After forty years in active pastoral ministry, and seventeen years as a church health consultant and coach, having worked with larger and smaller churches, I have a church growth observation, especially for those starting out in church ministry. Some things work for church growth, while many do not. I have used most every evangelistic method ever produced over the years. A few have produced some church growth results. Most have not. The latest and greatest church growth program produces the same continuum of results. Churches can be event oriented, seeker targeted, seeker sensitive, assimilation driven places that see little significant growth. Most churches in America are a few hundred in worship attendance, if that. So, what's the problem and, more importantly, what is the solution?
There are numerous reasons why churches do not grow. Most of the time, it has nothing to do with location, except in a few depressed areas of the country. It also has little to do with decent, biblical teaching and preaching. In fact, church health statistics (from Natural Church Development, churchsmart.com) would say that churches with the most educated pastoral staff show the smallest growth overall. Some of this is due, no doubt, to a disdain for numbers among some pastors and denominations. They minister to the "chosen" people of God, the committed core of Christendom, and are out for church purity and distancing from the secular world. I am not making fun of these places of ministry, just observing them. But what about those churches and ministries really trying to grow and reach a larger audience for Christ and the gospel?
A misplaced dependence on methods or programming or events. This would be a first reason, I believe, for lack of church growth. People are not attracted, in the long run and to regular church attendance and involvement, because of programming and events. Slick and cool graphics and websites and presentations and catchy videos and production elements in services and other church venues do not, by and large, grow churches. I have been to a number of smaller churches where the very latest and best in technology is used, much to no avail in church growth results. Hundreds and even a few thousand can attend a weekend event at a church or ministry with little or no church growth happening. It's just a big production or event, and that is all. Some churches spend a lot of money on these elements supposedly to produce more people in the pews or chairs of the worship venue, and the result is just more money spent.
Attention to demographics and younger people is not the secret formula for church growth. Let's just read the latest George Barna statistics and do what his organization, or a similar organization, advises, and our church will grow. Not really. Most of the time you will simply displace the older generation paying for these ministry venues. Perhaps if we follow the latest Saddleback forty-day ministry and group programming, we will grow. Despite Rick Warren's glowing claims, many churches do not grow in the long run with such programming. In fact, I have coached churches which have tried every church-wide programming tool known to Saddleback, with little or even negative results. Warren would claim that they did not follow the "rules," but that is not true. If such "proven" methods do not work, then what does?
First, church growth is a God-ordained thing. God grows His Church, His way, with His timing, and His purposes. I do not believe that in the long run you can biblically grow a church, any church. God has to grant His blessing and anointing for such growth to occur. Otherwise, it will either not happen or it will be like a shooting star, a flame that burns itself out. Ask those who have seen their churches mushroom and grow. Most, if truthful, would have to say that the bottom line for such growth is that God has blessed them.
Then, it has to be the right people at the right place and the right time for growth to occur. Don't expect a highly charismatic preacher to grow your church. Don't depend on an awesome and gifted church staff to do the same. With God's sovereign blessing and timing, average pastors with less than stellar staff can grow a church. I read a leadership article quite some time ago about one of the largest and growing churches in America. The pastor frankly admitted he did not know why his church grew and continues to grow. He talked about just watching God work around him and many, many people came to his church and stayed and became involved. Andy Stanley might say his systems and expectations were the real reason for growth. I don't buy that. As important as they are, strong leadership, great systems, and high expectations still don't guarantee church growth.
Am I therefore pessimistic about church growth? No, just doggedly realistic and seasoned about the topic and discussions. Can your church grow? I don't know. It may or may not numerically grow. It may grow to a point and then plateau or subside. It might mushroom and grow beyond your wildest dreams or goals or vision. The key thing I do know is to seek God's will and God's blessing upon your ministry and your church. Do the right things at the right time and with the right people in place. While this will not guarantee church growth, it will be what is right to do. And, isn't that what God really expects of us?