Church Growth and Looking to the Future

As at Jesmond Parish Church we look to the future, it is good to remind ourselves of two things: one, our founders’ purpose, and, two, our mission statement. Our purpose was “to be a central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound scriptural and evangelical truth.” Our mission is “Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain”.

In the January Coloured Supplement I wrote about the Biblical Identity required by our Anglican constitution which our foundation endorses. In my Anniversary Sermon (13 Jan 2013) I spoke about Godly Living. We now need to consider Church Growth. (I hope to write about Changing Britain in March).

Theology

Church Growth can be analysed sociologically, historically and theologically.
I shall start with theology and the basic fact that all genuine church growth is God’s growth and work. Nevertheless the mystery of Divine Sovereignty does not excuse Christian believers from initiative and action.

The Psalmist says: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain” (Ps127.1). The divine master builder does not expect the labourers to take a holiday! Rather, when God is building, they should work to his plan and with his guidance and wisdom. And part of that wisdom, according to J.I.Packer in his little book, God In Our Midst – seeking and receiving on going revival, is the removal of barriers, with one of the chief spiritual barriers being complacency. He writes:

“The first step, perhaps, to the renewal of the Christian people is that leaders should begin to repent of their too-ready acceptance of too-low levels of attainment both in themselves and in those whom they lead, and should learn to pray from their hearts the simple sounding but totally demanding prayer in Edwin Orr's chorus: ‘send a revival - start the work in me.’

The second step, perhaps, is for leaders to challenge their followers as to whether they are not too much like the Laodiceans of Revelation, and whether Jesus' searing words to these latter, ‘you are lukewarm … you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing,” but knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked … Be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock …’ - do not apply directly to themselves, here and now.

The third step, perhaps, is for us all, leaders and led together, to become more serious, expectant, and honest with each other as we look to God in our use of the means of grace - sermon and sacrament, worship and witness, praise and prayer, meditation and petition - and as we seek to make our own the Psalmist’s plea: ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!’ (Psalm 139.23-24).

Then the fourth step, perhaps, will be to trust the Holy Spirit to lead us on from there.”

Sociology

Church growth in history is also important, as well as its theology (for some lessons from church growth in the 7th and late 18th centuries, see my chapter The Pastor and Church Growth in The Renewed Pastor, writings in honour of Philip Hacking, ed. Melvin Tinker, 2012). However, I now want to focus on what we can learn from a more sociological analysis of church growth.

The sociology of church growth takes seriously the words of the Anglican Reformer, Richard Hooker when he said that the church is “both a society and a society supernaturall” (Laws 1.xv.2). As a society it shares a similar social nature and social possibilities as other organisations of a similar size. But as a “society supernatural” it is very different.

It is the same with individuals. Normal human functioning does not cease for a human person converted to Jesus Christ. Rather God’s Holy Spirit now enables you, as a human, to live more as God intended. Similarly, believers corporately do not suddenly find the laws of human association suddenly suspended. Yet they can never ignore the supernatural dimension of their “society”. This was well understood by the late Peter Drucker, the guru of management studies. He saw management studies relevant to churches (and schools and hospitals etc.); but they were not to make churches more business-like but more church-like (and schools more school-like and hospitals more hospital-like). That is where many go wrong in the churches (and outside).

Growth ceilings

With these cautions and caveats, let me share some findings of Church Growth studies that I believe to be relevant to JPC.

A range of factors (unless dealt with) are likely to hinder or prevent churches growing. One fundamental factor is that regularly there appear to be “ceilings” to growth. Analysts have discovered 10 such ceilings, at 25-40, at 85-100, at 135-165, at 175-240, at 300-450, at 500-700, at 1,200, at (and more relevant to the USA and other parts of the world) 1,800, at 2800 and at 4,500 – beyond that there are too few churches for meaningful study.

Jesmond obviously relates to that 1,200 figure. Regarding this situation, Lyle Schaller, the guru of church management studies, reports there are “a far smaller number of churches” in this category. But their growth “usually requires a radical redefinition of role, responsibilities, and relationships of the senior pastor, the staff, and the volunteer leaders. That is both difficult and rare (italics mine).”

Seven considerations on growing larger

Let me list seven other things to be kept in mind regarding growth.

1) Apart from the incentive of obedience to Christ’s command to “make disciples” here are just three of many positives about larger church growth (all are “on average”): as churches grow there is a better retention of the adult children of church members (older young people need peer-groups found in larger churches); growing churches provide more programmes to help different needs; and growing churches give more money to missions (with small churches giving 5%, middle sized 10% and large up to 25%).

2) The temptation for not growing is being “comfortable where we are”. A probable reason why 1,200 is the most difficult of all ceilings is “so much is good as it is. So why change?” For many, says Lyle Schaller, “the status quo has more appeal than growth” and “taking care of today’s members is a higher priority than reaching people beyond the fellowship.” The change required is too costly.

3) A change sometimes is needed from being “low commitment” to “high commitment”. This takes seriously the report of Jesus where we are told, “He has done all things well” (Mark 7.37). So high commitment includes a stress on quality in everything. It means wanting standards at church higher, not lower, than standards outside church - as honouring to Christ.

4) Growth is more by addition rather than subtraction – such as more services, more sites, more groups and more activities in response to the needs of people. These require more staff and more volunteers and greater productivity. Greater productivity often requires learning to change (for some too great a cost).

5) Other costs include a faster pace of congregational life; an increase of complexity; more, and more accurate, internal communication; and perseverance and redundancy in inviting, in welcoming, in assimilating new members and in seeking volunteers.

6) Rising numbers will mean rising costs. It has been found that a church of 450 spends five or six times more than a church of 150, not three times more. That is the price of increased quality in all things; a greater responsiveness to people’s needs; and, higher productivity all round.

7) Growth in larger churches encourages other faithful churches to grow.

Conclusion

So I conclude with a repeat of what I said in the Anniversary Sermon on Hebrews 12.1 and “the race set before us” (at JPC).

“I believe, under God, that over the next 5 years we can move to 2000 from the 1000 where we are now. And this particular race and course is set before us, not because we need it or would choose it, but because this city needs it and God, I believe, is guiding. But it will be costly and it will mean changes.”

That is the challenge!


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