Posts Tagged ‘church growth’

This is part of a series of posts on the ways in which the structures of the church can inhibit all the people of a community of faith from fully expressing their ministry. Although congregations that are anxious about their future often try putting in place a new structure, thinking that that will solve their problems, it is important to note that changing the structures alone will not solve a church’s problems. Structures that no longer function well are often a sign of deeper issues that need to be addressed. As Christendom fades, the structures that fit Christendom stop serving the mission of the church. It is helpful to understand the underlying assumptions and dynamics that structures serve.

It is basic to the gospel that we are saved by the grace of God. God welcomes us into covenant relationship even when we have nothing to bring. It also true that the condition in which we enter into a life of faith is not the place where we are meant to end up. The scriptures assume that the local church is the primary learning environment for growing into maturity in Christ.  As each person is equipped and exercises his or her gifts and vocation, the whole community of faith is built up and comes alive. The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” ( Ephesians 4: 11-13, NRSV)

We are meant to grow into Christ, into deeper expressions of God’s grace, into mature expressions of faith. The Holy Spirit’s work is life-transforming as it disrupts the status quo and pushes the church out of its comfort zones. The work in the world that Christ entrusts to his people is tough, demanding work. It challenges each person to stretch beyond what she or he is at the present time. It challenges each person to mature in faith.

As the saying goes, “God loves us just as we are. God loves us too much to leave us that way.” Living into the grace of God, being a disciple of Jesus, joining God’s mission of compassion and reconciliation in the world — none of this comes naturally. The currency of Christian community is love in the midst of human brokenness. Maturing in faith is deeply relational. It involves learning to love, forgiving and being forgiven, and struggling to continue loving after being hurt. It requires honesty and vulnerability.
On several occasions, in Paul’s letters to young churches, he laments that the community of faith has stalled in its spiritual growth:

By this time you ought to be teachers yourselves, yet here I find you need someone to sit down with you and go over the basics on God again, starting from square one—baby’s milk, when you should have been on solid food long ago! Milk is for beginners, inexperienced in God’s ways; solid food is for the mature, who have some practice in telling right from wrong.

So come on, let’s leave the preschool finger-painting exercises on Christ and get on with the grand work of art. Grow up in Christ.  (Hebrews 5:12-6:3, The Message)

There are many reasons why people fail to mature in faith. The governing structure of the church can hinder the spiritual growth of disciples.

Maturity includes the capacity to make decisions and to take responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. Unfortunately, the church is often structured in such a way that only a few people participate in ministry and mission decisions of a congregation. For instance, the most common governing structure for congregations in the United Church of Canada is hierarchical. Only a small percentage of the congregation is needed to run the church. When most of the authority in a congregation rests in a few people, and when the decision-making for the most important issues is done by the few on behalf of everyone else, most people in a congregation are thereby reduced to being ‘volunteers’ or onlookers. They do not sense much responsibility for the decisions made by others. “Their faith, having no sphere for its growth and development lies dormant” ( Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1962), chapter 8).  The baptized often feel little need to move more deeply into faith and hope.

In the long-term, this leaves many people of the congregation feeling inadequate in their faith. They do not feel confident in their ability to live the Christian life, either within the church structures or in their life in the world. They doubt their competence to share their faith with others. The hierarchical governance structures can mean they are not placed in situations where they get to face these feelings of inadequacy.

In addition, the decision-making process in many United Church of Canada congregations is extremely cumbersome. Permission-giving requires several layers of approval and long delays. The cumbersome decision-making processes aim at ensuring that the activities of the church are done successfully. Fearing failure and disorder, the system puts measures into place to protect itself against a loss of control. The congregation is not encouraged or permitted to risk bold ventures in faith. As a result, it becomes difficult for a congregation to remain flexible enough to respond to fresh leading from the Spirit. The system becomes tame and timid. Its decisions become passive and reactive rather than creative and innovative.

