A theme has been repeating itself in my awareness lately, in the same way that you start noticing how many of a specific model of car there are, once brought to your attention for whatever reason. This is the theme of church growth.
We process and accept things that are logical to us, things that we can understand and make sense of. Things that we can reason out and break down into logical steps that lead to a logical conclusion, logical to us at least. Which is all well and good, it wouldn’t do for us to go charging off doing things that don’t make sense or are not logical.
The key thought here is “to us”. Just because we can process and make sense of something doesn’t make it right, just because we cannot process something or something that is unintuitive does not make it wrong. That German guys cat would still be alive, or dead… er… the cat would be without apparent paradox, if there were not truth’s that defied apparent common sense. What is intuitive is pretty subjective, common sense is not so common.
As a simple example, it makes perfect sense to me that while wiring up a home entertainment system you think of everything as a river, or plumbing, you have a water source and some destination, the source for home entertainment is usually a satellite dish, and maybe a radio receiver, the destination is the TV and perhaps some speakers, you just have to link the source and destination. Usually it’s all colour coded for you as well! Many times the plugs can’t even GO anywhere else, they are shape and size coded for you even! Match the colours, make the source signal land up at the destination thingies, and bam! Entertainment for the family. It’s intuitive for me and seems like common sense, yet I spend an amazing amount of time setting things up for people to whom this is all un-intuitive, who tend to wire the TV and amplifier to their respective selves, and wonder why nothing works.
So, what does this have to do with church growth? Well, I need to be clear in saying that I think all Christians should seek to grow the Church[i]. Because A: in a sense we’re commanded to, and B: considering our belief’s about Jesus, and heaven and hell, it wouldn’t make much sense if I didn’t think so. Now on to the controversial stuff. I think many of the conferences for church growth are blatantly misguided. I’d go so far as to say that many are not of God because their chief end is rather blatantly financial increase, or to gain some sort of influence. However, dealing only with the ones that are misguided, let me explain my reasons for suggesting so. I think church growth right now is about market share. It’s a battle for share of an existing market of church goers, the better you are doing, the worse someone else is doing, as there are only so many church goers to go around. This may not be the intention, to be sure… but it is the result. I’ve spoken to many, many pastors over the years (not specifically about this perhaps, but it comes up quite a bit) and the consensus is that change in the size of the congregation is primarily due to the movement of church goers between congregations for various reasons. I’ve come to see that these reasons usually coincide with the steps taken in church growth strategies suggested by the conferences/church growth guru’s.
The basic premise is to make church attractive to the outsider, which usually leads to modelling the secular way of doing things. Worship becomes about putting on as good a production as you can afford to put on. Sermons are modelled on being as relevant to daily life as they can possibly be, without offending anyone . But remember, the focus is on the outsider, so relevance for their daily life is very often about how to live your life better “Five biblical principles for getting on with your boss”. The idea is that the guy on the street should feel welcome as possible at the service, so that we can reach him/her. If the church isn’t relevant to that person then they won’t come. Worship needs to be a tool to make the church an incredibly inviting place to be. It can and should be used as a tool to grow your church. If someone is going to be bored singing old songs, in what seems an old fashioned manner without any kind of engaging stage presence, to listen to a sermon that doesn’t make sense to him, and from which he can draw no practical application or that is possibly going to offend him (I’m certainly not a sinner!) that person is unlikely to come again.
Therefore, since we are seeking to grow our church and reach the lost, it makes sense to model worship after whatever is contemporary and popular. The production must be professional and it should be exciting. Participants should walk away from the worship and feel that it really touched them, that it moved them. I’ve heard many a time from many Christians “I did not enjoy the worship”. The sermon should be delivered by a charismatic individual practised in communication and presentation skills, akin to those for executives and business men, and the sermons must contain applicable information for the life of the listener, something that they can make sense of. It should be relevant to their lives and contexts. Sermons can be about living your life better in a tough world. How to really strive to be a better individual at work and at home, all based on “sound biblical principles”. Solomon the wise king can teach us about management and wisdom in the workplace, Jesus the wise and patient mentor of sometimes slow disciples can show us patient leadership of people that might not get it right at first, but that can become individuals that impact the world! Without this relevance, the church is worthless to the world. Our worship would be uninspiring, and un-engaging, our message would be impractical and irrelevant to today’s fast paced dog eat dog world, both in business and in the home. That is logical, intuitive, it makes sense, and so we model our church toward relevance for the seeker.
Only, there are a few problems.
- In trying to copy what the world can and does offer, is that we make bad, pale imitations. Outsiders come in and see an attempt at a U2 cover band (in style), giving information on how following some steps can make their lives easier, and often how they can follow some magical biblical formula that will invoke the power of God to propel that area of their lives forward.
- In trying to be “relevant” to the non Christian, and styling your Sunday church gathering in order to attract the unbeliever you are basically rendering the point of Sunday gatherings moot. Church services are the assembling of the saints, where we can worship God, and be taught from the scriptures by one called to preach and exegete from those scriptures, so that we might be fully equipped for every good work. We gather to learn, grow, serve the body and be fed. We then scatter in our daily lives to evangelise. This church growth model has flipped that idea on its head. They say we should gather to evangelise, and must under no circumstances ask to be fed at church, or that church is definitely not for the believer. Then we must somehow scatter to be fed…
Can church be expected to result in the salvation of the lost, well absolutely, because the pastor that is doing his job and preaching expositorily with the right hermeneutic (interpretive key) while feeding the sheep, will no doubt find a way to the gospel in every text he preaches from. After all, the bible is about Jesus, is it not? The power of the church to grow in number should never rest in patterning itself after the world, where our worship should conform or be inspiring and the speakers be trained like any secular speaker to deliver what is, for all intents and purposes, a secular message on how to be a better person. The power for the church to grow rests in the power of the Gospel message. Once we decide that is secondary to all the other things, actively or passively by losing sight of it through focusing on being as attractive as possible, we have lost the only relevance we ever had. If we are a mini model of the world with a moral twist, then we are as relevant to the world as any other worldly group. The extension of this is also that our message becomes one of post modern relativism, basically saying Jesus is one way to squeeze better performance out of life. Instead of the message that Jesus is the saviour that man kind most desperately needs in all things, for salvation and for sanctification. The message that God would convey has very often (most often?) been delivered by the apparently unattractive. So why have we suddenly made it a goal and, in some cases, the primary focus in so many of our churches to remove the core of our message so that it doesn’t offend anyone. Then we gussy it up like some cheap trinket in order to trick someone so they will buy it for a time, before someone else packages their message better that is?
Perhaps the definition of church growth needs to be more the act of growing the sheep in a church to know God more, focussing on their maturation and care, rather than attracting goats and trying to get them to behave like sheep. Sheep do sheepy things, goats to goaty things it is in their nature. Sheep desire that God be glorified everywhere, thereby growing the numbers in the greater church through the influence of the gospel being proclaimed by people whom it has saved.
[i] the global church, as opposed to individual local gatherings.