“What does it take to grow a church?” I meet pastors and church leaders all across the country in a variety of contexts and one thing they have in common is that they want their churches to grow. Obviously, there are some exceptions. In every town there are those one or two churches that do not want their lives or their children stained by the unwashed outside their doors so they withdraw, bolt the doors and are content to find their way in faith even if there are masses outside their doors that are not. These churches, however, are a very small percentage—likely less than even one whole percent of the churches in your town or my town or our region.
That means that pastors and leaders of churches of all shapes, sizes and expressions want to reach people—they want their church to grow. So they ask the question, they attend seminars and conferences and read church growth books in order to attain that end. The problem is that the end hasn’t changed, but the means to that end are forever in flux. Those who would honestly like their church to grow must approach the means with suspended assumptions and an understanding that no one can approach the problem by every means and so they must find the means that is right for them. The question that is generally asked, must be specified—you have to move from “what does it take to grow a church?” to “what does it take to grow my or our church?”
I am not asking you to pose this question from a possessive place, but from a specific place recognizing that the culture, circumstances and needs of your community or the community you desire to reach are as unique as that community itself.
I live in the deep south state of Mississippi. Very few states are as “deep south” as my home. There are other states that are geographically further south, but none of them more culturally so than Mississippi. What would work in my place, might not make sense at all in your place.
When I was in seminary working on my Doctor of Ministry degree one of my colleagues was a Lutheran pastor from Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. Thoroughly Scandinavian in nature, he began to describe to me a Lutheran “fish supper” at his church in which people lined up to eat a delicacy called Lutefisk. Lutefisk, by his description was a Codfish steak soaked in lye until it reached the consistency and color of white Jell-O. I listened in horror, my appetite ruined by the idea of his description as I recounted the deep south delicacy of Mississippi farm-raised catfish, deep fried with hushpuppies (fried bread) and coleslaw. I would never serve Ludefisk, and he would never serve fried Catfish—two different approaches to the same issue. What would work in his place didn’t make sense in my place at all.
But the particulars are even more precise within regions. Within Mississippi the geographic regions are unique and within those geographic regions each community is unique and this is no less true of your area or region though it is vastly different than mine. What is needed then is not a blanket program—but a customizeable approach.
What I have in mind is not one location that has a buffet of ministry options where everyone finds something. Instead what I call the Go-To Church is one that is in multiple locations with multiple expressions speaking the language of each community in order to proclaim the Gospel in an understandable way.
The apostle Paul was forever customizing his presentation of the Gospel in order that his hearers might be open to the message he was proclaiming. In Athens, Paul begins with the “very religious” nature of the culture to introduce them to a God who they previously addressed as “an unknown God” (Acts 17:23). This customizing strategy was at the heart of Paul’s efforts to “try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
In order to step into this customizing approach and build a Go-To Church that reaches our world for Christ means the suspending of many of our assumptions about how the church looks and acts in the world it seeks to reach.
The first assumption that must be suspended is that church size is related to effectiveness. Big churches have more resources; small churches have more intimacy and family feel—so they say. More important than size and the marketable perceptions of any church is the understanding that any size church that does not understand the needs of its community and remain nimble enough to change its’ Gospel delivery system in order to reach people and meet their needs is very likely to go away.
In addition to suspending our assumptions about the size of the church as it relates to its effectiveness, we must also suspend our ideas regarding an attractional versus a missional approach to ministry. Among the most vibrant congregations leaders are in conversation about how to maintain a tension between the two ministry models. Attractional leaders are finding that one of the things that is most attractional about their churches is a missional engagement that asks people to give their lives away. And, missional leaders are finding that one of the things that is most missional is a church that works hard to serve the unreached in order to connect them to Christ who engages them in missional service. An attractional model that does not send people out in mission or a missional model that does not draw people to Christ presents a truncated Gospel that neither wins people for Christ nor disciples them.
Attractional leaders are finding that one of the things that is most attractional about their churches is a missional engagement that asks people to give their lives away.
One last assumption that must be suspended as we ask, “what will make my church grow?” is the assumption that there is a final answer. If you like finality, completion, and checklists that you never have to return too, you will be ineffective or eternally unsettled. Those are your only two options. One of the reasons that our churches do not effectively reach people and thereby grow is that we want to answer the question once and for all “what does it take to grow our church?”
If we can suspend these assumptions and be open to the unique ways God would use us to proclaim the message of Christ in the world—then we become a Go-To Church instead of a Come-Here Church. In this article I have examined the need to suspend assumptions, my forthcoming book The Go To Church is a conversation in the other half of this exercise—customizing ministry to fit all the communities to which God sends us!
I invite you to read it, interact with it, question it…because what we hold in common with other churches, the desire to see our churches grow, we hold in common with God himself—to see the Church—the Body of Christ grow. It was for this end that he said to the disciples—”Go.”