Every once in a while reading produces a pleasant surprise. I had one of those moments on the next to last page of a book written by two sociologists – Sam Reimer of Crandall University in New Brunswick and Michael Wilkinson of Trinity Western University in British Columbia.
Their book is excellent. For anyone wanting a large-picture description of the evangelical church in Canada, A Culture of Faith: Evangelical Congregations in Canada will provide it. Although by their own admission (p. 208) the book is written largely by academics for academics, it is a good read for anyone interested in the Canadian church today.
The book is filled with tables and numbers about almost every aspect of church life. I realize that not everyone loves those numbers as much as I do but for those of you who get turned off by those academic aspects, there is lots of worthwhile material in the text of the book.
At the very end of the book the authors add what they call a “Practitioner Postscript.” (pp. 208-210) In these couple of pages they give a caution that I think every church leader needs to take seriously.
In their own words:
“Unfortunately, we wonder if we are unintentionally feeding a tendency within evangelicalism that encourages practitioners to prioritize questions like: ‘What can I do to grow my church?’ This is not necessarily a bad question; it just may not be the most important question.” (p. 209)
When I read those words, I felt like jumping out of my seat because they summed up in a couple of sentences the mistake that church leaders have been making for the past half century.
Frankly, I wasn’t expecting those comments from a couple of sociologists who were writing from an academic perspective.
The entire book is a good read but the last couple of pages, in my opinion, are priceless.
For the past fifty years or more there has been a debate between those who have taken a very pragmatic view of church life and have argued that the key question that needs to be asked by church leaders is the question: “What can I do to grow my church?”
For these people numerical growth is the ultimate sign of success in church life. In their thinking the small church has failed because it is small. If it were doing the right things, then it would grow.
On the other hand there have been those who have taken a more theological view and have argued that that is the wrong question to be asking. They have argued that to focus solely on numerical growth is contrary to the true nature of the church. They would suggest that the introduction of sociology, business practices, and leadership principles into the church is likely to lead in directions that the church shouldn’t go.
There are problems with both perspectives.
On the one hand there are real dangers if a church makes numerical growth it’s primary measure of success. There is a danger of introducing practices that are contrary to the biblical view of the church. There is the very real danger of becoming more concerned about growing the church numerically rather than growing the individual members of the church spiritually.
It is quite possible for a church to grow numerically without being a healthy church.
On the other hand there are small churches that have not seen anyone come to faith in Jesus for years and they are satisfied to remain that way. We are called to make disciples and an essential part of that process is to bring people to faith in Christ.
First things first
I agree with Reimer and Wilkinson that the question “What can I do to grow my church?” is not a bad question but it is not the most important question that needs to be asked.
The most important question for churches to ask is “What can I do to grow our people?”
The church is called to make disciples and that involves the total process of bringing people from a place at which they are not Christians to a place at which they are mature followers of Jesus Christ.
This process involves turning people into four-directional Christians who are growing upward (their walk with God), inward (becoming like Christ), aroundward (their involvement in each other’s lives) and outward (their reaching out into the community around them).
The church’s challenge is to produce people who are growing in each of these directions. If our churches are filled with passionate four-directional followers of Jesus Christ, I believe that the issue of numerical growth will take care of itself.
When we ask the question”What can I do to grow my church?” instead of “What can I do to grow my people?”, we are in danger of short changing the process.
As Reimer and Wilkinson remind us, “What can I do to grow my church?” is not a bad question to ask but it is not the first question that a church needs to consider.
A matter of trust
Leadership in a church is a matter of stewardship which in turn is a matter of trust.
God has entrusted to the leaders the care over a group of people who attend their church. The challenge given to those leaders is to turn those people entrusted to them into passionate followers of Jesus. This trust is the same whether the church has fifty or fifteen hundred people attending.
It is possible to grow a church numerically without ever fulfilling this trust. It is equally possible for a church to remain small without ever fulfilling the trust.
Numerical size is not the issue and for that reason the question “What can I do to grow my church?” is not the primary question.
It isn’t a bad question it just isn’t the most important question concerning the church.
Every church whatever its size must made the decision whether it is going to focus on numerical growth or on spiritual growth. They must decide whether they are going to focus on filling pews or growing disciples. Unfortunately churches of every size have too often chosen to focus on filling pews. The result has been churches filled with half-hearted followers who too often are more me focused than Christ focused.