Jan 30, 2013

Ingredients for Church Growth

spaghetti ingredients11471947In light of our recent Annual Parish Meeting, I've been thinking a lot about church growth. If you know me, you'll recognize this isn't anything new -- it's one of my passions. But the Annual Meeting always provides that extra opportunity to take a step back, get out of the fray of daily ministry, and examine the broader view.

Out of curiosity, I ran some numbers for the three and a half years that I've been rector at St. John's. Anecdotal evidence aside, I was stunned to see that our Average Sunday Attendance has increased 35%, pledging is up 50%, and we've doubled the size of the staff. That's a lot of growth in a short period of time and, while there are many contributing factors, I do think there are some basic transferable ingredients to church growth.

Of course it all starts with leadership -- both lay and ordained. I'm increasingly convinced that, to our mutual detriment, Episcopal Church culture minimizes the importance of strong clergy leadership. No, it's not all about the priest. But show me a growing, vibrant, healthy congregation with poor clergy leadership -- it doesn't exist. Granted, strong leadership is all about encouraging, nurturing, and empowering members of the congregation to share the responsibility of leadership. But poor leaders are unwilling or unable to do this; thus stunting the ministry of all the baptized and the potential for growth.

blue-chart-going-up-xlFor me, growth comes down to a passion for sharing the Gospel of Christ. We're called to share this Good News with which we've been entrusted not to hoard it. And when we share the Gospel -- boldly, radically, creatively -- the church can't help but grow!

So if sharing the Gospel is the key to church growth, the next logical question is what does it mean to share the Gospel?
It means looking outward, rather than exclusively inward.

It means reaching out to others -- the less fortunate and those in need.

It means communicating in creative ways beyond the four walls of the church building.

It means flinging open the doors to welcome people and being intentional about incorporating them into the life of the parish.

It means thinking entrepreneurially about liturgical alternatives to Sunday morning worship that may look and feel and sound different but still reflect the core values of the community.

It means preaching engaging sermons that connect and relate rather than judge and deny.

It means music that uplifts and inspires.

It means listening for the still, small voice within rather than cowing to the anxiety-ridden, strident voice without.

It means leaving room for questions and mystery rather than providing simplistic answers.

It means joyfully inviting people to partake in the peace of Christ that passes all understanding.

These are hardly prescriptive. But if you're ready to move forward into a new way of being church, I encourage you to reflect upon these. Perhaps with your vestry or parish leadership. You may have others to add to this list and I'd be delighted if you would share them.

Is it "all about the numbers?" Of course not. You can't measure spiritual growth with statistics. But they can be important indicators of congregational health and vitality. And when more people are hearing and responding to the Gospel, we're all living more deeply into our calling as Christians.


Scott Gunn said...

Seems to me your church growth took off after I was guest preacher there. Just saying.

You're welcome.

slechurch said...

Obviously Scott Gunn is the key to church growth. My parish experienced more growth the year I met Scott than any other. There is a definite correlation in my mind.

Another thing that I think is important to church growth is focus. There was this dude a couple of thousand years ago who said something about making disciples of all nations. If that becomes a starting point, and focus point, all the small decisions made daily move a congregation toward growth. It is not rocket science. There is no magical recipe. It's a matter of grabbing the low-hanging fruit and following the Spirit.

And it is about the numbers. I have yet to meet anyone who has accidentally grown a parish. Leaders who experience growth know their numbers. The more disciples Jesus has, the better off we all are.

Love Jesus, lead with focus, and track the numbers.

stnickepiscopal said...

Very helpful! We're working on a strategic plan at St Nicholas but some of these ingredients are already in our pantry. It couldn't hurt if Scott Gunn happened by some time, though! We're very conveniently located near O'Hare...

Father Tim said...

Let me say for the record and unequivocally that Scott Gunn is not the key to church growth! I think attendance dropped when he came to St. John's even after I hyped it as "some guy from Cincinnati is preaching this Sunday."

And, yes, that's another misconception: it IS about the numbers. Not in totality because you can't quantify spiritual growth. But Jesus didn't say "Make disciples of only the nations that show up at your door uninvited and like to drink tepid coffee out of styrofoam cups afterwards."

Malcolm French said...

So how does one go about having Scott Gunn come to preach?

EvangelismCoach.org said...

I would add something that might be an assumption:


Prayer for those who don't know Christ.
Prayer that God would bring the hurting.
Prayer that our church would welcome the Rahabs, addicts, and others who are not like us.


Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

CS said...

Indeed. As has been said before, you have to keep the main thing, the main thing. Without that, you won't see growth.

Relationships are crucial. If parishioners are not actively welcoming, or if the clergy make no effort to make themselves accessible to their parishioners (or, worse, actively make themselves inaccessible), or if there is one poisonous parishioner (or a couple of them) and the rector doesn't check the negative behaviour, you won't see growth.

Good leadership is crucial -- and part of good leadership is creating and fostering a culture of healthy communication. My parish now lacks such a culture, and I have to lay the responsibility for that at the feet of our rector (we used to have one, but it slowly disintegrated after the rector who established it left); the result is that people who give significant time and effort feel taken for granted, dismissed, utterly unimportant, not valued. Not a few of them continue to be involved, but they do so *despite* our clergy -- and with the explicit intention of outlasting them in the hopes that the next rector will be better.