As we enter into – or begin to acknowledge – a new era in the life of the church, words like growing church get tossed around by church leaders. Or maybe you hear about congregational vitality, or congregational health. They are all related, and all often equally undefined.
Between my work as a redevelopment (restart/renewal) pastor and as a consultant with LEAD, I have thought a good deal about the idea of growth in the context of congregational life.
Whatever the standard is for your metrics, context is king.
If you live in a rural area or a small town where perhaps the overall population is decreasing at a rate of 2% a year, it is a great achievement if your worship attendance holds even from one year to another. Similarly if you live is a suburban setting where there is high population turnover and the overall population is increasing by 10% a year, it is probably not a healthy sign if your worship attendance is holding even.
This standard – taking into account the local factors – is extremely important when talking about any indicators of growth. What is the job market like, and the median income? What are the schedule pressures like on families? What is the age of the surrounding population? All of these contextual questions and more must be taken into account when looking at growth in the church.
Growth is Holistic
Worship attendance is a helpful number to look at – but it is by no means the only number!
LEAD has been doing some great work around helping congregations figure out metrics that help to measure ministry in ways that make sense with their values.
Talking about growth has to take a holistic approach. Are we growing in numbers, discipleship, outreach, generosity, and relationship? They all work together.
Too often in the church we zero in on one of those sorts of measures over against the others. A healthy approach to growth looks at them all together – and the interplay between them. Some examples of this might be things like the percentage of members in worship each week, or the number of people involved in small groups, or the number of service hours spent in the community each week.
When we only consider one or two of these factors, we are only getting part of the picture. I have even watched as leaders lift one part of the picture, to distract from problems in other areas.
A healthy, growing church is honest and looks at all these factors together.
Growth is Consistent
There are definitely season for everything (turn, turn, turn). But a church that is growing will experience some consistency in its growth.
Perhaps one year the congregation grows a little deeper in faith, and the next year they grow a little larger in worship, and the following year they grow in their service to others. That is one advantage of taking a holistic approach to growth – it helps us to see the whole picture.
There is a tendency to focus on the short term. What does worship attendance look like this month – or even this year? But it is often helpful to zoom out and look at the longer trends. Over the last five years – are we experiencing a trend of more or less people in small groups?
It is important for us to talk about church growth – about God who calls us to thrive in the context in which we have been planted. To be sure, there are faithful ministries that are not growing – for contextual reasons they are in a different season of their congregational life. But most of us in ministry are called by God to lead our communities through growth. Growth that is contextual, holistic, and consistent.
In Ephesians, Paul says that we have been equipped for the work of building up the body of Christ. Let’s get to work.
Read more about LEAD’s resource “Faithful Metrics” – which is a great resource of establishing contextual, holistic metrics in your setting.
Have a look at my thoughts on the renewal ministry to which we are all called.