Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Endless Growth vrs. Church Health (A diary of PCC)

I have always been told that if a church isn’t experiencing endless numerical growth, or has plateaued, something must be terribly wrong.  After all, healthy things grow and never stop.  Right?

Nothing in nature supports the idea that living things keep growing bigger and never stop.  In fact, in the natural order of God’s creation, it’s quite the opposite.  All living things grow to a size predetermined by DNA and environment.  Then they spend their energy sustaining life at the size God has ordained.

Some are ants.  Some are elephants.  Most life forms are somewhere in-between.  But once a living thing reaches its predetermined physical size, it stops growing larger.  It’s not a matter of unhealthiness.  It’s a matter of God’s design.

Applied to churches, the idea of endless growth is dangerous:

1.  It can cause people in big churches to get puffed up.  Have you ever noticed that the primary proponents of endless church growth are those who already serve in an elephant-sized ministry? 

2.  It can discourage people in smaller churches.  There is a plethora of pastors, church leaders, and church members who are embarrassed of their church size.  They feel guilty or inadequate for not growing beyond what their gifting, spiritual DNA, or fertility of the harvest field they serve in will allow.

3.  It tempts church leaders who face a slow growth rate, or a plateau, to take organizational steroids.  Instead of accepting God’s ordained size for our church and faithfully shepherding the flock God has given, we can be tempted to chase after the latest theory, hot-off-the-shelf programs, or worse, gimmicks, believing they will help us to keep growing.  It is a mistake to believe that bigger is always better.  But as we all know, steroids can make us bigger, but they do not make us healthier.  If anything, steroids usually make the human body unhealthy.  The parallels are obvious.  Draw your own conclusions. 

I wrote a related article back in July – The Tyranny of Always Striving for the Next Level – about this pressure to keep pushing for physical growth.  It prompted a few comments.   If you are interested in the subject:  See Here 

Here are the facts about PCC.  We are a medium-sized church.  That makes us larger than a lot of churches, but not as big as others.  Our size has been determined by a lot of factors:  our unique DNA, the spiritual receptivity in this community, the fertility of our harvest field, our building size, the limit of our seating capacity, or perhaps even the limits of our leadership abilities.  It’s also a possibility that our current size is actually God’s will for us.  Maybe it’s a combination of all these factors.  Whatever the case, I’m resting in the knowledge that this is the size we are supposed to be for this season in our journey.

We’ve experienced steady, consistent growth over the years, and it has been ‘healthy’ growth.  Yet we find it difficult to break through the threshold of the next level, so this may be our optimum size.  One thing is for certain, we are so well established and healthy that, short of a colossal disaster, there’s little chance of a significant decline.  We’re here to stay.

This is also the season for us to focus on spiritual maturity like never before.  We want to keep going deeper, not just broader.

At the beginning of this year (2012) we made the decision to cancel our second service and go back to one service.  This was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.  Here’s why:  as a result of that decision our church has “right-sized” itself to an attendance level that is more manageable for us to take care of.  Whereas before, we were top-heavy with too many fringe followers and consumers – making us wobbly and unwieldy – we now have more dedicated followers of Jesus Christ.

We also thought we could do a better job of shepherding our church family after going to one service, (meaning we would have one congregation to take care of instead of two).  The plan was that we would spend the year 2012 focusing on just that – loving them, discipling them, leading them in worship, administering the sacraments, and providing a better pastoral covering.  In other words, we would spend our energy sustaining the church God has given us, focusing on church health and spiritual formation.  To say it another way:  Going deeper instead of broader.  

I’m glad to say that we are seeing fruit from this effort.  We’ve been emphasizing discipleship like never before.  The weekend services are better than they ever have been.  Our congregation is receiving a steady diet of strong meat from God's Word and asking for more.  

Along the way I’ve been challenging men to step up and fill their God ordained rolls in the home and the church, and this has had the positive effect of closing the gender gap at PCC.  We’ve also begun talking about inter-generational ministry – emphasizing the importance of the age groups becoming more integrated together rather than being structurally segregated.  This is helping to close the generation gap. 

Beginning as far back as 2010 I started this conversation (with church members, in staff meetings, with newcomers, and on this blog) about getting back to basics in the way we do ministry.  I’ve been emphasizing the need to keep things simple; avoiding excessive busyness; narrowing our focus; having margin on the church calendar; minimizing expenses and living within our means; emphasizing organic community instead of manufacturing community through the organizational machinery; being more relational instead of event-driven; the reality of a two time-slot world and the futility of competing against it; insisting that lay leaders own their ministry without expecting the staff to run them; stressing the importance that each individual is responsible in their own spiritual growth; and emphasizing the fact that your family is your first ministry – even ahead of the church’s constant appeals for you to do more.

Most importantly, I have stressed the importance of simply resting in God, allowing His Spirit to do most of the work of adding people to this church and cultivating spiritual depth within us.

To be frank and honest, a lot of people have ignored the conversation.  Some have even disagreed with me, continuing to do what they’ve always done.  But more than enough people have gotten on board with this effort that it’s finally beginning to make a real difference.  Many of the families at PCC are happier, less stressed out, and enjoying their families like never before because they realize this church is no longer in competition with their family time.    Plus, they are experiencing better spiritual growth because they have taken ownership of their own spiritual formaiton.

And guess what else?  It’s working for our church too!  The tide is turning.  PCC is stronger and healthier (in many respects) than we have been in a long time. The evidence is in – we’re getting better, deeper, stronger, and healthier.

Yet, there is more to be done.  We have more ‘body building’ to do. 

2013 is going to be a breakthrough year for us on a lot of fronts.  I can feel it.  This year (2012) has been a good year for me to rest, regain clarity, and concentrate on our future.  Things are coming into focus for me; things that I will be sharing soon.  And if (or when) God ordains another momentum of numerical growth for us, we’ll embrace it.  But at all costs, we will resist the temptation to rely upon spiritual steroids to advance this church.  We have never done that, and we never will.

Remember – we’re going deeper, not just broader. 


James Wheelus said...

I pray that God continues feeding the roots of our tree known as PCC, and that more families can experience the joy, peace & other blessings that comes from being a follower and doer of and for Jesus Christ. It's the way to life!

In all your ways acknowledge Him, and he shall direct your paths. Proverbs 3:6

Ron said...

Well-said, James.