Monday, July 07, 2008

Assuming Church Growth

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


John Schmalzbauer said...

Amen! The church-growth-for-church-growth's-sake model isn't very exciting. Letting the church be the church can be very exciting.

Josh said...

I was initially excited and energized by annual conference. I guess I felt like the general theme was "we need to do something new." I filled in the obvious "because." That being ... because who we are and what we believe is important and life changing.

As I sit two weeks into a new appointment -- which is going as well as I ever could have hoped two weeks in -- my attitudes have changed a little bit.

I feel phenomenal pressure from myself, the congregation, the denomination to do something radical and groundbreaking that will turn this congregation into the next greatest thing.

I'm not buying that pressure even if it keeps pushing down on me.

I can see there is a lot of work to be done in this congregation and others. If I couldn't see it, I'd know it because conference leaders have told me (which isn't a bad thing depending on how the "because" is answered).

I am with you: we ought to do ministry because it is who we are and not because we're afraid we may cease to exist.

May our churches grow because our hearts and growing in love of Christ.


Brad said...

Good stuff, brother. Look for my Annual Conference blog this week and maybe give me a shout out on your blog, since most people find me through you! I've reflected for a month now and I think i'm ready to add my two cents to this year's AC review.

Also, looking forward to seeing you Friday.

Younger, stronger, better looking.

Anonymous said...

No, growth for the sake of growing is never sustainable, but I think our good Bishop's point that growth is a measure of vital, grounded communities who look beyond themselves is often missed or ignored. -Mitch

Andy B. said...

Mitch, I agree with you. And I wish we would emphasize and celebrate the "vital, grounded communities who look beyond themselves" more than the resultant growth.

Anonymous said...

The 5th paragraph is exactly what I believe and could never put into words so well. Hang in there, son. You and others like you are needed so badly by the UMC. cb

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Andy, for asking good questions, and calling all of us to think more deeply about what we do - even for those of us learning about retirement!
Nancye D.

Patrick Moore said...

I would love to see conversation around sociological and economic factors around church attedance numbers increasing (church growth). For instance, we might not like this truth, but in Missouri the top 20 churches that are growing in worship attedance also are in communities that are growing in population of whites and have a growing economy. Why do these two factors play such a vital role? Do we care?

Danny Boy said...

I like Mitch's comment. That pretty much sums it up.

I remember you talking to me about this after the conference and thinking to myself that this was typical management pushing. "Work harder -or else." From a business perspective its easy to say that a statement like that doesn't work. In almost every business issue if you want to achieve a goal, then you usually have to get there by accident.

Let me explain what I mean by that last sentence. If you own a bar and you want to sell more drinks, then the you may think that the obvious goal is to get more people in the door. Well, you can't say bring a friend, but you can start serving cheap drinks for "Lady's Night". The result is not only more women, but more men.

That example is a little out of touch for a church setting, but has anyone every tried cheap drinks and lady's night for Saturday worship??? Might work...

~Danny 8-)

Julie said...

Thanks Andy for speaking the truth in love!

John Schmalzbauer said...

I agree with this: "I think our good Bishop's point that growth is a measure of vital, grounded communities who look beyond themselves is often missed or ignored."

Letting the church be the church should imply a missional orientation. We can't just sit on our duffs and keep the same old programs running. There has to be a hunger to engage the outside world and American culture.

Anonymous said...

Andy, I agree wholeheartedly with you (there's the ego stroking that you asked for). I do think that church growth is simply a by-product, if you will, of being authentic to our own uniqueness as disciples of Jesus. We (the church) should be stretching oursleves to do different things not because we need to lower the average age of the church or need to fill the pews, but because we realize that different people experience God differently - thus driving us to do different things so that God's love might be better experienced in the world.

Blessings on you and the fam in Springfield.


Anonymous said...

I think you are right it begins with prayer. Your point is very well thought out. The question is what is more important spiritual growth, or attedance growth? Patrick Moore makes a good point also, and asks some very pointed questions!!

Greg Hazelrig said...

Thank you. I think I heard something I needed to hear from God today through reading this post. Have a blessed day.

RebeccaL said...

Growth should always be looked at as a bi-product rather than the goal. Sometimes it is easier to explain that in another context. For example, who would want to go to a brain surgeon whose primary goal was to grow her/his practice? Not me! I want one whose passion is in healing patients.

As soon as the emphasis is placed on growth (bottom-line) then passion, authenticity, quality of service, creativity, and many other attributes are sacrificed. When we are doing the right things (which is not always so clear), and the team is working convergently, growth is a natural outcome.

When we operate from a fearful perspective, we cannot acheive all that God put us here to do.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it!


Dave in NKC said...

Hey Andy! Just cathcing up with you during some down time at SOLM. After our early June Council retreat at Northtown UMC, I went back and reread 'Direct Hit'. (I forget the audthors name at the moment) He has some not so subtle ideas about the church focusing outward. Not to stimulate growth, but because that is what we are supposed to do! It is really starting to sink in with me that we need to focus on the peple and the outreach. I agree with all of your examples about how NOT to go about growing. You know what happens when you get the flyswatter out? All of the flies suddenly disappear. My silly illustration that strongarm tactics don't work either. Glad to read all is well with you in sunny, southern Springfield!