“You’re against church growth, aren’t you?” asked a new, young pastor.
I looked at him for a moment, pausing to reflect on the fact that I am often my own worst enemy. I can fully understand how someone who reads my writing — books and blogs — might get the idea that I don’t like growth. However, that would be a skewed and inaccurate assessment. I responded to the young pastor by asking, “Well, what kind of growth are you talking about? I fully support maturity, growing in faithfulness, growing in our discipleship, growth in our spirituality, and even expanding our reach sharing the gospel — I am for all these things. As for obesity, cancer, sprawl or conquest? Not so much.”
Now I received the glassy stare. “Of course I mean good growth. Who would want unhealthy growth?”
And that, my friends, is the question. Who would want unhealthy growth? My fear is that the answer is, we would. An awful lot of numbers-driven growth is unhealthy, and much of our desire to grow is a desire driven by numbers — more members, more attenders, and more money. We may couch our vision in discipleship/ministry language, but often discipleship is seen as a fringe benefit of numeric growth instead of numeric growth being a direct result of faithful ministry.
There are some fallacies that are foundational to our current plans for expansion.
- A new church will do better ministry than an existing church in survival mode. In visits I’ve made to over 2,000 United Methodist congregations since 1999, I have noted a very similar bell curve between newer and older churches: about 10 percent are doing vital, transformative ministry, about 40 percent are doing a number of good things for a good number of people, about 40 percent lack a clear vision for ministry and are making a limited impact, and about 10 percent are poster-children for how not to be church. New churches do tend to be busier, more active, and have more energy — but if this isn’t aligned toward authentic discipleship, it doesn’t make much of a difference. A new congregation needs to capitalize on its short-term popularity to establish a missional reputation.
- Launching new congregations = health. One of the statistics I absolutely love is when someone “reminds” us that there was a period in the late 19th and early 20th century when at least one new Methodist church was launched every single day! However, these people neglect to “remind” us how many of these churches survived, how many were viable and healthy, how many left the denomination, how many were never formally recognized as “churches,” and how many of them exist to this day. (I did the research on this, but found that church growth gurus in the denomination weren’t interested in it. I encourage you to do a little research and find answers to some of these questions. The information is not difficult to find, and one day soon I may write a post sharing what I learned…) One century ago, our cultural context was VERY different. The definition of church was very different. The economy was very different. As an inspiration for growth, this “historic snapshot” is disingenuous. Our future does not lie in our past. What we did then has virtually nothing to do with what we need to do today. If our world needs to know the love of Jesus Christ, that should be reason enough to launch a new church.
- The next million United Methodists will be more effective and faithful than the last million we lost. At one point this makes sense — new Christians tend to be more motivated than longer-term believers. But the members we have lost have not all been inert drift-aways. A generation of deeply committed people have died. Literally 20% of those who left our church from 1999-2008 (approximately 140,000 former UMs) are active members of other faith communions and independent churches. But a more humbling statistic is that another 20% of the last million we lost were people who were members for less than five years — in other words, a significant number of “new” members become first inactive, then former, members within a very short period of time. These are some of the very people we are counting on to turn our denomination around. Unless new people are integrated into healthy systems, growth is an illusion. Retention is as important as acquisition.
- The key to transforming the world is MORE. We didn’t do it at 11 mil, 10 mil, 9 mil, and we aren’t doing it with just under 8 mil. Why not? If we aren’t doing it at 8 million, there is no basis for believing that we will be more effective at 9, 10, 11 or more million in the future. Quality is unrelated to quantity, and much of our rhetoric ignores this.
- Small groups are the key to a big church. We love stories of huge churches that organize around successful small group ministries or cell groups. A whole segment of the church growth industry is founded on small groups. Indeed, small groups do amazing things. They are incredibly effective for spiritual formation and transformation. At least for many who attend them. But do small groups really improve overall church participation? In a survey of 180 United Methodist congregations organized around small groups, 32 (18%) boast better than 50% participation. The average size of these churches is 121 members. 45 (25%) claim approximately 1/3 participation. The average size of these churches is 155 members. 51 (28%) claim approximately 25% participation. The average size here is 164. The remainder (29%) have 20% or less participation. The average size is 168. The one church of over 3,000 members in the sample boasted over 750 in small groups — just 25% of the active membership. The interesting phenomenon we noted in the research is that the larger the church, the more inflated the estimate of people involved in small groups. Many of the largest churches “assign” people to small groups, then assume they attend. Where actual counts are made, averages are significantly lower. Despite our best spin, inactivity is as impressive in our larger churches as it is in our smaller congregations. There are a few amazing success stories, but they are sadly just a few.
Getting better is not the same thing as getting bigger. These things are not mutually exclusive. We can get both bigger and better, but it has got to be BOTH. We do not need new dysfunctional churches. We do not need more inactive and underactive members. We don’t need more consumers seeking to be served. We do not need larger empty and underutilized buildings. We don’t need more short-term success stories that end up struggling along with the majority. We need strong, vibrant communities of faith that equip people to live as Christian disciples and create networks of spiritually empowered leaders working to transform the world. Where that is actually happening, let’s get as big as we possibly can. Healthy big is good. Big big, not so much.