Church Growth: Three Assumptions

by | Nov 21, 2018 | Church Analytics, Church Health | 0 comments

As a pastor, I was very interested in Church growth. I desired nothing more than to see the Church grow. My hope was for the church I was a part of to grow.

As a researcher, I’m keenly interested in Church growth, too. But for reasons altogether different. I want to get to the bottom of things by using statistics. Then, I want those statistics to tell me something I don’t yet know. I want it to challenge my long-held assumptions so that I can interpret the world and my experience in a better way.

And that’s what led me to this article.

As I’ve considered Church growth, I think there are three ways that we as churches, pastors, and leaders contemplate the growth of our church, a church, and the Church.

What’s more, I don’t think they are overly helpful. Don’t get me wrong, I think they come from a divine desire to see God’s Kingdom expand; however, I think that desire blinds us to certain realities.

Let’s examine the three trends I’ve uncovered.

Divine Desires.

As I’ve considered it, there are three trends, or scenarios, that are hidden behind a divine desire. I want to unpack those here.

Scenario 1 – Assumed Growth

https://anthonyvanderlaan.com/?p=25143&preview=true

As you can see from the diagram, there is a theory that churches grow in a linear fashion. Give it enough time, and every church will grow. While it won’t necessarily be perfectly linear like this diagram represents, the trend will, generally, be this way over time.

Why do we want this theory to be true? Easy. Because God’s Kingdom is desirable and you want others to fall in love with it as you did.

It’s all fun and games to hold to this theory; that is until your church doesn’t grow as you thought. So, when the theory doesn’t square with the perceived reality, it’s time to create a new theory based on different assumptions.

Why? Because God’s Kingdom is desirable and you want others to fall in love with it as you did.

Scenario 3 – At Some Point Our Hard Work Will Pay Off

You read that right; scenario three comes after scenario one. There’s a good reason for that. In scenario one the assumption was that your church growth pattern would be smooth and you could bank on it.

That didn’t seem to be happening in the amount of time you thought it would, so it was time for a new theory.

In this case, time wasn’t cooperating.

But what if time could change?

What if, the growth pattern was no longer steady and linear, but had an inflexion point somewhere down the line?

Voila! Scenario Three. Anthony Vander Laan Church Growth Scenario Three

Growth isn’t happening now, but let’s keep working hard and growth will happen at a distant point in time. We can’t say for certain what point in time that will be, but it’s out there. And that will get us back on track.

So we wait.

Why? Because God’s Kingdom is desirable and you want others to fall in love with it as you did.

So that takes care of the variable that wasn’t working.

Expand time to be indefinite, and we can still believe what we like while holding to our new assumptions.

But what if growth happens soon and radically? Then Scenarios One and Three are moot.

That’s where Scenario Two comes in.

Scenario 2 – God’s Spirit Has Blessed Our Growth

Anthony Vander Laan Church Growth Scenario Two

See, when our churches grow, it always seems to take less time than it did and is far more exciting. Furthermore, it often seems to be the result of God partnering with what we are doing us partnering with what God was doing.

I’m not here to argue with that, either.

Some of you thought I might, I know. Don’t forget I’m all for churches growing. I’m also about data, though. I don’t like data manipulation based on bad assumptions. It perpetuates an unhelpful way of considering the Church, God’s Kingdom, and the transformation we speak so freely about.

And that’s what I think each of these scenarios does.

This is why Scenario Two falls third in the line, too.

If we don’t see the linear growth we first assumed, we hedge our bets and skip to Scenario Three. Growth will happen someday. Let’s just keep at it and wait.

BUT.

If we see the explosive growth we desire, then Scenario Two can shorten our wait time, cancelling the need for Scenario Three, and it can easily follow Scenario One in the sequence of church growth. In fact, in a weird way, it validates Scenario One but proves to us that God exists, he’s good, and his desire is for church growth.

Once again, I’m not here to argue that any of this could happen. Contrary to that, I’m here to suggest that we can’t assume any of these things will happen.

Numerical growth is not a given, and hard work does not equate to growth. Moreover, God’s blessing cannot, and should not, be reduced to attendance. I think it cheapens God, his purposes, his Kingdom, and our activity in the name of God.

The Realities.

I said it earlier, but the desire to see God’s Church grow is divine. After all, we are told in Philippians 2 that

9 “God exalted him to the highest place

    and gave him the name that is above every name,

10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

    to the glory of God the Father.” [emphasis mine]

The impulse is for everything to fall under the Lordship of Christ. And, truthfully, one day it will.

However, I think we make three bad assumptions when it comes to church growth here and now.

First, we assume church growth.

That’s right, our outcome is the first bad assumption.

Consider the facts. Research from Barna (2016) states that 46% of churches have a regular attendance of fewer than 100 people. That statistic alone should throw growth as the most pressing outcome right out of the equation. But for those of us that need more information, consider that the same study says that nearly three-quarters of all church attendees are part of a church that is less than 500 people in attendance.

