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.)
I was invited by Ralph Cunnington, the editor of Foundations to review and interact with Ray Evans’ book Ready, Steady, Grow for the autumn 2014 edition. Do take a look at the journal which can be downloaded for free here but I’m also setting out the content of my article in 3 posts on the blog.
This first post will offer a summary of the book’s content and then in the next couple of posts I will address a number of issues that impact growth that Evans did not directly address.
Many gospel churches are not growing, yet, they could be, and they should be. That’s the argument of Ray Evans’ book Ready, Steady, Grow, written out of a conviction that ‘too many churches stagnate in their growth, or even derail in their gospel proclamation, because of problems that could be overcome if they just knew how.’ Whilst this is decidedly not a book on church-growth techniques, Evans shares what has worked in his own thirty years of ministry whilst always guided by biblical principles and practice.
The unique selling point of the book is its focus on the challenges involved in understanding the changing dynamics at work in our churches as they grow through different sizes. Quite simply, leaders underestimate and often fail to grasp altogether how the size of a church impacts the very way they must lead in order for the church to fulfil its purpose. Acts 6 is presented as a case study of ‘diversionary confusion’ in which leaders battle the challenges thrown up by church growth. Organizational complexity requires careful consideration if a church is not to be unsettled or even undone by the problems of growth.
Central to the argument of the book is that it is a failure to grasp the dynamics of growth that leads churches and their leaders to get stuck at a certain size of church. It’s not easy for churches to transition from small to medium, and medium to large, and they certainly won’t unless growth is understood and church structures adapted. Of particular help to my own thinking is the description of a stage between medium and large sized church, described as ‘awkward’ size. Whilst not a description unique to Evans, his analysis of the stage of church life where a church is too large to be pastored by a single pastor, or for everyone to be relationally connected, yet not large enough to adopt the structures inherent in a large church, will prove helpful for many. Evans also gives some consideration to responding to a resistance to growth sometimes found in congregations as a result of a church culture that is inherently too cautious and risk-averse, or simply a congregation unwilling to change.
Ray Evans confesses to be an ‘everyday leader’ in an ‘ordinary town’ who has nevertheless overseen a growing church and taken that church from small to large. That experience shows in the wisdom offered to help leaders and churches overcome ‘spiritual and practical blockages’ that arise from ‘confusion, numbers, complexity and complaints.’ The combination of insights from Scripture alongside common-sense wisdom is a winning one.
Having set out his thesis and offered some general reflections on leading through change, Evans goes on in the second half to show how for a church to grow, and grow through barriers, leaders need to be able to ‘work on areas of the Christian life simultaneously.’ He sums up those areas that require our attention under the heading of three ‘M’s’: maturity, ministry and mission.
For churches to grow, all three must be constantly in view, church members must share that commitment to growth in each but ‘it also needs a ‘top-down’ lead and practical organization, which leaders must facilitate.’
In this short review I will highlight just one insight from each area in turn.
Growing to maturity
The impact of organisational complexity in a growing church can be felt in Evans’ observation ‘if you grow large, you have to grow small at the same time’ because ‘if large attracts, small keeps.’ Any large church must, at the same time, be a church of small groups if individuals are to grow. What is lost on a Sunday must be celebrated through the week as small groups become the place where relationships flourish and where individuals are given the time and opportunity to contribute, something not easy to do in the dynamic of large church.
Serve in ministry: getting teams mobilized
When it comes to serving in the local church meeting the challenge of growth requires a recognition that people have to be trained to serve in a new way. A culture-shift needs to take place across a congregation from generalisation to specialisation, from individual relationships to formalised teams and from wisdom caught to teams trained. Again the issue of complexity arises: how do you recruit a team, train a team, motivate a team and keep a team now that relationships are not the glue to service?