It is as people are pushed beyond what they are already capable of doing  that they are forced to learn to depend more deeply upon God’s grace. As they find themselves in situations where their own strength is not enough, they are driven to praying deeper prayers. A community that expects to experience and acknowledge failure also finds that it needs to cultivate the challenging Christian practices of being forgiven and forgiving and beginning again.

Sadly, when people who are looking for fullness of life and daring adventure don’t find it in the church, they go elsewhere. The church then not only misses out on the energy and new life that comes through those who are willing to take bold risks. The church also is deprived of those persons who would encourage the whole congregation to be more bold and courageous in following the leading of the Holy Spirit.


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This is part of a series of posts on the ways in which the structures of the church can inhibit all the people of a community of faith from fully expressing their ministry. Although congregations who are anxious about their future often try putting in place a new structure, thinking that that will solve their problems. It is important to note that changing the structures alone will not solve a church’s problems. Structures that no longer function well are often a sign of deeper issues that need to be addressed. As Christendom fades, the structures that fit Christendom stop serving the mission of the church. It is helpful to understand the underlying assumptions and dynamics that structures serve.

The models of church and ministry with which most of the congregations in my denomination operate cultivate an environment that weakens God’s mission through the church, often inadvertently. Those models deprive most of the ministers in the congregation of their ministry.
Across the country, more and more congregations are depending upon the leadership of lay leaders. The Holy Spirit is raising up leadership who cannot or will not take the traditional route that the United Church of Canada has for training congregational leadership. However, UCC polity restricts the recognized ministry that can be offered by non-credentialed leaders. Not only does this policy restrict the ministry of key lay leaders, it threatens the existence of some congregations. Congregations that are unable to afford recognized  ordered ministry personnel or that cannot find ordered ministry personnel who want to serve them, are left without officially sanctioned ministry leadership. Often, they and the presbytery, consider that the only option left is to close or to amalgamate with a larger pastoral charge.

In some cities, it may seem that closing congregations does not have a big impact. There are, after all, other congregations which people can join — congregations which are eager for more participants to help with the work and financial obligations. However, we have an incarnational faith: faith is lived out in a local context. When a congregation closes and its people disperse to other congregations, the neighbourhood in which the church was located loses an outpost of the reign of God from its midst.

Closing small congregations in more isolated areas has left large areas of the country without the presence of a church at all. This is happening at a time when the gospel which the Church offers is desperately needed. People are facing massive challenges. As theologian Douglas John Hall said thirty-five years ago, “We are in a time when our souls are being required of us; yet, we lack the very quality of soul that we need to face a very dark time.” People need communities of faith that provide support, comfort, and a reason to hope.

Such closures could be avoided if, among other things, the church’s polity made it easier for congregations to develop and engage their own people as worship leaders. The polity hurdles that people face when offering their gifts for leadership consumes energy and time and passion that would be more productively spent on becoming better leaders.

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This is the seventh in a series of posts from research I have done about lay leadership training in the United Church of Canada. In the previous post and this one, I have been considering the context in which that training needs to happen — a context in which many churches are struggling to serve faithfully while their numbers (attendance, finances) are declining. Part of the decline reflects a larger cultural drift away from certain kinds of organizations, in particular, organized religions and service groups,

Some of the decline is the result of cultural shifts which make the Christian message less appealing. As the alliance between the Church and the power centres of culture disappears, it becomes increasingly evident that the gospel, when taken seriously, is profoundly countercultural. The Church’s story has always been in tension with the world’s story. In post-Christendom, that tension becomes more apparent. The gospel invites you to lose your life in order to find it (Mark 8:35). Summoned and gathered by a God of suffering love, the Christian community has the cross of Jesus Christ at its centre — a symbol not of worldly success but of suffering and rejection and sacrifice for the sake of others (Douglas John Hall, “Suffering: The Badge of Discipleship,” The Living Pulpit, Inc., 2005).

