The Fallacy of Church Growth – Or maybe it’s a heresy

For a decade or more there has been way too much angst over the question of church growth.  Unless a congregation was growing Sunday by Sunday it was deemed to be symptomatic of a dying Christianity.   It seems to me that there are two things wrong with that.  First, above all, we who are called to be leaders in the church are given the duty of boldly proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ Jesus.  That, and not counting, is our primary obligation.  Having said that, I confess that I’m just like anyone else and like to look at the number the ushers give me, dutifully enter it in a book, and report on it to the diocese at year-end.  The second problem has more to do with local demographics.  For instance, the community I live in has grown very little over the decades.  It’s a slow moving river of new arrivals barely outpacing recent departures.  But two things have changed.  The dominant ethnic influx is Hispanic not Anglo.  The choice of denominations and congregations has exploded.

In past generations there were a handful of congregations representing the main American denominations of Protestants and Catholics.  Everyone was expected to affiliate with one of them, just as everyone was expected to also join a local service club or fraternal organization.  It’s just what one did.  Now we have a multitude of congregations representing not only the old, but also whatever new twist or opportunistic endeavor can be imagined.  The same number of people are given an enormous choice of worship opportunities in more varieties that Campbell’s has soup.  On top of that is the absence of any cultural expectation that anyone must affiliate with any religion or belong to any civic organization in order to be an acceptable citizen of the community.

Boldly proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ, and in my case, according to the Anglican traditions of the Episcopal Church, is the appropriate response.  Growth may come or growth may not, but the Word will be boldly proclaimed.  But what bold proclamation means needs further examination.  Of course it has to include bold, effective preaching, as well as comprehensive Christian education.  However, it also has to include bold use of the best and most effective vehicles of communication with congregants and the broader community.  That does not have to mean throwing hymns up on a projection screen.  It does have to mean knowing how, where and through what the emerging majority get their information, how they process it, and how they make decisions using it.   It also has to mean that clergy, and other congregational leaders, cannot be egotistically stubborn about not knowing or using those vehicles.  And maybe that’s enough to get some conversation started.


12 thoughts on “The Fallacy of Church Growth – Or maybe it’s a heresy”

  1. oh I am sure you are tired of me, but here goes.I would counter that the church is indeed growing for the first time in centuries. Only not by numbers. I don\’t believe that picking up one\’s cross and following Jesus will be attractive to most, Christianity with only perks and no cost, is attractive, Christianity with costs and not many physical perks is not so much an attractive offer?! Especially in a materialistic world such as ours.So what does Christianity have to offer to todays world? I think if we look at the first century world we will find pretty much the same mores, just replace the gods of the Greek and Roman world with things and entertainment and here we are! What the first century Witnesses to the faith had was conviction, they had replaced the idols of their time with the living God, and this living God was made real in their physical witness. What we lack is the conviction to live the truth even in the face of empty pews.

  2. Quite a few years ago Entertainment evangelism a pastor wrote an article, “Entertainment Evangelism.”It was NOT a clever title to decry the trivialization of the gospel; he was serious! Careerism is the reward for putting institutional growth before the gospel. At the core of the struggle is valuating liturgy which retrieves our history of salvation from the history of the world. Entertainment evangelism holds that liturgy is a male thing and that nobody wants that old stuff anyway. If our churches are to grow than we must entertain. It is what Fox and CNN does to the news. RC mass is now appealing to the modern couples by making at least some services in the modern idiom.One retired pastor, a wonderful church scolor, complained that he could not find a church od his maim line denomination in which he could worship and participate in congregational prayer. It is just a bunch of individual consumers now.

  3. Oldg,Thanks for your words. Entertainment evangelism has driven the life of several of our local churches. Some of them have really thrived – for a while. It always seems to fade in time. I cannot say I\’ve done a thorough survey, but the dozen or so, mostly men, I\’ve met from those churches are indeed Christian, but with a narrow, brittle sort of faith, and they have no knowledge of Christian tradition or history. They have also talked abut their time in several churches before they got bored and dropped out from regular church attendance. It\’s all pretty small time stuff around here. Down in Bruno\’s territory it\’s big business.CP

  4. I have been thinking lately about liturgy and the story it tells. Yes there are the readings etc. but there is, in every thing done, a story. I recall in the days when I was training to be an altar boy (Roman) the priests and nuns who taught us our roles, went beyond what it looks like to be, say a torch bearer, they gave us the information we needed to understand that we were telling a story in everything we did. We were indeed the cherubim who proceeded the word, or we were indeed setting the table for God\’s feast. We understood that we were not in reality doing those things, and they were sure to make sure we knew the difference between the object and what it represents, but they also taught us the history of story telling, and that we were indeed, in our holy service preserving and spreading the message by being living story tellers. I go into this long description because, I think what I see is that we tell the story by rote, but no longer know what it means or why we tell it in a particular way. I think CP really hits it when he mentions Christian education. I think we have been so drunk on the expansion of our \”brand\” that we no longer cared why it grew, just that it grew. As long as it was growing, I don\’t think we cared to clarify or to teach really what it meant to have faith and to follow Christ. Show up, say a few words, drop a few coins in the plate, say Jesus like it is a magic talisman and your in the club. In this headiness of expansion and full pews we let the physical telling of the story fall into the stuff of magic, false and irrelevant magic. Ask most parishioners why we bow or cross ourselves at certain places in the service and you will get a variety of answers almost none having to do with the incarnation. Ask why there are bells and you get even more frightening answers. As Episcopalians we joke about how we love a parade, but do even the majority in the procession know why we have processions? All of this is indeed a form of theater, and should be entertaining and informative to those who participate and observe. but education is the key.

