I have been grappling lately with the concept of church growth. When I accepted the call to pastor Fellowship Baptist Church this past July I had lofty ideas about the growth of our Church. We are blessed to be in a growing rural area that is projected to double in size in 5 years. We are going to have a brand new building soon. We are a mature but vibrant congregation that is eager to minister and serve. There is a sweet spirit about our Fellowship. In less than two years we had grown from 30-40 to almost 200 members. For a new, young, and naive pastor all of these characteristics of our congregation added up to the blessed assurance of tremendous growth.
And we have experienced ascertainable growth. We have added a good number of members. We have also lost some members, had members move, and had members die. In 6 months our weekly average attendance and giving is higher than it was in the previous 6 months before I came. All of these areas point to measurable growth.
The talk of growth within the congregation is encouraging. They want more people to experience Christ in our Fellowship. They desire to have new people added to our family of believers. They want to bring others to the saving knowledge of Christ that they know. As a whole they have the best possible motives for growth. They want people to come to experience life with Christ and they want to walk alongside them in the experience.
It it outside my congregation where my tension with church growth arises; in the world of pastors, ministers, and pastoral literature.
I am reading the book, O Shepherd Where Art Thou? by Calvin Miller. I am not done with it, but so far I would highly recommend it. It has really helped to crystalize many of my fluid thoughts concerning church and the pastorate that I have mulled over the past months. It is a unique book. Half of the book is a story about a medium-size-church-pastor who wants his church to grow but feels dragged down by the necessity of meeting the needs of his congregation. Half the book is little asides and comments that go along with what is happening in the story. It is like a study-narrative.
I came across this quote in the book:
Our culture is marked by a kind of Dow Jones Calvinism. Churches – and for that matter, pastors – are evaluated on their size or the size of their dreams and visions. Bigger is always seen as better. Why is bigger better? Because bigger is how we rate ourselves.
So much of how we “do” church seems to be predicated upon how this or that will grow our church numerically. I see Baptist churches moving away from what it means to be Baptist for the sake of growth. I have seen pastors exceed their position as pastor for the sake of church growth. I have seen churches crucify their pastors for a lack of church growth and deify others for effective numerical growth.
We choose our worship styles, our preaching styles, our bulletin layout, our leadership structure, our discipleship programs, our bible study materials all largely based on what will help us grow most effectively.
Even much of the theology (or should I say pop-theology) of our day has church growth at its heart.
And I have discussions with pastors both in and out of the pastorate who base much of their worth on their ability to effectively grow a church. Ironically, I don’t hear near as much of this conversation in the Seminary or from my fellow ministers of the 20something generation.
I am by no means exempting myself from this critique. This critique has only come about through assessment of my own life, thoughts, conversations, and ministry.
Why is bigger better? Why do we stir up so much in our churches to facilitate growth? What is our reasoning for pursuing growth?
Are our motives kingdom oriented? Do we really have a clear mandate from God that gives us the authority to change the things we change in the way we change them?
Or are we products of our consumer/capitalist culture? Seeking to acquire members as commodities and equating more with better.
I don’t know the answer. I believe, as it is with most conundrums, the answer is both depending on the person and situation.
I hope I am honest enough and, you, the reader of this, are forgiving enough to let me confess there are times I covet new members. There are moments I am tempted to go against many wonderful people in my congregation in order to make others more comfortable. There are times when I lust after the programs, efficiency, support, and resources of other churches.
And yet, rarely are my passions so extreme to care for the needs of my congregation. Rarely do I find myself desiring to drop everything and visit the hospital. I don’t find myself coveting more visitation or Christmas parties.
And yet still, I love the people of Fellowship. There is no Church I can envision serving in the coming years than Fellowship. And I would bet most pastors feel the same way about their congregation. They are in love with their people.
My prayer, is that I can die to most ambitions of growth. Not that I wouldn’t desire the ministry of Fellowship to grow; but, that my passion would lie with meeting the needs of Fellowship and in leading Fellowship to be a people who are about Kingdom work in all that they do. In so doing I pray we would develop worship styles and ministries and a community identity that are both indigenous to the community we are now and hope to be. I have to hope that growth can come as a by-product of a community focused on serving God’s kingdom. I don’t know how to measure it or quantify it. I don’t want to have to.