Church Growth Plans vs. End of Life Plans

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“Do you have a growth plan or an end of life plan?” is a question every Methodist church is being encouraged to answer following this year’s annual Conference in Great Britain.

It is not an easy question either to ask or to answer. It is hard to know where to start or how to engage churches with this, particularly if their only concept of a growth plan is “to do what we’ve always done but a bit better.” If taken seriously, it will require difficult and honest conversations and decision making. For many churches, it is such a daunting question that the easiest approach will be avoidance or denial.

What follows are some of my thoughts as I have reflected on this question and my role in helping churches to engage with it, which I shared at our district synod.

Asking the Wrong Question

I think a better question to ask is “do you have a growth plan and an end of life plan?”  I don’t think that this should be an either/or question but that we need to find a way of holding the two together. Any decisions about a church’s future should be about growth.  If the end of a church’s life or a particular activity enables growth, then “end of life” is part of a growth plan and not something separate.

A Plan for Fruitfulness

What if, instead of talking about growth or end of life, we talked about fruitfulness?  If a church doesn’t know what growth could look like, or isn’t clear about their purpose, talking about fruitfulness could help them to visualize and focus on what they are called to be and do.

Fruitfulness in scripture is a sign of God’s blessing and is frequently used in relation to increasing in number. The Prophets speak of barrenness when warning of God’s impending judgement, and fruitfulness as a symbol of future blessing when God’s people turn back to God and renew their covenant. Fruitfulness is God’s doing. God’s promise. God’s blessing.

In her presidential address, the President of the Conference quoted the following question: “If a local church has consistently failed to make new disciples, is it still Church?” (source) One way of answering this would be to ask: “If an apple tree consistently fails to produce apples, is it still an apple tree?” Yes, it is—the tree is what it is because of its DNA.  Similarly, the church is the church by the grace of God. God’s grace is its DNA. Therefore, a different question, and a harder one to face, is: is God no longer blessing the church if the church is not making new disciples (i.e. being fruitful and increasing in number)?

Fruitfulness is Everyone’s Responsibility

There are many jobs to do in a garden: clearing away the leaves, pruning, cutting out dead growth, mowing the lawn, digging over the vegetable patch, weeding, watering and so on.  Some jobs require much more skill or knowledge than others, but there is always something everyone, of any age, can do to ensure fruitfulness and that the garden as a whole flourishes. Fruitfulness may be God’s blessing and in his control, but it requires the whole church to play its part, each one of us having fruitfulness (for the sake of the Kingdom) as part of our ‘job description’ whatever God has called us to do, wherever God has placed us.

Working with a Natural Rhythm

Just as Ecclesiastes reminds us that “there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” including “a time to plant and a time to uproot” (3:1-2), Jesus seems to suggest in John 15 that there is also a ‘time to cut off and a time to prune’ – showing us how to hold growth and end of life together for the sake of being “even more fruitful.” (v.2) There is a natural rhythm to fruitfulness. The ground needs to be prepared.  Seeds need planting then feeding, growth needs tending and nurturing before fruit can grow and be harvested. Then comes the task of pruning, cutting back or digging out before the new season and the cycle begins again.

Many churches I have been involved with over the years have been very good at planting seeds, especially through children’s holiday clubs.  Each year has seen lots of children come for a week of bible based activities, many of whom the church has had little or no contact with before. These churches rejoiced that many “seeds of the gospel” had been “planted” and have done the same, faithfully, year after year – always hopeful that some fruit would come in the form of belonging to the church.  An invitation was always made to join the church for worship the following Sunday or to join an existing children’s group, whether it was suitable or not – but it rarely happened. My hope is that someone else may have nurtured those seeds and are now reaping the harvest.  y fear is that no one did and they remain undisturbed or forgotten.

What if these churches begin to pray differently by asking God: “What do we need to do differently to nurture the seeds that we have planted? What do we need to stop doing or what needs pruning so that these seeds will bear fruit? What would the church look like if we were good at more than planting seeds?”

Now this is beginning to sound like a growth plan!

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