Church Growth vs. Church Seasons Not every church is in the "my, how you've grown" stage, and that's okay. Jay Childs Monday, November 29, 2010
When we first came to Midland Free Church in 1990, about 80-90 people were attending, but shortly thereafter, the church began to grow. Then we exploded with growth. Over the next 15 years, we watched attendance grow to 1,500 on two different church campuses.
These years were fun, stressful, hectic, and exciting. I will never forget them!
As attendance climbed, we did the normal American thing—we built bigger facilities. We assumed the growth would never stop.
In 1996 we moved to a 14-acre campus, then in February of 2005, we moved into an even larger third campus. We beefed up our staff for the next anticipated growth phase É which we all knew was right around the corner.
But then something happened. We stopped accumulating numbers as we had for the previous 15 years. For the first time, we "leveled out" numerically. We kept attracting new people, but we also started losing more than we had before.
The new facility was so spacious that many were caught off guard by a feeling of "being lost in a crowd." Gradually a number of core families, who had been a part of Midland Free for years, began making their way to the exits.
As one exiting, former elder told me, "I didn't sign up for this—large video screens and a loud band … no offense, but it's just not us anymore."
Over the next several years, we lost about a third of our congregation to job transfers and unhappy people leaving our church.
But something else happened, too. We backfilled the people we lost with hundreds of new folks.Today we still have about 1,500 attending, but it is a very different congregation.
We've analyzed the situation again and again and again. We've come to all sorts of conclusions about why there's so much "churn," why the total number isn't increasing. We are still attracting and retaining people, otherwise we would be one-third smaller than we are today.We are still seeing new conversions to Christ, and many getting baptized. We still hear regular stories, from the stage, about how God is touching people through the ministries of Midland Free.
Our finances are doing reasonably well, considering the economic downturn, and we are still sending people to the mission field. Our elder board is healthy, and so is our staff.
Healthy churches also plateau, decline, and receive pruning from God's hand
We launch new initiatives from time to time that seem to energize the congregation. Our facility is used seven days a week by those inside and outside the church, and we have numerous outreach ministries into our community. The consensus seems to be that the preaching and worship services are stronger than ever … but … we are not growing like we used to.
Many keep asking, "What's wrong?"
I've asked it myself. Something changed.
As I've thought about this situation (for five years now), I've come to the following conclusions.
1. Our situation is not unusual. Recently our staff read Gary McIntosh's book Taking Your Church to the Next Level. McIntosh offered some encouraging reminders that the first 10 to 20 years of a church's existence are quite often the best years in terms of numerical growth.
He says that most churches reach their maximum size in year 20 to 25. That was precisely our situation. The book showed us how we were following the common life cycle of a church. McIntosh says that most congregations, regardless of denomination, stop numerical growth around year 25.
"All churches," he writes, "are inclined to follow a basic pattern of growth, plateau, and decline."
2. Nonstop numerical growth is not a biblical expectation. Ever since eminent missiologist Donald McGavran first published his seminal thoughts on church growth,American churches have often fixated on numerical growth. The basic assumption seems to be this: all churches should be growing numerically, all the time, and something is wrong if your church isn't.
But as I've searched the New Testament and read countless other books on the subject, this assumption seems to be alien to the Bible. There is simply no biblical expectation that a local congregation will continually grow in size, uninterrupted. That seems to be an American presupposition forced onto the Scriptures.
If anything, Jesus told us to expect the opposite. He did promise that the gates of hell would not stand against the church, but he also commended the church in Philadelphia for standing firm though they had "little power." He never criticizes any of the seven churches in Revelation for not accumulating numbers.He does scold, however, for moral and theological compromise.
Lesslie Newbigin writes in The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, "Reviewing the teaching of the New Testament, one would have to say, on the one hand, there is joy in the rapid growth of the church in the earliest days, but on the other, there is no evidence that numerical growth of the church is a matter of primary concern. There is no shred of evidence in Paul's letters to suggest that he judged the churches by the measure of their success in rapid numerical growth. [Nowhere is there] anxiety or an enthusiasm about the numerical growth of the church."
If churches never stopped growing—ever—they would take over whole towns. Why is it that virtually every church plateaus at certain sizes and stages?
