In the wake of increasingly ominous data about fledgling church attendance, most church members and ministers (myself included) want to see the church grow instead of decline. There are church growth handbooks, church growth conferences, and even church growth consultants. While I was sitting down with a group of colleagues discussing the questions of church “growth,” an uncomfortable question came to mind: what do we actually mean when we say we want our churches to grow?
Unfortunately, I often fear we do not actually want our churches to grow. Instead, we want a return to a bygone age where church-going was a social expectation, everyone was there whenever the doors were open, and our faith was normative, assumed and usual. We often want a return to that seemingly easier world. But if that is what we mean by church growth, we are sorely misled. Consider a few ways in which our assumptions inhibit our ministry.
Repopulation vs. reaching out
Almost all churches say that they want to “reach the young people.” However, many of my colleagues (and some of the people in their pews) are increasingly worried that by “young people,” churches mean young married couples with kids or who plan on having kids. Whether we intend it or not, we might be more interested in growth by repopulation than genuinely reaching out to our communities. The line of thinking goes: if we could just get young families to come, they will have kids and the church growth problem will solve itself. This mindset devalues the people in our communities who don’t have or can’t have children — or who may not be led to child-rearing, marriage, or any long-term relationship. But God cares about them, too.
A church that wants to grow needs to work to understand the wide and varied situations of people in its community. Babies aren’t the cure-all for church growth, but ministering to, including and loving all the kinds of folks that babies grow up to be — that could be.
Depth vs. attendance
Whether we mean to or not, we often get jealous of the megachurch down the road. Drawing thousands to worship every Sunday and exploding to multiple campuses intimidates most of us who do not lead or attend such large congregations. In our weaker moments, we might start to think that the megachurch is successful and our smaller, local church is a failure (I see you, Andy Stanley).
We have to come to terms with the fact that megachurches are very successful at accomplishing their goal (whatever that goal might be), but we have to wonder if we have the same goal. The average church can fall into the trap of trying to expand its existing ministry to simply include more people instead of wondering if effectiveness can be measured any other way. Is providing deep spiritual engagement in a tight-knit community an appropriate goal for a congregation? If you think so, church growth might look like something other than skyrocketing attendance. A more serious Bible study group, a deeper relationship with the community, and a more significant commitment to justice might just be better indicators of church growth.
More vs. more of the same
One of the worst traps a church can fall into when thinking about the possibility of growth is not just understanding growth as getting more people to church. No, the worse error is growth defined as getting more people to church who are just like the people who are already there. Our hospitality, no matter how virtuous we think we are, always has limits. Somehow, we always fail to include everyone God loves. And whenever we fail to include people based on race, class, gender, sexuality or whatever else you can imagine, we fail to include people God loves.
When our understanding of the future of our churches only includes people just like those already inside, whether we realize that or not, we will never grow in any sense of the word. Our churches need to recognize the limits of our own hospitality and ask whether God established such boundaries. We have to ask if we are willing to follow God wherever God leads, or if we just want to see more of ourselves.
Maybe we used to live in a world where our churches were normative, assumed and usual. The future church, though, just might look a little more strange, unassuming and unusual than it did before. But in doing so, it might start to look a little more like God had something to do with it.