So, even if growth happens, it’s not the explosive or large-scale growth that we have seen with the handful of megachurches we wish our church was like. That’s just a fact.

The reality is: most churches don’t grow past 100 people in attendance. And that’s okay.

Second, we assume that God’s activity is always explosive.

It seems safe to assume this, too. Especially considering the promise in Acts 1 and the events of Acts 2 and the whole Greek word δύναμις. It suggests explosive power for growth, and so we infer that when our church growth is explosive it’s God. That’s the dangerous part. Inferring that because it happened then it will happen now.

The truth is, if that hasn’t happened in our churches, we infer God hasn’t done his thing yet. However, we cling to the hope that there will come a time that God blesses us. But until then, we’ve worked hard in the trenches for the growth we’ve seen.

Let’s face it, we don’t verbalize this assumption but we hold to it. The truth of the matter, though, is that no matter what kind of growth we see (or don’t see), it’s all God’s fault. He was pretty clear that he would build the Church. He was also pretty clear that nothing could stand against it.

The reality is: God moves as he chooses. Whether it’s explosive or slow, it’s always powerful.

I’d rather bank on that than my own efforts.

Third, we assume growth is good.

I’m not suggesting growth is necessarily bad. However, I do want us to be cautious of conceptualizing growth as solely good. As Newton’s First Law of Motion states, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

Growth will always have consequences. Some are good, and some are bad. Some are helpful, and some are harmful. Some are exciting, and some are maddening. Some help God’s Kingdom, and some harm it.

The reality is: Growth is neither solely good nor solely bad. It simply is.

Eugene Peterson on Church Size.

In the wake of Eugene Peterson’s death, I came across a personal letter he wrote. It had to do with our third assumption that growth is good.

Below is an excerpt:

Dear Phillip,

I’ve been thinking about our conversation last week and want to respond to what you anticipate in your new congregation. You mentioned its prominence in the town, a center, a kind of cathedral church that would be able to provide influence for the Christian message far beyond its walls. Did I hear you right?

I certainly understand the appeal and feel it myself frequently. But I am also suspicious of the appeal and believe that gratifying it is destructive both to the gospel and the pastoral vocation. It is the kind of thing America specializes in, and one of the consequences is that American religion and the pastoral vocation are in a shabby state.

It is also the kind of thing for which we have abundant documentation through twenty centuries now, of debilitating both congregation and pastor. In general terms, it is the devil’s temptation to Jesus to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple. Every time the church’s leaders depersonalize, even a little, the worshipping/loving community, the gospel is weakened. And size is the great depersonalizer. Kierkegaard’s criticism is still cogent: “the more people, the less truth.”

It’s an unintended consequence of church growth. It doesn’t always paralyze a church, and there are ways to mitigate the effects of growth and size; but if you’re not even thinking about it, it will cripple you.

So where do you go from here?

Check Your Assumptions.

It’s nothing short of miraculous for a person to check on their assumptions. We all have them. We all operate out of them. Few of us stop to consider them.

I think we all must check them though.

The one assumption I want all of us (myself included) to keep checking on has to do with church growth and attendance. We need to question the assumption that churches will grow. I think we can do that by asking the following questions:

1. Why do I believe our church has to grow?

(Don’t recite statistics to answer this question. The ones you do consider will likely be proof-texted ‘best practices’ that large churches have in common. The problem with doing this is that we assume causality between these practices and growth. That’s something you cannot infer. In fact, it’s more likely that their best practices are a response to their current realities, not what caused them. Instead, ask yourself this question on a gut-level. Why do I believe our church has to grow? What data leads me to believe this?)

2. Is my desire for church growth about what I’m doing and that I hope God sees? Or is it about what God’s doing and me being swept up in it?

3. Who is in charge of building the Church? What role does that leave for me?

4. If we aren’t guaranteed to grow, what would God have us do?

5. Why would it be so bad if we, as a church, declined in size? Would that change God’s Kingdom?

6. If we disappeared tomorrow, would that matter to anyone aside from me since my paycheck would vanish?

These are simply a few questions to get the ball rolling. But I think we need to ask them. I think our unchecked assumptions can lead to unfounded expectations that can lead to anxiety, and that does not often help good decision-making.

I think it’s also detrimental to your church if assumptions run wild.

One last thing. If you could comment below about what other questions you are asking to challenge your long-held assumptions, I’d be most appreciative. I’d love to respond and start a conversation with you about it, too.

By no means do I have a corner on the market, but I do think there’s something deeply spiritual about asking questions and sharing them with others. I firmly believe it has the power to tear down barriers between us and God, and I’d love for nothing more than this article to help that happen with the topic of church growth.

References:

Barna, 2016. The State of the Church 2016. Retrieved from https://www.barna.com/research/state-church-2016/

 

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WHO IS ANTHONY VANDERLAAN?

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