The Spirit Calls, Gathers, Enlightens and Sanctifies God’s People
Some Basics of Church Growth
Ultimately it is the Holy Spirit who calls people to faith and gathers them together as a church. But he works through people and relationships. How do we do our part? Let’s get practical.
Church Growth studies can provide a framework for such discussions. The discipline of Church Growth was developed at Fuller Theological Seminary during the years I was an administrator and faculty member there. Two names stand out. Missiologist Donald McGavran laid the foundation. C. Peter Wagner popularized his concepts. Later C. Kirk Hadaway provided a more rigorous study of what seems to work and what tends to be ineffective. Through unusual circumstances, I became Mr. Church Growth in my church body of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. I still have pastors thanking me for my insights and advocacy that freed them up to do innovative ministry.
The basic principle about which all agree is that a congregation has to want to grow and be willing to make difficult decisions that facilitate intentional growth in size. Such a conscious setting of priorities was not needed in the peak years of mainline denominational growth during the migration to the suburbs. Such churches mostly grew from within and by attracting members who already knew their church culture well. Those years are gone.
Most of the congregations in my denomination are in decline. Is there a will to make growth in size a high priority? Where is the leadership in setting a new priority over and against maintaining traditions? What kind of fine-tuning of our church culture will be officially encouraged for the sake of more effective outreach?
The Homogeneity Principle
The second most basic principle is the homogeneity principle. People like to go to church with others like themselves. That’s demonstrated in the history of immigrants who gathered with those who spoke the same language. Their grandchildren typically could no longer speak it and drifted away. Typically, the third and fourth generations grew up in the suburbs and have a greater affinity with young adults like themselves who share the suburban lifestyle of family, schools, and homes. Many growing community churches have tapped into that new culture.
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in many ways is trying to retain the old ethnic culture with a defensive posture against anything that is not traditional. Witness the strong official resistance to contemporary worship. Thank God for a polity that allows congregations to develop their own worship styles as long as they remain within theological boundaries. In my experience, the pastors who have “gone contemporary” gladly embrace the theology.
Church Growth Diseases
Peter Wagner was the most visible advocate of Church Growth principles. He taught the Fuller Seminary D.Min. course on Church Growth that enrolled a large number of mission-minded LCMS pastors. I would meet with each group and hear their relief that it was finally OK to talk about practical ministry issues.
Among his principles, Wagner would use a congregational life cycle to highlight certain diseases. Two are fatal. One is ethnikitis, in which a congregation tries to maintain itself in a community that has changed. Unless they develop new ministries targeted to the changed community, they will sooner or later fade away.
Fatal also is old age. This may affect churches in dying communities, as is happening in many rural areas where everything is shrinking. It also happens in churches with a remnant that simply age out. They have not had the energy or leadership to try new ministries. The end is in sight when they no longer have the resources to afford a full-time minister. In my district, roughly 40% are at that point.
When the end is in sight, congregations can react in two ways. Most typical is a sense of failure and guilt. They have been unfaithful and let previous members down. But the reality is they faced powerful sociological changes that overwhelmed them. Better is to celebrate all the ministry done when the congregation was healthy. I have advocated for years that districts develop a hospice program for churches at their end. Go out with dignity. Celebrate all the ministries done and the people served.
What to do with the property? Here is a radical suggestion. Give the buildings to a young congregation that has growth potential. Carry on the basic mission through a biblically sound church with a church culture better attuned to the current community
The worship wars in Lutheran churches wound down about twenty years ago, with the two sides firmly in place. A fresh perspective is offered by C. Kirk Hadaway, writing from a Southern Baptist perspective. He notes that the presence of “liturgy” is more characteristic of plateaued churches than growing ones. “Research shows that formality and liturgy are often barriers. Plateaued churches need excitement and life, and it is hard (though not impossible) to wed formality with excitement.”
Whether worship should be exciting is a controversial issue in highly liturgical churches. But the topic here is church growth principles. Something has to be exciting enough to bring visitors back again.
Hadaway acknowledges that if he would revise his well-known book Church Growth Principles, the one key principle he would add is prayer. Church Growth leader Peter Wagner, I know from first-hand experience, was a man of intense prayer.
Overall, according to Hadaway, there is an increasing recognition of the importance of spiritual depth for a congregation to grow. He cites research from five mainline denominations showing that churches characterized by a greater emphasis on spiritual development also tend to be growing congregations. “Millions of Christians want spiritual depth in their lives, and they are not finding a way to grow in many mainline and conservative churches in America. People are seeking churches which can provide an opportunity for spiritual growth, and when one exists, the word spreads quickly.”
The Holy Spirit’s Power
My overall theme, following Martin Luther, is that the Holy Spirit does the calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying of God’s people. We can and should do common-sense things that expand the number of contacts with those who are not connected to Christ. But churches of Christ are not just another social organization out trying to recruit new members. We have something distinctive to offer. We offer the Spirit, who brings his power to bear on the lives of others.
Turning around a declining congregation is very difficult. There are no guaranteed methods. What frustrated pastors can do is concentrate their efforts on developing spiritual growth among those already assembled. Teaching the Word is basic, of course. But there is a difference between the teaching and the learning that happens. More on that later in discussing the process of Spiritual enlightenment.
Facilitating personal spiritual growth is an intensely personal and time-consuming process. It is done best when led by pastors who are themselves growing closer to God by the power of the Spirit.
What do you think of the Homogeneity Principle? What is your reaction to the finding that formal liturgical worship does not relate well to growing churches? And how well does a congregation’s emphasis on spiritual growth relate to the growth in the size of that church?