  5. Can \”good news\” travel, moment by moment, by Twitter? Is proclamation native to being friended on Facebook?First century Christianity was face to face in a way that it would never have occurred to anyone to even notice: your daily life was face to face. Cyberspace social networking even with webcams built into your cell is not face to face.Still I know folks whose main way of being moved to actually face some new person only begins to happen on the web. How common will that become? Very soon very common indeed.So just who among us older folk understands the obviousness of all this for the young?Who knows how to translate a Pauline letter into the feel of a podcast that might inspire a face to face encounter? Or are we (\”we\” who?) losing a feel for the face to face as such?

  6. With Bruno and Tom\’s permission, I am going to forward their comments to a couple of people on our diocesan communications task force because I believe they address very important issues.CP

  7. Bruno,I\’ve often led instructed Eucharists but have seldom talked about the story that is told in the choreographed dance that is the unspoken prayer of the liturgy. I need to do that.Tom,Adamant as I am about electronic communications, I had a real argument with one of my colleagues about not equating it with the surpassing value of face-to-face engagement. Somebody once said that if you are going to do \”high tech\” you also have to do \”high touch\” or it will backfire on you. All,Bruno\’s short video clip of Holy Week at his parish is a use of media that is shared electronically and that almost seduces the viewer into wanting to enter into the intimacy of real, personal presence.

  8. Part of the issue here, I think, is that any time success or failure is measured by one indicator, you inevitably get a false (or at least distorted) result.Like those who want to assess the effectiveness of schools and teachers by referencing only standardized test scores. The best way to improve a schools standardized test scores is to get rid of the slow kids, the learning disabled kids, the ill-behaved kids and (usually) the poor kids. But is a school that fails all those kids a successful school in any meaningful sense?So membership and attendance numbers are an indicator that tell you something about the evangelical effectiveness of a parish. Something, but not everything.Another issue I see in the thread of comments has to do with making assumptions about what it is young people want rather than engaging young people. Thus we \”dumb down\” the liturgy rather than modernizing it.We have an odd liturgical practise at the place where I currently hang my biretta. We administer Communion from a station at the foot of the sanctuary steps for those who choose to receive that way. Then we moove back up and administer at the altar rail for those who prefer to receive there. We\’ve recently had a surge in altar rail communicants, ironically led by some of the wee\’uns – who of course bring their assorted ancestors along with them. I don\’t know what\’s driving it, and I haven\’t bothered to ask.

  9. Malcolm,Thanks for wisdom. In a rural diocese like ours it\’s very easy to become obsessed with numbers because they represent dollars, and dollars are what we need to keep the place going. Very seductive, those dollars are, and not in a good way. I like what you said about actually asking the younger people what they want. A few years ago, before i retired, I polled all our kids and younger adults about changing from more traditional to more contemporary music, possibly with a \”worship band.\” Got an earful from each – NO! They get all the rock they want on the radio, iPod and at concerts. Church needs to be different. So said they all.CP

  10. Yes, of course, Steve, if you think it\’s useful, do pass the comment along.I certainly agree about \”high touch\” in relation to \”high tech.\”I suppose the question becomes:Given the temptation built into cyberspace social networking to substitute a constantly updated screen for \”being in touch,\” how do you learn the grammar of its language well enough to know how to provoke someone scanning that screen to literally move beyond it?For example: I suspect that what this \”little box\” I\’m tying in right now is telling me is: if you can\’t type your \”thought\” into literally this size space, it will be too long to digest. So I\’ve learned on this blog NOT to write long paragraphs. To try to be pithy. Try to use spaces between pity thoughts to set them off. To set a certain pace or tempo.But isn\’t that also supposed to be a mark of good English prose?Pithiness and pace: you have to get them right in cyberspace or \”good news\” won\’t travel

  11. Of course CP, anything I put out there is public domain.Thanks for the comment on the video also.I look at the different forms, like the Gospels, I used a little devise with my students, I picked four of them and assigned each a different area of Los Angeles to study for a week, each a slightly different economic status, cultural identity, historical perspective etc. The next week we looked at a story about Jesus and I asked each how they would tell the Good News to each group to make it relative, The youth were brilliant! They were able to use the language, slang, issues that were of each area and tell the story. What we all learned was that to reach different groups we had to be flexible and able to think on our feet. We also learned that the meaning, being able to convey the message was the most important part of being a \”gospeler\”.

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