I met with the Adrian Pyle and John Emmett, two mission specialists from the Uniting Church in Australia, recently. They are taking a tour of different innovative churches in the United States, learning from what we’re doing.
Adrian and John explained that they are taking in a great deal, but most of what they’re witnessing is confirmation of what they’re already doing. And they said that there was a lot that the church in the United States could learn from congregations in Australia. Adrian explained that they have been in decline for a long time. They have a lack of resources and much smaller congregations. With that combination, there’s much more willingness to try new things.
(Speaking of resources, they told me how many people read Tribal Church in Australia and I asked why. I was surprised because so much of the data in it seems particular to the U.S. First, they said it’s because it’s from a progressive viewpoint, and most books on reaching out to young adults are more conservative. But they also said that the church leadership market is so small in Australia that it’s hard for Australian writers to get published. They often have to rely on material from the U.S. I take so much for granted. I had no idea.)
Another thing that John noted that we could learn from the church in Australia: many churches here are looking to build a megachurch, but in the UCA, they are less interested in growing bigger and more interested in going deeper. They seemed pretty perplexed by our church growth movement.
I know what Adrian means about the willingness to change. I have worked in two small, declining congregations. We were able to turn around both of them and begin a process of spiritual revitalization and growth. But I learned that there was a world of difference between serving a church that knows it’s dying and will do whatever it takes, and a congregation that thinks they’re fine as they are and will reject every new idea.
I am afraid that we have too many churches in the latter category. And so it will be our jobs, as church leaders, to walk a careful balance. We need point out the decline, to make sure that people understand the urgency, without continuing a vicious cycle of despair. Somehow, we need to make sure our congregations understand that we’re not reaching a new generation, and yet offer them hope and some possibility.
I am not a mega-church person. My parents are. They usually attend churches that suddenly appear, out of no where, populated with hundreds of people, like a mushroom village that suddenly grows up on our lawn. But I’ve also seen the same churches split, and split again, and again. There have been pastors run out of town, and some who should have been, and endless sex scandals…. Way too much drama for me.
I have always been interested in churches growing a healthy bit every year. Actually, in every church I’ve served, it’s been a necessity for me. I mean, my job has always depended on additional income, which usually depends on a church growing. Even in my current position, where there’s a healthy endowment, I learned very quickly that I needed to make church growth a goal if I wanted to keep my position. And then the church grew, and we needed a DCE, and money for that…
But then, a church doesn’t grow because it needs more money. More than the necessary income, the congregations have that passion and desire to make sure that we reach people. I love the church and I think it’s good for people to be in community. So, I usually make spiritual and numeric growth a goal. It doesn’t happen every year, but I like to see an overall steady increase.
What do you think? How do you approach church growth? Nationally, our churches are declining. It’s not the 1950s. Usually, it has very little to do with the pastor. So, is the idea of growing wider a healthy goal for us? Or is it just part of our American bigger-is-better mentality? Should our focus shift more to going deeper?
photo’s by supercamel