategies of healthy churches: growth or mission.  A growth strategy pursues more — more people, more programs, more money, more building, more staff, designed to provide more ministry and service.  A mission strategy also focuses on more, but in a significantly different way — reach more people, serve more people, love more people, equip more people to go to more people.  Growth strategies see the church as the gravitational center — the driving question is “how do we get more people to come to us?”  Mission strategies view the world as the gravitational center — their driving question is “how do we mobilize to reach and serve more people where they are?”

An effective growth strategy will result in an improvement in mission and service, and an effective mission strategy will result in growth, but in both cases the result is a collateral benefit.  The hard reality is that a single congregation cannot pursue both strategies concurrently.  The alignment of human and material resources are diametrically opposed.  The example I always use is one of a journey from St. Louis.  If you head west, you can cover a lot of ground.  If you head east, you can get pretty far as well.  But if you go east a bit, then west for awhile, then east again, then west some more, you expend the same amount of energy to stay stuck in St. Louis (which is a WONDERFUL place, but…).  A strategy to grow a fellowship requires very different leadership than a strategy to move out into the world.

This doesn’t stop us from confusing and conflating the two.  I note with some dismay a widespread usurpation of mission strategy language by growth strategy leaders — as if mission can be used as a tool for growth.  In 1968 (and the years leading up to it) two declining denominations entered into merger, giving the impression that together they were stronger than they had been apart.  The “United” Methodist Church celebrated a turnaround — a respite from the numeric decline afflicting both Methodists and Evangelical United Brethren.  But it was smoke and mirrors.  Within a few years — before the next General Conference in 1972, the slide was back as dramatic and demoralizing as ever.  The 1970s were a troubled and troubling time for our church.  But the 1980s and 1990s offered a glimmer of hope.  Assemblies of God, Southern Baptists, and a host of independent churches were ushering in a “new” model of church.  The church growth movement emerged as a bright and shining hope for the future.  We started hearing about the “mega-church,” a stadium style church focused on exciting, entertaining, and inspirational worship, and fellowship organized around small groups.  The United Methodist Church bought in hook, line, and sinker.  Even though as a denomination two-thirds of our congregations are small-membership-churches, the independent growth model became our driving vision.

Mission church strategy all but disappeared in the 1990s in our denomination.  Oh, they still existed and launched, but they were a distinct minority.  Growth strategies abounded.  And since that time, each new fad and trend within the larger church culture has been filtered through the growth lens.  For example, when I first taught at a School of Congregational Development, the focus was on launching new churches and the terms “mega-church” and “contemporary worship” were ubiquitous.  Six years later, I didn’t hear the term “mega-church” once at the School of Congregational Development, but I could not escape the terms “emerging,” “emergent,” and “ancient-future.”  This year, growth is still the main topic, but while I have yet to hear anyone speak about the “emerging” church, I have heard the term “missional church” in every single workshop.  It fascinates me how fundamental “mission strategy” movements like the emerging church and the missional church get co-opted by the “growth strategists” to be used as tools for numeric church growth.

The question is raised, how can you tell whether a focus or strategy is growth- or mission- based.  The simplest answer is to look at outcomes and metrics.  If the targets are defined numerically, you have a fundamental growth strategy.  If numbers drive, growth is the destination.  If our priority decisions are based on money, membership, attendance, programs, or number of faith communities and church starts, you have a growth strategy.  If the targets are needs- or opportunity-based, you have a mission strategy.  If needs drive, service is the destination.  When priorities are based on lives touched, communities changed, hurts healed, and spreading mercy and justice, you’re pursuing a mission strategy.  Both strategies require vision.  Both strategies require effective, principled spiritual leadership.  Both strategies require deep faith and total commitment.  But both strategies require very different sets of gifts, knowledge, skills, experience, and support.  It is nearly impossible to do both well at the same time.

When I think of the most impressive emerging and missional congregations I have visited, they are small, tight-knit, focused groups of people.  Truly missional churches have incredibly high levels of participation by relatively small groups of people.  There is no such thing as representational mission (where a small number of people do the mission work of the church for the larger congregation) in missional churches, because it is the sense of mission and purpose that defines the vision for every member.  The best missional churches I know of spend virtually no time in their building or meeting place.  They are out in the community — praying, preaching, visiting and comforting, serving, building, feeding, studying scripture, and sharing the good news in word and deed.  I don’t hear this definition of missional church when it comes from the mouths of church growth gurus.

