Growth Exaggeration

“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.”big-exhibit-logo

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

freelogo-SuperChurch-fullGetting 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.

7 replies

  1. Yes, Dan, yes.

    And I hope we DO see your findings of the “church a day” effort in the late 19th century soon.

    My own assessment, based not on statistics but on changes in the character of the denomination, is that that era represented essentially the “success” of “institutionalized” Methodism based on establishing congregational outposts and the concomitant demise of the “spirit, doctrine and discipline with which they started out”– Wesley’s version of Methodism as societies utterly committed to making and supporting disciples who were active in mission and growing in holiness. My evidence– the demise of the class meetings and the radical alteration of the language of the Discipline (along with the expansion of its contents) from “questions and answers” indicative of some actual conferencing to “legalese statements” indicative of a command and control bureaucracy.

    But I’d love to see what you found…

    • I’m going to go back and do some more research. I want to get my facts straight, but let it suffice at this point to say that while churches grew like topsy for about a seventy year span (not just Methodist — part of the phenomenon was nothing more than “beating the Baptists”), only a small percentage were viable, “official,” recognized congregations. As with any frenzy, there was a lot of questionable activity along with the reasonable. Were we to experience the kind of frenetic growth and expansion today, our system simply would not allow it. As you point out, we have so revised our rules and definitions that what “Methodist” even means in “United Methodist” is up for grabs. When I get some time to dig out my old research, I will do a more thorough exploration of the one-a-day myth.

  2. I recently returned from a trip to Africa where I had a chance to talk local church statistics with administrators in the bishops’ offices there. It was interesting to talk about church polity, the meaning of membership, and the expectations of participation with folks about whom I knew little and assumed much.

    The thing I found most surprising and most encouraging was the degree to which most of our annual conferences in Africa are still practicing many of the very elements of order and discipline that we’ve lost in the United States. Indeed, the degree to which churches are internally regulated according to the cycle of the quarterly conferences and with the mechanism of the class meeting was striking.

    In Africa, I was told, every person matters, every person has a place to participate, and every person is expected to keep up their membership vows. Membership is tracked, names are recorded scrupulously in most places, and in areas where there has and is a great deal of uncertainty and chaos, the church provides a refuge of structure and order.

    In Zimbabwe, for instance, each pastor must list the name of every professing member in a record book each year. That book is given to the DS at a district meeting where the pastor must swear before God and their colleagues that they know every person in that book and that they are active participants in the life of that church. The conference statistician who told me this said it was, “the most hated book among the clergy,” but they all do it every year.

    Talking church in Africa was, at least in my mind, a bit like hearing first-hand about the American church of 120 years ago. Our cultural context in the US is radically different from much of Africa, but I couldn’t help but think perhaps we had a good deal to learn from our sisters and brothers there.

    I wouldn’t claim that I have a really holistic picture of what’s happening in Africa, but I have to say I was really surprised by just how inspired I felt after talking administration with a bunch of church bureaucrats for a week.

    • Thanks for the perspective, Scott. (good to hear from you!) I hope we all have the wisdom to learn from our African sisters and brothers as global Christianity booms in the southern hemisphere. It is amazing to be reminded what evangelical fervor really looks like!

      • And not just Evangelical fervor there– though that is certainly evident– also a commitment to people growing in holiness via the class meetings– particularly in Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

        When I presented a paper describing the network ecclesiology in early Methodism at the UM @ 40 event at Candler in 2008, John Kurewa was there from Zimbabwe. In a room full of Americans who seemed to be scratching their heads at what I was talking about– that discipleship happens in paracongregational settings rather than in the context per se, and that the early Methodist societies were not congregations but were such paracongregatinal structures– Dr Kurewa was nodding his head. At the comments section he spoke up and said they had relearned this in Zimbabwe. If they tried to make the class meetings part of the church– like Sunday School classes– they didn’t produce fruit. But when they moved them out to people’s home– they multiplied. And so did growth– both of those who were in the groups AND of the NUMBER of people and groups and in the congregations.

        It’s no accident that while the church in the US has been declining numerically AND spiritually (cf. the Pew report, and the upcoming FACT report from Hartford), the UM Church in Africa has grown 200%– and more. It’s not just a difference in cultural context. It really is a difference in doctrine, discipline and spirit– just as Mr Wesley long ago said.

      • Across the southern United States, the first “church building” generally wasn’t a sanctuary but a room large enough to accomodate groups with famililes. Huge numbers of children made “in home” gathering groups difficult in the U.S., so it was believed that — to include the spiritual edification and education of children — it would be easier to travel to church for such formation and accountability. From that time forward (early 1800s) classes, bands, and societies suffered a blow they never recovered from. My recent post asking what would happen if all our church buildings disappeared raises the implicit question: If we didn’t have a church to go to, would be find ways to make church in our homes and social spaces? It is much harder to compartmentalize our faith when its formation occurs in the home and not just in a detached church building.

      • Always both-and, Dan.

        It is far from clear to me that structural limitations alone were significant in the shift you describe. Everyone lived in closer quarters back then– and still today in Africa where this appears not to be a problem at all.

        David Lowes Watson talks about JW’s expectations of what “visiting from house to house” meant– and still means in Africa. (You can see this in his journals, too). The society leader (later, over here, elder) enters the house, interviews the parents about what they heard in worship BOTH at the Society meeting AND whatever congregation they attended, asks how they are attending upon all the ordinances of God (searching the scripture, prayer public and private), and then asks to interview the children separately to discern what (and whether!) they are being so taught.

        That was Methodist discipline.

        That discipline was given up once it was thought– counter to the Wesley’s own witness and description of the utter failures of the early societies– that you could do all of this just as well in one larger group (including children) than you could in small groups AND house visits AND society meetings AND participation in the worship and fellowship/ministry of a local congregation AND actually doing whatever you could to live out the General Rules yourself.

        Behind the loss of discipline lies also a loss of key doctrine– sanctification as the call of every Christian, and the practical reality that that takes substantial intentional effort on our part so that our life is ordered in ways compatible with God’s sanctifying grace.

        And behind that, I think, a loss of spirit. Shifting from a dual-track approach of high-expectation societies PLUS whatever was part of “normal” congregational life to a single track that was essentially congregational in spirit (open to all, reduction in expectations, etc) WAS a significant loss of spirit– it was giving up the energy it takes to sustain both, and settling into what seemed easier (though lesser) instead of what was known to be more demanding but also more effective.

        I pray our African sisters and brothers who continue with a form of doctrine, discipline and spirit more like that with which we started out may not flag in any of those things. And I pray that we may discover, again, the real possibilities of the fullness of life in God by living into all three.

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