Dec 10, 2014
neil

Three reasons your church might not be growing

In an earlier post I offered a short review of Ray Evan’s excellent book on growing churches Ready, Steady, Grow. No one book is likely to tackle every issue related to barriers to growth. In this post and one further post I offer six reflections not addressed in Ray’s book on what stops churches from growing.

Six reflections on growing churches (part 1)

Ray Evans provides us with an excellent introduction to an overlooked issue. For the simple truth is that church leaders do feel ill-equipped to lead their churches through change, and particularly the transitions involved in gospel growth.

His experience of leading a church for a long time through the stages of growth also ensures that this is no theory book but one written out of experience. His insights will open eyes to see what otherwise may have gone unseen and yet all along had been inhibiting growth.

Whilst this book suggests many good answers to some of the issues that face church pastors, there are a number of issues related to growth, that also need to occupy the mind of a leader, which remain unaddressed by the book.

1. How do we address the reality that many churches don’t desire the changes necessary to bring about growth?

The book is written for leaders already committed to growing a church, and it presumes at least some level of commitment on the part of church to the need to embrace change in order to grow. As a result, the focus is on strategies for growth.  However, many leaders need wisdom to know how, when, and in what ways to challenge a prevailing culture of a church, through the gospel, so that change becomes the desired prerequisite facilitating growth. Evans does touch on this issue but, for example, just three pages are given to considering how preaching grows a church. Church growth begins in the heart of every individual member and growing a church begins with preaching to change hearts that begin to change and grow churches.

So, one might imagine resistance to church growth coming from the obvious costs involved. Breaking through barriers of growth can be costly in terms of relationships as new structures necessitate new teams, and costly in terms of financial stability as staff are appointed in advance of any growth to help facilitate it. How do we motivate members? How and when does growth become a de-motivator for individuals? These questions are as significant as any others in managing growth.

2. Might church growth be a barrier to church growth?

It would also be of interest to many to consider one dynamic at work in larger churches that might actually acts against and inhibits growth in the life of the individual Christian, and that is the opportunity for discovering and developing gifting. In larger churches, certain opportunities are rarely available to members who otherwise would be offered them in other sized churches. As a young man I was preaching within two months of attending a church of 60 people; in the church I now pastor it is more likely to be 5 years before a young man with an embryonic preaching gift could expect a pulpit opportunity.  Later, when planting a church from scratch it was a privilege to witness individuals stepping up to take opportunities and responsibilities that they would never have dreamed of in a larger church. How then do we recognise and raise up gifted leaders in our larger churches?

All this demonstrates that growth can inhibit growth. Growing in numbers makes growth in young leaders a much greater challenge. Our response in Birmingham has been to prefer planting new congregations to growing a larger single church.

3. Is church growth inevitable?   

A danger inherent in any church growth book is the implicit (and often unintentional) suggestion that churches ought to grow and will grow if we can only get our leadership right. Whilst Evans is clear in his closing chapter that God alone gives the growth, some consideration needs to be given to the dynamics at work on the church, as well as in the church, that make growth difficult in many contexts.

Twenty years of gospel ministry teaches me that there are certain forces at work in our culture that makes growth uneven.  Some ministry contexts are a much greater challenge than others. Many minsters in rural contexts cannot expect to keep young men and women who, priced out of the market, cannot afford to live in the community once, say, children come along.  Some churches have witnessed significant changes in the ethnic make-up of their communities and struggle to meet the challenges of what is almost a mission context, and so on.

(The material contained in this post first appeared in my review of Ready, Steady, Grow for Foundations Journal.)

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