The same is true of the emerging groups I visit.  They are seeking integrity in their lives between what they believe and what they do, how they think and how they live.  The challenge the status quo, ask difficult questions, and reject conventional wisdom — even when it comes from church tradition or the Bible.  They don’t feel they need an institutional structure to validate their beliefs and thinking, and they have absolutely no interest in launching a new “church” to waste their time and energy supporting.  Becoming a living embodiment of spiritual grace and truth is more important than belonging to a group or club.  Once again, this is not how I hear church planters speak of the “emerging” church.

There is nothing wrong with pursuing a growth strategy — 1,000 new faith communities, 650 new churches, 100 new church planters, 10,000 new members — because great good comes from increasing the size of the UM fellowship.  What is wrong is when we pretend that it isn’t a growth strategy, and we begin to use missional language to justify what we want to do. Starting 1,000 new faith communities is a very different goal than introducing 100,000 new people to Christ — each reflects a different set of core values and intention.   There is nothing intrinsically better about a missional strategy, but we have got to be honest to say that a missional strategy is a lousy way to build an institution.  Oh, it’s a great way to build a church, but it is hard work with high standards and no room for complacency.  One of my favorite churches in the Midwest is proud of the fact that, through their outreach efforts, they have “made” more Lutherans and Roman Catholics than they have United Methodists.  Their strategy is not to grow, but to serve.  Their strategy is not to get people to come to them, but to help people come to Christ.  Their strategy is not to increase to multiple sites, but to see every place they go as a potential site or service and discipleship.  As their pastor explains it, “We have grown a little, but we will never be big.  We are so busy trying to serve that we just can’t waste time worrying about size”

There is room for both strategies in United Methodism.  We have plenty of resources for church growth.  What we need are more resources for mission strategies that aren’t thinly veiled church growth gimmicks. And we need as much support and encouragment for new mission strategies as we have for growth strategies.

8 replies

  1. I belong to a church of 500 people. We have a good mission strategy but also would like to have a growth strategy.
    What are the steps, strategies to increase the number of members. We would like to have some ideas e.t.c.

    • Churches that I visit that do both well focus on invitation, but very specific invitation into ministry, not just invitation to church. Too much of what we are mislabeling “radical hospitality” is about getting people to come to us for a very generic church experience. People are in different places in their lives and faith — from the very initial steps clear up to advanced levels of maturity. One of the reasons that missional churches grow is that newcomers are able very quickly to know what they are getting into. Worship used to be the primary entry point for newcomers, but we are in a culture where small groups, mission projects, specific ministries and services, and serious study attract just as many people. Finding out where people hunger, then offering them a place to satisfy their craving is at the heart of sustainable growth and transformative mission (in my opinion).

  2. I couldn’t agree more. After I attended my annual conference this year, and sat through our conference’s debriefing about the insipid “Ten Thousand Doors” website and marketing campaign, I came away with the distinct impression of a denomination desperate to turn around a decline in membership in the interests of its own preservation – not because people are in desperate need of Christ.

  3. I was not defaming Starbucks, but their reason for expanding is to make more money not to disciple customers or introduce them to salvation through coffee drinking. People outside the church can smell invitations to come help our institution survive a mile away, and they aren’t attracted to it. That was the comparison I was trying to make. If we don’t know why we are focused on growing, growing for growth’s sake is usually self/institutional centered and not very compelling to the outsider.

  4. One of the problems I see with the whole Growth strategy is that I find there is often a lack of commitment, and a lot of the people who become “Members” turn into runners or church hoppers as they search for a church where “they will be fed.”
    At the heart of all our problems, I think, is that we forgot who we are as United Methodist, and we sort of started treating Wesley as some crazy old uncle that no one talked about.
    Wesley had it right, and we have to get back to his approach.
    Great feed Don.

  5. well, starbucks goes where the people are, and today, the UM church is often where the people were. So we need to plant new faith communities where people are now…and remember, a new faith community can spring from an existing one.

    Faith communities can share sites and minister to different populations – -there is a building in our District that houses a Hispanic faith community, an African community, an arts community and an older “traditional” community, all in the same building. But that’s 4 different ministries.

  6. My biggest struggle with the growth strategy is that many people involved cannot answer the question, “why?” or “to what end.” It may go without saying but unless we say why we are developing x number of new faith communities, etc. it looks for all the world like the same reason that Starbucks wants to build more coffee shops.

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