Whether it is gaining members or retaining members, concern over church growth consumes the thoughts of church people, clergy and lay members alike.
Consider the metrics. With the possible exception of “tithes and offerings,” nothing is followed more meticulously than weekly attendance and membership. And nothing can create more angst than when a downturn develops.
What we should be asking
At a church conference I recently attended, a table topic was “How to Grow Church Membership.” During the discussion, one person asked how their church could break the “sieve syndrome” (as when new members entering are offset by those exiting). Another asked how they could tailor their service to “please” both young and old. (Yes, she said “please.”) Others expressed the desire to attract more young people and families.
Before I go further, let me say that there is nothing wrong with wanting one’s church to grow. A community of faith where the gospel is taught and discipleship pursued is essential for our development as children of God and co-laborers in his global renewal project. The desire for people to be drawn into that life is both noble and godly.
That said, the question churches should be asking is not “How do we grow our church?” but “How do we grow His kingdom?” Sadly, those interests are often kingdoms apart. Let me explain.
Growing the church
All too frequently, the desire to grow our church is really a desire for a building, property, facilities, or programs that have a questionable relationship to kingdom goals (youth night with pizza, Coke, and rock music comes to mind). Sometimes it’s the desire to be relieved from the personal responsibility of ministry by hiring professional staff—a full-time pastor, assistant pastor, youth minister, worship leader, and so on. All of which require the increased revenues of a growing church.
In an “evangelism” committee meeting I attended as a new member of a former church, there was lively discussion over what informational materials visitors should be given. Ten minutes in, I suggested that the issue seemed more appropriate for a hospitality committee (not realizing that, in effect, this was the hospitality committee).
When I asked what they were doing to reach out to the community, the chairman replied, “Well, that’ll have to wait until we can get someone on staff.” Heads around the table nodded, and the chairman continued, “Now, about these welcome kits . . .”
Four years later, membership had dropped by 30 percent.
Sowing the church
Another aspect of church growth is church planting. Many denominations and churches have bold and aggressive goals to start new congregations in “underserved” areas.
Again, it’s not that there is anything wrong with church planting. Were it not for the sowing efforts of the Apostles, Christianity would not have outgrown every other belief system, nor become the soil from which the best of Western civilization sprang up and blossomed.
However, with more churches in the U.S. than convenience stores, gas stations, and motels combined, the problem in America is not that we have too few churches, even though some denominations feel underrepresented; it’s not even that we have too few Christians. Our problem is that we have too few disciples.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans self-identify as Christian, only 3 percent, according to the Barna Group, “have surrendered control of their life to God, submitted to His will for their life, and devoted themselves to loving and serving God and other people.” It is a consequence of failing to keep first things first.
As much as we might think otherwise, the “first thing” is not the church, measured by filled pews, membership roles, daughter congregations, and budgets; it is the kingdom, measured by disciples.
In the context of the Great Commission, “disciples” are more than people following Jesus in a life-long process of spiritual formation; they include “nations” that are being redeemed through their cultural, social, and institutional artifacts by the influence of the church.
The fact that the church is losing its moral influence on an increasingly secularized culture is the direct result of neglecting Jesus’s ultimate success principle: “Seek first His kingdom . . . and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Two thousand years later, C.S. Lewis phrased it this way, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in.” He went on to warn, “Put second things first and we lose both first and second things.” It’s a warning that we, like the Lord’s disciples, have been slow to heed.
Kingdom first: then
Despite all the teaching the disciples had received on the kingdom and the “ultimate success principle,” their concern was about “their” kingdom. Time and again, they angled for the head of the table, lobbied for a right-hand seat, schmoozed for promotion. And they were thorough failures.
Not only did they prove unable to exorcise a demon, stay awake and pray with their Lord, and remain loyal to Him to the cross, they were feckless disciple-makers. For all the thousands of people that had been drawn to Jesus during His life, at the time of His death, scarcely one hundred could be counted His disciples—and most of those, no doubt, because of His irresistible influence, rather than the wavering witness of his inner circle.
All that changed after Pentecost. Men who for three years had been pressing for power, position, and prestige, put all that aside to become weak, homeless, and disenfranchised for the sake of the kingdom. It was a change that led to breathtaking growth: By the close of the third century, the number of Christians multiplied over 50,000-fold, from 120 to 6 million.
For men whose lives had been centered on personal advancement, it was a striking turnaround, as it could be today for churches focused on gaining a share in the spiritual marketplace.
Kingdom first: today
When church growth is motivated by what we want rather than by what the kingdom needs, it becomes an idol. When it is the result of “seeking the kingdom,” it is a faithful pursuit that can have some surprises.
For instance, we may find that the kingdom doesn’t need us to bring people in with seeker-friendly services, celebrity speakers, and baristas. Unless it is part of an integral discipleship process, any crowd-drawing novelty will only lead to more of the same: spiritually unformed believers whose witness is ineffective or worse to kingdom ends.
Instead, the greater need may be to rattle the dry bones in the pews, breathe life into them, equip them, empower them, encourage them, and send them out, before we even think about bringing new people in.
We may also learn that the kingdom doesn’t need real estate, a church building, a youth center, professional staff, state-of-the art sound systems, or a “multimedia” worship experience. It didn’t in the early era. Instead, the greater need may be the care of the homeless, widowed, orphaned, imprisoned, underemployed, and other disadvantaged groups through the establishment of new, or support of existing, faith-based ministries, perhaps, in partnership with other churches.
From decline to growth
Devoting our time, treasure, and talents to the kingdom outside our walls could mean sacrificing the growth of the kingdom inside . . . to the point of accepting that ours could be a one-generation church. The thought alone is enough to bring on the vapors among church leadership. Yet that was God’s vision for some congregations in the early church.
During the plagues of the second and third centuries, while pagan leaders, priests, and doctors fled the cities in panic, Christians stayed behind, tending the sick and burying the dead.
Although many Christians died in the process, their sacrificial care led to higher survival rates in the communities they served, and to increased immunity in their own communities against future outbreaks. It also put pagans in close contact with Christians whose lives became a powerful witness to the caring God they served.
While the immediate effect was the decline of some churches and the demise of others, the long-term result was explosive church growth that produced two billion followers and counting. Putting first things first, churches died and in dying produced a dramatic—indeed, world-changing—validation of Jesus’s ultimate success principle. Are we up to the same task? Time will tell.
Image courtesy of Western Seminary.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.