Numbered lists seem to be all the rage these days. A dear friend of mine mentioned this the other day in a post on Facebook, along with voicing his skepticism about the possibility of effectively dealing with complex topics in “a few numbered platitudes.” While I share that skepticism, I think such lists have value as a starting point for a conversation. It is also often helpful to be able to say, “there are many things worth doing, but these are the things we must do.”
Every congregation I am aware of says that they want to grow, and yet most are not. My observation is that many churches look for quick fix programs to foster growth, but never seek to address the inherent cultural and structural issues that are preventing them from growing. An insight from family systems theory is helpful here: if the system is stagnant, rather than working harder at the driving forces of change, try removing some of the restraining forces that are preventing change. In the case of congregational growth, such restraining forces include: lack of love, fear, finger-pointing/blaming, self-centeredness, and resistance to change itself.
And so, I offer the following numbered list of things I believe congregations must do if they desire to grow. This is by no means an exhaustive list; I think it’s possible to do all of these things and still not grow (at least numerically), and I think there are a lot of other things congregations need to do if they are serious about sharing the good news of Jesus with those who have not yet heard it. From what I have read and from what I have seen firsthand, however, these are the things that I don’t believe a church can grow without.
Ten (and a half) Commandments of a Growing Church
- Love one another. (John 13:34-35) Okay, this should be obvious, and it should be a given in the church, but unfortunately it’s not. And newcomers to churches can sense it, just like teachers in high schools aren’t nearly as deaf as their students think they are. If members are being cranky, nasty and negative with and about each other, why would anyone want to join?
- Convert your members into disciples. Soak yourself in the scriptures. Pray mightily. Give generously. Worship and fellowship and outdo one another in service. That’s how Acts 2:42-47 describes the church in the immediate aftermath of Pentecost. It also says that church grew by the day.
- Stop blaming people who don’t come to church for not coming to church. No, seriously. Just stop it. It’s not helping. Instead of wondering why “those people” don’t come, ask them. And then take concrete, positive action to remove barriers, even if it is inconvenient to you or it means doing something that is not your cup of tea. And while we’re on the subject of “those people,” stop talking or even thinking in terms of “us vs. them”. Just before his arrest, Jesus prayed, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11b) I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there ain’t no us and them in the body of Christ; there’s just us.
- Think in terms of what you can give, not what you can get. How many times have you heard someone say, “We need to get more members so that _________”? This is antithetical to Jesus. Really. Try to find one place in any of the four Gospels where Jesus did something based on what he would get out of it. Every single thing Jesus did was about loving and serving others. Everything we do should be, too.
- Celebrate. Celebrate everything you can think of to celebrate, and then think of new things to celebrate. A lot of people love going to parties, but hate going to church. Why is that? Jesus, by the way, spent a lot more time at parties than in the temple. He also promised us joy. So if that joy is lacking in your church, find ways to jumpstart it.
- Just say no to fear. “Fear not, little flock, for it is the Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32) Fear is a nasty little liar, and it makes us do all kinds of things we wouldn’t ordinarily do. Don’t listen to it. Remember, Peter could walk on water until his fear got the best of him. (Matt. 14:29-30)
- Take risks. Jesus told Simon Peter that the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against his church. (Matt. 16:18) If the gates of hell can’t break the church, then we can’t mess it up that bad, either. The standard response to “We’ve never done it that way before” should be “Let’s give it a whirl!”
- Be open to change. The risen and exalted Christ proclaims to us, “See, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5) If nothing new has happened in your church in the last few years (or, heaven forbid, few decades), you have to wonder if we’re getting in the way of letting Christ make things new. Growth equals change, and if you’re not open to change you’re really not open to growth. Plus, change is the nature of all living things. The only things that don’t change are things with no life in them. Honoring the past is one thing, but getting stuck there is another, and there is a difference between fidelity and morbidity.
- Value young people. Young people are NOT the future of the church; they ARE the church. Adults, by default, get more voice and more attention in the church. Be intentional about letting the little children come and not hindering them. (Matt. 19:14)
- Hold one another accountable in love. Jesus had enormous patience with his disciples, but he wasn’t shy about correcting them when they got off course. (Luke 9:54-55) Loving one another doesn’t mean tolerating or enabling unloving behavior, and good intentions are no excuse for treating other people badly. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for someone is say, “I love you, and you have to stop doing this.”