Reach out in mission
I’m grateful that Evans donates three whole chapters to growing in mission. These chapters are further enhanced in that the end of each application is directed to the different categories of size of church. So, Evans’ insights of the danger facing growing churches that they will turn in on themselves, once they are financially viable and ministry needs are all being met. He also recognises that growing churches tend to develop new ministries, new ministries call for a greater time commitment from members. So much so that over time a growing church with ‘an overcrowded schedule may be slowly cutting off a key outreach strategy.’
This book is an important addition to a leader’s library. It is a particular encouragement to me that a good resource on growing churches has been written by a British church leader. That has been long overdue. There are few, if any, books written for UK churches by experienced leaders who have grown their congregations through the challenges and transitions.
Christmas Carols Radio is a new on-line radio station that plays a combination of traditional Christmas carols choral music, with Bible thoughts on the nativity (all advert free!). If you like to listen to Christmas carols, and especially if you have friends that do who you would like to introduce to the real meaning of Christmas then its the only place to go!
The station is the idea of Ben Vane, a former radio producer (who was also a member at City Church), who is now training to be a vicar in the Church of England. “We play nothing but Christmas carols – no novelty Christmas music, just choirs singing traditional carols. As far as we know we’re the only internet radio station in the world playing nothing but Christmas carols. And we’re proud of it!”
The Office of National Statistics has published a report highlighting the fact that more people are choosing to leave London in their 30’s than ever before.
The Telegraph reports ‘58,220 people aged from 30 to 39 left the capital between June 2012 and June 2013; a record number, and a ten per cent increase on 2010.’
So where are these people heading? More are heading to Birmingham than anywhere else. The Birmingham Post comments ‘5,480 thirtysomethings left London for Birmingham last year, making it a more popular choice than any other UK city.’
In other words almost 1 in 10 people who leave London, head for Birmingham.
Tom Cullen is one such example why not find out why through his subscription e-mail I choose Birmingham
I was invited to speak at the recent FIEC leaders conference on the topic of Leading a partnering church and outlined the way in which churches are coming together in our city to collaborate in church-planting initiatives – under the 2020birmingham banner.
Here is the video of the presentation
What one journalist discovered when accompanying University of Birmingham Christian Union volunteers witnessing to students on Birmingham campus.
Over 20 NIV Application Commentaries available on Amazon Kindle for just £4.99. No idea how long the deal will list so get them while you can
Trevin Wax has written a thoughtful post on the witness of the church as community to the gospel and its power to help overcome barriers to belief. It’s not a easy read and the key conclusion I’ve quoted in full below but do check out the article here to understand his argument more fully.
The classical approach of apologetics is to present rational proofs for God’s existence, and then from this point to argue for the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and His resurrection. Classical apologetics is beneficial in the effort to show that Christianity is true, but if Taylor is right, then one is already likely to accept or reject reasons for belief before they ever hear them because the greater story [their scientific materialist worldview] is already conditioning them to accept or reject “proofs” of God’s existence and the truth of Christianity.
Perhaps this is why one of the best ways to engage an unbeliever is simply to invite them to church. Lesslie Newbigin spoke of the people of God as a “community apologetic.” It’s not that the church replaces other, rational strategies and arguments for belief in God. It’s that the church becomes the atmosphere, the teller of a better story, a story whose truth begins to work on the heart of a non-religious person, conditioning them for the moment when the classical apologetics “proofs” are then used by the Holy Spirit to confirm the belief He has already initiated in them.
Christians today should make use of the various tools we have at our disposal in order to persuade people to follow Jesus. But let’s not leave out the world where God’s good news comes alive – the people of God who corporately witness to a kingdom that has no end. It may be that the best apologetic for a secular age is a people who are in this world but not of it, who counter the rugged rationalist with the true story of new world which began on a Sunday morning outside Jerusalem.
Fascinating article in the Economist on growing numbers in the church, growing confidence of the church and growing persecution by the state of the church in China.
(HT: Chris Green)
So helpful for all new parents – mums and dads!
(HT: Hosanna Stokes)
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