Should Every Church Grow?

I was edified but also annoyed by this list of 8 Reasons Most Churches Never Break the 200 Attendance Mark. All of the reasons the author gives are correct, and any church that discerns a call to grow should think over them very carefully. The basic thesis is that even when they are doing everything else right (he names prayer and love in particular, and asks us to “assume you have a solid mission, theology and heart to reach people”), most small churches are organized like small organizations, and usually grow to about 200, then lose people (and perhaps repeat the process indefinitely). If we want to reach more people, we need to change from being organized like a mom and pop store to being organized like a supermarket. This means moving a way from a pastor-centered model of ministry to one where lay people are empowered to lead and care for each other. I suspect that this is a practice that most congregations should cultivate, even those that do not discern a call to grow past 200 attendees.

And yet, something doesn’t sit well with me. It occurred to me that even as I am seeking to develop that skill set for managing a medium or large organization, I try to buy as much of my food as possible from farmers markets and local groceries, which are often more specialized. And I can only wish damnation on any economic trend or ideology that leads to the elimination of local bakers! This may be sentimentality on my part, or it may be my German wife slowly getting to me, but in the move from small-scale artisans to mass-production, something important is lost.

In this case, I probably agree with all eight things that most congregations should change, but the rationale given drives me up a wall. If you read the first few paragraphs, you’ll see that it’s completely inconsistent. “There’s nothing wrong with being a small church,” we are told in boldface. But every pastor really yearns for the church to become bigger, the next sentence tells us. And if we weren’t doing something terribly wrong, we would become bigger. Pushed on this point in the comments (and this is one of the rare occasions when I recommending reading the first thread), the author says that health equals some kind of growth. That’s one of those platitudes that seems intuitively true at first glance, but doesn’t really hold up to interrogation.

Growth doesn’t always mean numerical growth. Growth in holiness is not really quantifiable, and for most of Christian history, the monastery was considered the optimal place to pursue it. And even if we are talking about reaching more people for Christ, that is not the same thing as people coming to my church. Growth for growth’s sake is the way of capitalism and cancer, not of Christ, who lived and died in obscurity. I’ve heard several pastors say “God has sent you to be faithful, not successful” (all of them African American, and I wonder what that means).

Leave it to me to grant all the actionable points, but see heresy and capitalism lurking in all the whereas clauses. All well and good in practice, but how’s it work in theory? But I do advertise curmudgeonliness.

How about this though? Quite often, it seems like pastors struggle with the fact that their congregations just don’t have a vision for growth that entails significant changes to the way they have always related to one another, their pastors, and the world. And yes, those congregations will probably dwindle and die. But might it sometimes be that they don’t have this vision because God hasn’t given it to them? I know that when it became clear that the Shakers were going to die out, they mostly accepted it. Their purpose was not endless self-perpetuation, but to do the will of God. The moment for which God raised them was passing (like moments do). This may also be true for many congregations, or even denominations. It does not mean that they are failing. They have done what God called them to do, and now God will raise up others.

So in addition to learning a new set of leadership skills for a new time, we also need to learn something very old. We need to learn how to discern the mind of Christ. When has God not given us a vision for change, and when are we just being lazy? Neither is ever a foregone conclusion. And the question cannot be answered by the pastor alone. If I read 1 Corinthians 2:16 correctly, the mind of Christ is the corporate possession of the church, not of individual Christians. So I guess that, at long last, here’s what I’m getting at: let’s re-frame what we’re talking about here. It’s not a question of whether management theory can help the church. As painful an admission as this is for me, I think it’s pretty obvious that it can. But whatever our leadership style is, it needs to come out of our discernment practices. How do we discern the mind of Christ together?

They didn’t do a very good job of teaching me how to lead an organization in divinity school. I am now seeking to remedy this deficiency, and so are they. But they also didn’t teach me how to lead a people in prayerful discernment. That, I think, is the more critical omission. I wish we could just assume that every church has a solid mission, theology, and a heart to reach people, and that all churches and pastors were faithful in prayer. But somehow, I suspect that’s the exception rather than the rule. So yes, talk about leadership strategy. But I don’t want to hear it unless you’re also talking about prayer.


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