When I was appointed to Northtown UMC, the average worship attendance was 150. Four years later it was 200. When my family arrived, our two kids doubled the size of the Children’s Ministry. When we left, there were 25 kids involved regularly. We added staff, we started a student intern program, we reorganized the ministry structure of the congregation.
I get church growth, and I get that there are a lot of ways to make it happen. A lot of people are hopeful that we can figure out a way to make it happen here at Campbell UMC.
However, I do not get church growth when the only motivation seems to be “…because we are not growing.”
A couple of posts ago, I wrote about my disappointment with this year’s Annual Conference session, and couple of people I really respect a lot disagreed with me – one in a blog comment and one via an email conversation. It took me a while to understand why they were disagreeing, because it seemed to me like they were disagreeing with a point that I had not intended to make. It was as if I had written, “Church growth is not important.” At least, that is how it seemed from their responses. I do not believe that church growth is not important, and I honestly did not mean to imply anything like that.
Here’s an implication I intended: Church growth strategies, when presented as overly simplistic tasks that lack deep theological grounding and are motivated by fear and anxiety, are insufficient to sustain congregations in their ministries. That is a point that I intended to make, and I’ll stand by that one.
Here’s how growth happened in North Kansas City. First, it was never my deal alone, it was always a communal effort. Second, we never called it a “church growth” program, we just had a congregational vision and everyone worked their tails off to make that vision real. And third, we thought a lot about creating structures and processes more suited to a bigger church with the goal of growing into those structures and processes over time.
Essentially, we just tried to be the church, knowing that the presence of the living Christ was with us every time we gathered together. We invited people with warmth, friendship, and hospitality. We worshiped with energy and passion. We studied together with honesty, relevance, and intentionality. We served our community and our world with boldness and restlessness for God’s justice. And we gave of ourselves with extravagance, bringing every portion of our lives to Christ – time, talent, money, service, prayers, presence … everything!
And here’s the thing. If a congregation does that stuff, it will grow. If a congregation does that stuff well, growth is assumed because it is a natural consequence, and there is no need to belabor it. Dead horses can only take so much kicking.
I guess what I’m really saying is that Church is more than a set of simplified tasks, more than getting increasing numbers of people in the doors, and the guiding principle for the church cannot be anxiety about decline. Think about it, trying to raise money by saying, “Hey, send us money because we don’t have any” is probably not going to work so well. Or, trying to get young adults involved with the church by saying, “Hey young adults, come to our church because we don’t have any young adults” – well that just doesn’t make any sense.
And likewise, discipling one another for Jesus Christ by saying, “I’d like to invite you to come to church because our numbers just keep going down and if this trend continues we’re probably going to die” is more than likely not going to work so well.
Rather, let’s pray sincerely, think deeply, and work hard to be Christ’s church, in all its complexity, beauty, and messiness. Let’s be church with such excellence that growth is a natural consequence, not the only thing we ever talk about.
Citational addendum entered at 5:00 p.m.:
"Change for the sake of change or to preserve the institution is not sufficient."
- Bishop Robert Schnase, 5 Practices