The other day, I wrote about whether or not churches should expect to grow and if so whether pastors and elders are responsible for that growth. My view is that, Biblically we expect God’s kingdom to grow. That’s not the same as saying that every individual church will be growing all the time but it does mean that generally speaking, over time we can expect some form of healthy growth.
This does not mean that the specific church will be large, in fact there are good reasons for a church to stay intentionally small and some choose that option preferring to rapidly multiply. However over time you would hope to hear that there have been conversions, baptisms and people sent out either as missionaries, pastors or as parts of church planting teams. There may be other external factors if those things are not happening but we shouldn’t just ignore a complete absence of them without asking why.
In the last article, I argued that the pastor’s role in this is similar to the farmer cultivating and in line with the creation mandate of both filling and subduing, tending and guarding. He is to seek to work so that the right kind of growth is happening at the right time, in the right way and the right place.
I cannot make a tree in my garden grow, that’s never down to me and in any case, it may have reached its full mature height. However, I can proactively do things to remove barriers to it growing. I can make sure the soil it is in is fertilised, that it is watered and that it’s not being kept bonsai style in a little pot preventing its roots from going down deep. The elders of a church cannot engineer growth, cannot make it happen. It’s the Lord who gives the increase. However, they can look out for possible constraints on growth.
Here are some of the examples I’ve seen where church leaders could take practical action.
Expectations and posture
First of all, we should be alert to the culture and expectations of a church. If some people have become obsessed with making growth happen, there are others who have gone in the opposite direction, learning to view growth as a bad thing. The church is comfortable at a certain size, people know one another well, they worry about the cost to them personally in terms of that comfort should the church grow larger. They operate a one in, one out policy. They argue that even should growth be desirable, it is unlikely and nigh on impossible because the community around them is hostile to the Gospel. So, they give up on trying to reach the community.
So, the first challenge is “does the church want and expect to see growth.” In terms of want/desire, teaching needs to focus on why people need to hear the Gospel. The church family need to be reminded again that there’s a lost world out there. If we operate a “one in, one out” policy then most people are unlikely to have the opportunity to hear about Jesus. The emphasis is on kingdom growth and so there are options. It may be that the church itself can and should remain at a similar size, growth may be through church planting.
In terms of expectations, the best way to work on those is to encourage people to start giving evangelism a go. What I’ve found so often is that it isn’t that people and communities are closed to the Gospel. Rather, the church has closed its doors to them.
Posture can also include the mission, vision, purpose of the church. Some churches are in effect set up to welcome new people be transfer. They expect existing Christians to join them from other churches. I know of one church that said its mission was to offer repair and rehabilitation to damaged Christians from elsewhere. Posture may need to be re-orientated towards seeking to reach the lost.
I have learnt that it’s easy to create a feeling of success. Just build your church buildings small enough for them to feel full quickly. At Bearwood, we had a building that comfortably held about 70-80 and at a squeeze would fit 100-110. So, historically, the congregation size had settled at around 70-80. The general rule of thumb is that the true capacity of a room is about 80% of the seating set out because people tend to look around to see if there are spare seats. They are less likely to return if its crowded and difficult to find somewhere to sit. So typically, a church with 200 seats will plateau at an average attendance of 160 because on one Sunday they might hit 200 but because people found it hard to get a seat, they might not return for the next few weeks and so attendance drops to about 140-150.
Now if you are hitting capacity, you have one or two options. The first is that you can create more meeting space by buying or renting a larger premises or by starting a building project. The other approach is to accept the physical constrains will limit your size and focus instead on multiplying. At Bearwood we did this initially by added congregations within our existing building but this can also be the catalyst for church planting.
Leadership and staffing
There’s little point gathering a large crowd on a Sunday if they are not being consistently discipled and cared for pastorally. So, another constraint you might want to look at is whether you have enough leaders including volunteer elders, deacons and other leaders as well as paid staff. The general rule of thumb seems to be that you are looking at about one leader for every ten members and that a church of around 150 is going to be looking at adding a second staff member.
People need different ways to connect for encouragement, partnership in outreach, prayer, feeding on God’s Word and to grow their own gifts. Like many others, I’ve found that small groups such as home/community/life groups play a helpful part in this. It’s harder to join a church where there is essentially just one group because that group becomes tight knit. So multiplying small groups enables people to join in. At Bearwood, we went over time from just having two functioning home groups to about 8 different small groups.
Are you visibly present in a community? At Bearwood we had an obvious issue, the building was tucked away down a drive behind other buildings and so we undertook a project to purchase and renovate the building at the top of the drive to give us a high street presence.
Visibility though includes things like:
- Do you have a functioning notice board that tells people what is happening?
- Is the building physically welcoming? Are there any barriers to people coming in?
- Do you have a good quality online presence through a website and social media (Facebook at Instagram are probably more important than twitter).
- Are you doing things that engage the community around you from door to door and street evangelism through to special events.
Healthy growth is dependent on having a healthy church. A healthy church will not always grow but an unhealthy one definitely will not see true, healthy gospel growth over the long term. So, it’s important to check on the culture of the church. This may include being aware of its longer term history and reputation. Have there been past divisions, splits, scandals? People may not be happy to join a church with such a reputation because it won’t feel safe.
What’s the church culture like now? Are people loving, welcoming, gospel saturated? Or is there gossiping, back-biting and cliques? If the latter, then once again people will be reluctant to join. But also, your time and energy will be given over to fire fighting and to the little soap operas and melodramas of church life.
Such a church needs repentance and it needs to be re-orientated away from its Soap operas to the greater drama of the Gospel. For that reason, I don’t agree with those who see it as an either-or choice between the internal discipleship of the church and the external focus of evangelism and growth. When we become aware of the need around us it demands that we focus on our own spiritual heath.
It is God who gives the increase, but those who work in the church are responsible for planting, watering and cultivating. We cannot engineer or guarantee local church growth but we can work to remove obstacles and constraints to kingdom growth.