Often we believe that if we do more of what does not work, it will finally work.  This is the dilemma of the consumer economy.  It leads us to the place where, when we reach a limit and still are unsatisfied, we think, if we only had more, we would be successful or satisfied.  More police, more physicians, more services, more teachers, more stuff.  This is not a solution.  It is an addiction.

This is a quote from Peter Block and John McKnight’s, The Abundant Community, and it is an incisive analysis of the current state of much thinking in The United Methodist Church.  I was talking with a pastor the other day who was beaming in response to an upward trend in his congregation’s worship attendance.

“We’re up over 20% from last year — first growth in over seven years!  We even have some of the people coming to other programs, and our giving is up!  It’s nice to be pastoring a healthy church for a change!”

“How is it healthier?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” he replied.

“Well, you described how your church is bigger, but then you said it was healthy, too.” I explained.

“But, that is healthier.  More is better.” he responded.

“I’m not sure I follow your logic,” I said.  “More is more and better is better and they aren’t automatically the same.  I’m overweight — in this case more isn’t better or healthier.”

“Oh, it’s not the same thing.  Having more people and more money in church are both good things.  They measure health.” he patiently explained.

“If size, activity and budget are the reasons for the church to exist, you are correct.  However, if maturing in discipleship, service to others, and proclamation to the world (the old, preach, teach, and heal model) then you would want different metrics.” I countered.

“Well, I still maintain that going from 90 to 110 on average each week is a good thing.”

“How did you do it?” I asked.

“We started a second service with praise music and videos, real upbeat and energetic.  We don’t do it in the sanctuary, it’s very informal — people bring coffee and kids sit on the floor and color.  People enjoy it because it doesn’t feel like church.” he explained.

The conversation set my mind to working on a thought exercise: what if we removed numeric growth from our equation?  What if we declared a one-year moratorium on “more” and simply asked, “If our church was defined by the present number of people involved, how would it impact our planning?”  Here are some of the thoughts that came to mind:

  • in the absence of planning how to get more people to come to us, we would need to plan how to go out to serve others — with no ulterior motive of getting them to come serve us
  • improvement and development of the existing individuals and community of faith would displace efforts to attract newcomers (which might ultimately prove attractive to outsiders…)
  • allocation of resources would shift — people would invest in what is rather than what might be
  • with quantity off the table, all that’s left to focus on is quality
  • evangelism would return to making disciples instead of inviting people to church
  • stewardship would focus on what we have instead of compensating for what we lack
  • education and spiritual formation would meet people at their various levels of maturing instead of always being designed for visitors and newcomers
  • worship could be about God again instead of being reduced to a tool for evangelism and church growth
  • faith sharing would mean more than an “each one bring one” membership drive
  • our self-esteem would rise once the burden of “not growing” was lifted from our shoulders
  • denominational leaders, websites, publications, and conferences would have to find something else to talk about — like, maybe, the spiritual revival and renewal of church for the transformation of the world (cool)

Ah, but institutional preservation is too important to us.  Survival trumps service every time.  If we don’t get more, and get it soon, we may not be around much longer to engage in these silly thought exercises.  So, instead, let’s declare a moratorium on thinking and get back to “growing the church.”  If we can just a get a few more people in worship each week, I’m sure everything will be just fine.

29 replies

  1. I am glad to see this kind of energy and conversation around church growth and development. I have been trying to articulate this to our church leadership as well. I look forward to learning more.

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