Deep and wide

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


10 thoughts on “Deep and wide

  1. Just getting bigger for the sake of bigness is pointless, and hardly reflects the countercultural perspective that needs to define our faith if we’re American.

    Healthier? Sure. With a deeper awareness of God’s presence in our lives? Absosmurfly. But if you get a vibrant group of 150 Jesus followers, it doesn’t necessarily need to be 165 the next year to be 10% more Christ-filled. I don’t think the metrics work that way.

  2. I just started reading Deep Economy by Bill McKibben, which is amazing. And it certainly unmasks our bigger is better mindset. I see where this has slipped into the church.

    But, the thing I wrestle with is… what about the base idea that I think we have something that helps people? We have communities that take care of the sick and elderly. We do a lot of good in the world. For the most part, I think people will be better off if they are part of a congregation. Then, wouldn’t we want our churches to grow? Not for the sake of the church growing, but for the sake of the person….

  3. Re: churches that know they are dying versus the ones who think they are fine. The encouraging thing . . . in a peculiar way . . . is that there will usually be at least one visionary person in the we’re-fine-church that sees the reality and starts changing things. That person is sometimes ridiculed or worse, but they are the heroes. Often that person is not the pastor. The sadder thing is watching a pastor believe everything is fine when it’s not.

  4. I actually think our lack of growth has a lot to do with the pastors. Whenever I say that I am accused of “Blaming the pastor.” But too often, the clergy in the PCUSA lack the risk-taking mentality required to change with a culture that is changing so fast it is amazing. Why are pastors so often risk averse? I’m not sure. Jesus certainly wasn’t. Paul wasn’t. Sojourner Truth wasn’t. Archbishop Tutu isn’t.
    The nature of the God’s cosmos is that we change (evolve) or die. We are dying because we refuse to change. Leadership (pastoral and lay) has bear some responsibility for our unwillingness to change.

  5. It was wonderful to spend time with you Carol and to share some very deep and rich conversation! The depthing question is indeed a crucial one for us in the church. We certainly do not reject growth. We have some Good News to share and its important to do that as widely as possible. But, as you know, it is important that if any metrics are going to define “church success” (an oxymoron that I won’t go into now) they have to be metrics about “quality or depth” of practice leading to transformed individuals and society. We find too much emphasis on membership numerics that ends there – without any theologically informed thought about the means that lead to such an end. We can see you are doing wonderfully promising things in the practice space and the growth leads from that – perhaps I can call that “good growth.”

  6. i am always torn between growing deeper and growing wider. if we focus on doing one (hoping silently that the other will follow), and neglect the work of making the other happen, then i feel like we are shortchanging our calling. as a pastor in a small church, it is much safer for us to say, “we’re focusing on growing deeper. who wants to be a big mcChurch like those people?!” than it is to ask, “why do we find it so difficult to build new relationships (i like to think of discipleship as relationship-building) with people in the neighborhood and community around us?”

  7. Adrian,

    I just found your comment, it was swimming around in the spam! It was wonderful to meet you as well. I can’t wait to read about what you learn on your whirlwind tour and more about your work.

    Safe travels!

  8. Carol, it was great to meet and talk with you. The visist was a significant reminder about the church, the people of God, as witness, companion and bearer ot God’s promise to a neighbourhood, One sees and senses this reality in the story of Miriam’s Kitchen, the art project and many other aspsects of the Church’s callings to be true to the vocation the Spirit graciously gives. The ‘stuff’ of growth is to be found in the vitaly of the vocation lived out, as well as in the grace growth and numerical growth such a vocation brings. Yes I am perplexed by the Church Growth movement, first becuase it is so focused on the church and it’s mission rather than assisting the people of God to find their life in the mission of God. The Church does not have a mission so much as the mission of God has a church. Someone has suggested that the marks of the Church might be reversed from the usual, creedal order – sent, universal, holy, one. I don’t see the Church Growth and mega church here. Nor do I see the Church growth movement in a more contemporary understanding of the marks of the missional church – neighbor & partner / companion, communictor of promise, vocational community, communion bearer, united across diversity. I am perplexed, not discouraged. I am pondering, not dismissing -the way of faith-filled relationships and holy vocation. So, what do others think?

  9. John,

    It was great to meet you, and I can’t wait to hear more about your travels.

    When we receive members into the church, we ask them if they will strive to grow spiritually (or something to that effect…). I like to think that the act of going deeper spiritually makes the growth out into the community and the world happen naturally.

    One thing that I do like about the church now is that the people are there because they want to be. Since the societal norm of church going has been lifted, our pews are filled with people who have a deep sense of commitment. That’s a beautiful thing.

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