The reason is that neverending growth isn't realistic; sociologically, theologically, or biblically.I was recently in Israel standing among the ruins of ancient synagogues in Capernaum, Korazin and En-Gedi. As I reflected on these ancient worship sites, I highly doubt if the leadership council at any of these synagogues ever sat around wondering why they hadn't grown recently. I doubt if they worked on gimmicks to grow as we often do in western congregations.Maybe, but I doubt it. They were people of the Book, by the Book, and for the Book—so help them God.
3. Healthy churches go through life cycles of growth, pruning, decline, and blessing. Healthy churches do often grow, and sometimes for long periods of time (i.e. 20-25 years!). But healthy churches also plateau, decline, and receive pruning from God's hand. Size is not in our hands.Size is in the hands of the Sovereign one.
Just like personal evangelism, our role is to communicate a message; it is God's role to bring increase or not. The same is true of church growth. Again, McIntosh writes, "Normally, churches that remain vital for long periods of time experience not one single life cycle but several life cycles of growth, plateau and decline."
We've certainly seen this over the years. Who knows why a church suddenly "starts growing" or suddenly "stops growing." Sure, sometimes it's not difficult to figure it out. But other timesit's a bit baffling. Knowing that nonstop growth is not expected of us is a relief for the pastor trying to cope with the numbers fixation of western culture.
"Success" in evangelism, missions and church size is simply not in our court. It is up to the Holy One.
4. Figuring out what season you're in is important. Churches in seasons of growth need to work strategically while the sun is shining. But woe to the church that believes that this will never end. I remember wondering, early in our season of growth, if this would ever end. I recall telling myself: If numerical growth continues at this pace, the entire county will be worshiping in our sanctuary in less than ten years!
Obviously this didn't happen. Seasoned leaders know not to take too much credit in a season of growth, and also learn not to necessarily take too much blame in a season of plateau, pruning, or decline.
Yes, poor leaders do contribute to the decline of good churches at times. Absolutely! And sinful leaders sometimes bring a church down through stupid blunders. But sometimes they do not. Again, we are responsible for the depth, health, and outreach—God is responsible for size and scope of influence. As one wise church leader told me, "You take care of the depth of your ministry; let God take care of the breadth."
5. The reality of size preference. One of the realities of moving to a new large campus was something I call "ambiance shock." I'd actually written a letter to the flock ahead of time to warn about this.
This is the unsettled, disturbing jolt of being in an entirely new atmosphere. You might have felt it before if your doctor or dentist relocated. We felt it when our favorite Pizza Hut moved into a large new building. It just didn't feel like the old place anymore! We actually don't go much anymore.
While it is indeed nice to walk into a brand new facility, there is also a loss of "the familiar." The new digs can seem impersonal and unwelcoming. It became clear to me, after we moved into our new facility, that many people not only have music preferences, but also a size preference.
Our facility is over twice the size of our former campus. Many, including myself, felt a bit lost in the crowd.Many responded well to ambiance shock, but some did not. A slow stream of core people began to leave. Their complaints shared many similarities: "not friendly anymore," "doesn't feel the same," "too impersonal."
Size matters. Large and spacious is great for some, but not for others, who prefer small and authentic.
6. The real issue is health and witness. The Scriptures teach that faithfulness for a church does not always mean neverending growth, but health, influence, and outreach. This is something that can be worked on in any season of church life.
I know of some very healthy congregations that have largely leveled out in numerical size. They are still offering solid preaching, doing a good job with evangelism and missions, and still discipling and developing leaders. But they are not accumulating a lot of numbers.
Is something wrong? Maybe. But maybe not. They are still having an important influence.They are still a worshiping community that is seeking God together and trying to expand his fame for his glory.
I lead a monthly group of men in a study of Wayne Grudem's systematic theology. A church's ministry is not just measured by its seating capacity, but also by its sending capacity.
Real growth (the Jesus way) doesn't just count noses on Sunday morning (although this is a key data point). It also takes a hard look at other things to make sure it is impacting its community and world. In reality, there are many ways a local congregation can be about the Kingdom work of making disciples.
7. Some things can be done in any season. Whatever season we are in, we should be about Kingdom business. We are to be preaching sound doctrine regardless of what season we are in. We are to be training younger leaders, practicing church discipline, and administering the sacraments no matter what season we are in. Seasoned leaders try to exegete the times and seasons and then seek to stay faithful no matter what season they are in.
Doing and being the church is essential whether numbers are exploding or flat. God has his sovereign reasons and his purposes for each church, no matter where it is in its lifecycle.