Thursday, November 18, 2010

What Works in Church Growth

In an interesting article by Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, he proposes that the reason why churches do not move out of the 100-300 attendance category is due to a lack of renewal--personal, relational, missional, cultural, and especially structural renewal. He also strongly maintains that to break out of this smaller attendance block requires "exponential thinking" ( /CampaignTraining/Pastor/PastorsIdeaExchange/Exponential+Thinking.htm) and a radical change in structure that involves championing small groups rather than the classic smaller church organizational structure. 

The "exponential thinking" precept he rallies for is problematic for me. Of course, once that is said the charge of "little" faith comes creeping into the discussion. Little faith gets little results; great faith gets great results, he would say. Really?! What troubles me in particular is that he hangs the principle of exponential thinking on Bible verses that have little or nothing to do with church growth, church size, and ministry expansion. For instance, just because the Israelites "multiplied" in the desert (Ex. 1:7,12) does not imply God loves large numbers and desires everything to so multiply, especially church attendance!

The issue of "faith" comes up a number of times. The principle he draws from passages such as Matthew 9:29 is "according to your faith, it will be done to you." Thus great, expectant, out-of-the-box faith will produce astounding church growth results. And, he would say he has the stats to prove it and the testimonials to support it. I wonder if Jesus Himself would agree with Rick's use of these verses for numbers of people in church! 

In my consulting with scores of smaller churches in the 100-300 range, especially in the northeast, I have found that men and women of significant faith and hope pastor these churches. I have found pastors that "believe God for great things" only to be faced year after year with churches that do not significantly grow, do not significantly change and people who remain content with where they are. It is too easy to blame the lack of growth on "little faith." And it, in fact, angers me that a megachurch pastor has the audacity to say so! No matter how many testimonials to the contrary.

So what does work in church growth? Here's the answer -- Nothing and anything! "Nothing" means that WE cannot make the church grow. No matter how many "40 Day" Campaigns and programs one has, there is never a "guarantee" for significant growth, or even little  and lasting growth. GOD alone is the One who sovereignly gives or withholds church growth, no matter how much or even how little human effort is expended. While Rick pays lip service to this precept, it really is an overriding precept for any church leader and for any church. I have seen weak and below average pastors with very little programmatic savvy grow their churches, and I have seen very gifted and talented pastors set grand objectives and never see growth. GOD gives the increase, no matter how much seed we plant!

"Anything" means church growth does not in the end hang upon a well-tuned program or campaign or thrust. If we do a campaign and God grants growth we tend to think it was our hard work, sweat, tears, prayers and so forth that produced it. (Oh. come on! Sure it is!!) If we preach sermons that barely hang together, have administrative nightmares in church programming and yet love people and the church grows, we end up amazed. And, if the church really grows we are asked for our "secret." There is NO SECRET. "Anything" means God often uses weakness for His own glory and purposes.

So then, do we enmesh ourselves in passivity? Do we do nothing about church growth? Do we do away with all the campaigns? I'm not saying that at all. But before we get our heartbeat going on "exponential thinking" we need to understand that God and God alone will either bless the campaign, ignore the campaign, diminish the campaign, or go around the campaign to accomplish His objectives for His church, of which we are just "managers" for a season.