I have been a pastor for the past twenty-four years and in that time I have gone to more than my share of church growth conferences. I have spent a great deal of time and money trying to figure out the secret to what makes one church grow and another church doing the same thing, not grow. I guess this is not something new, but more than likely is something every pastor deals with throughout his or her ministry. What I have been wondering lately is what if the church growth plans that we are implementing are broken? I mean when I look at our society and culture (in the U.S) I have to ask, is the church growing at all? I mean ponder on this for a minute. Some studies show as many as 40-60% of the US sees attending church as something that adds very little relevance to their life, according to where you live. According to a study done by Lifeway, San Francisco is the most un-churched major city in the US with only about 40% having any church affiliation at all. Chattanooga is the most churched city, according to the same report, with about 59% of the people saying they attend church on a somewhat regular basis. Now we all know that “regular basis” differs from person to person. In the state where I am, Alabama, Birmingham has 56% of the people that say they go to church. Even with that, we see where there are over 93,000 in the city that has no church affiliation. We can say what we want but the truth is if you have been in church any length of time you do not need a study to show that fewer people are going to church in the U.S.
Now for many years, starting somewhere in the fifties, we begin to adopt what some call an Attractive Church Growth Model. This model says if you make it better people will come. If the preaching is relevant and if the music is high energy, and the kid’s ministry is exciting and everything in the church is nice and comfortable, people will come. If the coffee in the courtyard is free trade and if you make sure that there is good lighting and the sound is top notch then people will come. For years this is how we have approached church ministry, and let us face it we like it because it is the easiest way for us. I mean all we have to do is throw some money toward a particular area and let a few people make it better and sit back and watch people come in. The only problem is they are not coming in. I mean yes we have more mega-churches in the U.S. than ever before. Churches that have awesome music, faculties, preaching, programs, etc, but the truth is we have fewer people attending church. Many of the people that are being drawn to the mega-churches are just people that use to be in the large, midsize, and small churches. I mean if the church is truly growing then why aren’t we seeing a change in our culture? Why are things getting worse? Maybe it is because what we are calling church growth is nothing more than transfer church growth, as people move from church to church.
Now, do not take it that I am against mega-churches because I am not. My only concern is that the way we are doing church is not the way that Jesus intended. In Matthew 28 we find that Jesus is about to leave this earth and return to heaven, to take His place on the throne. In verse 19 He tells the church to “Go”. In the Greek, the word go means more than just leaving, but it means to move in another direction. The truth is that the attractive model is not the model Jesus gave us. Yes, it worked when the church was the hub of the community but let’s be honest, the church is no longer the hub of the community. More and more people wake up every Sunday morning with no thought that today is church day. The attractive model worked for a very short season and if the church continues to operate in this model then the church of the U.S. will continue to lose ground.
So what do we do?
Well, first we have to change the way we see the local church. We may no longer be the hub of the community but we must be the hub of the mission. We have to become a missional church. Missional means that every believer sees himself or herself as agent for God. We see God as a missional God that had a mission and came to earth to fulfill that mission and now has called His church to continue that mission. We can no longer believe that building something better is going to draw people but we have to be intentional about taking what we have and sharing it with the community in which we live. Missional church is a movement, not a monument and only when the church is on the move can the church truly reach people with the gospel.
Second, we have to see success not as how many people we get in the seats on Sunday, but rather how many people we get into the kingdom of God. Our job is to plunder hell and populate heaven and only in doing that are we truly successful. The leadership in the church and even the members of the church are more concerned with the number of people that they are the amount of God’s presence occupies the church every Sunday. The church has to change the way they see success.
Thirdly, we have to be willing to change. Attracting people does not work and even more so for the mid-size and smaller churches. Now before you get discouraged, I truly believe this is not a bad thing but this is a God thing. I think God is pushing His church into areas of greater influence. We have to be willing the change the methods that we have become accustomed to and we have to get involved in the mission of Christ. The large mega-churches cannot be the example that we use because we do not have the resources or the workforce that they have, but we can be just as effective. God uses them to do certain things but God can use the smaller church to be just as effective doing other things. We cannot look at what the church down the road does and try to be like that. We can learn from those churches but we have to be what God has called us to be and we must be willing to change to what He is calling us to be. Jesus tells them to observe in verse 20. That word means to conform one’s practice and actions to Jesus. The church has to see what Jesus is doing and do that with all of their might.
Lastly, the church has to build a stronger community, which is connected to God and to one another. The one area that the smaller church should be best is at building a strong community within and without the church. The church has to build community and allow people to connect with others. In the building a stronger community we will see where people will go out and begin to invite others into the family. There was a time when the church did life together but for far too long we have simply come to church and then went about their business without any thought of those we see on Sunday. The church has to be a community that is a part of one another’s life, day in and day out. Community, belonging, and connecting is more attractive to people than the latest light show, or a great band. Community and connection are what people are longing for in our society.
I believe that the best days of the church are in front of us and God is preparing the church in the U.S. to experience a great revival. Our task is to win people to Jesus and we have to go out and do all that we can to make sure that happens.