Christians are “buried with Christ by baptism into death” (Romans 6:4) so as be freed from being pre-occupied with their own self-preservation or self-fulfillment and, thus, free to be concerned for others. Christian faith embraces disciplines and practices that form communities with the courage they need to confront the powers that rob humans of dignity and freedom. Christian spirituality is primarily communal: a matter of being found by God in the midst of messy, difficult, challenging human relationships. Such a gospel will find it hard to gain much traction in a culture that elevates consumerism, hedonism, and individualism as the highest values.

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For several years now, David Ewart has charted what Phyllis Tickle‘s “rummage sale” looks like for The United Church of Canada. In his most recent document, “Welcome to the Last Days of the United Church of Canada”, he outlines the statistical trends of the past 70 years and extrapolates them to the year 2025. All the categories that are tracked in the United Church of Canada statistics forms show declines. If the trends of of the past ten years continue unchanged, by 2025, the number of pastoral charges will decline by 6%; the number of congregations will decline by 31%; membership will decline by 43%; average weekly attendance will decline by 77%. Ewart concludes, “The way we used to ‘do’ church is on its death bed.”  He advises, “In order to meet the challenges we are already facing, we are going to have to learn how to be much smaller, and much clearer about why and how the Gospel is at the centre of everything we do as a community – including why and how we believe face-to-face communities sustained-over-time are needed.”

(Ewart is clear that he generates the charts by straight extrapolations of the statistics that congregations send the the National Office every year. He does not speculate about the factors that may cause the trends to accelerate. For example, the statistics do not reveal that the average age of members in many congregations is in the 70’s or even 80’s. That means that, for many congregations, they will lose a significant portion of their membership over the next 5 years. The statistics also do not reveal how many congregations are close to the tipping point for closure. Often, it takes only the death of one significant contributor or the prospect of a significant expenditure (for a roof or furnace perhaps) to lead the congregation to decide to close. The end comes suddenly rather than as the result of a gradual decline past the point of viability.)

The statistics indicate that a crisis is upon us which cannot be ignored any longer. However, the trends have been there for some time. Many people tend to think of the 1950’s as the ‘golden age of the church’. The United Church of Canada was opening a new church every week. Sunday Schools classrooms were full of young children, many of whom received Roberts Raikes awards for perfect attendance. Mid-week programming and age-based social groups had enthusiastic participation.

A colleague, though, remembers that, even then, “The majority of people who lived on my street did not go to any church and did not claim to have a church they didn’t go to.” In many cases, the statistics that were sent in to the national office may not have accurately reflected the realities in the congregations. By the 1960’s, declines in Sunday School attendance and in numbers of identifiable givers gave early warnings that all was not well. However, those who voiced such warnings were often treated with disdain for ‘being negative’. The churches missed opportunities to make changes that would have helped them navigate the current storm.

There are many reasons why people no longer participate in the life and work of the church.

For one thing, Christianity as an organized religion has become unpopular in the culture. Ewart points out that it is not just the United Church of Canada that is experiencing such declines. “Canadians just don’t go to church like they used to. And not just the United Church – all churches. And actually all mosques, synagogues, and temples too. And actually all of the old volunteer community organizations too: Rotarians, Kiwanians, Shriners, Masons, etc.” Profound cultural shifts have impacted all levels of society. The Church in Canada now exists in a multicultural and religiously pluralistic context. As Douglas John Hall has said, “The time of automatic Christianity is over (“What is Theology and Why Does the Church Need it?”, Lectures given on September 15, 2003 to the Ottawa Lay School of Theology).”

Ed Stetzer, in a video entitled, “Stop Saying That the Church is Dying” suggests that what the statistics are showing is that “nominal Christians” have stopped identifying themselves as “Christian” on census forms. There was a time when being a member of a congregation was beneficial to establishing one’s standing and connections in a community. Now, the church has largely lost its influence in North American society. In some circles, being known as “Christian” might even be detrimental to one’s status. As a result, some people no longer identify themselves as such. In addition, at one point, people identified themselves as “Christian” because they knew that they were not Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. With the rise of diverse spiritualities in the culture, and the popularity of the characterization of oneself as “spiritual but not religious”, more people are categorizing their religious affiliation as “none”.

Stetzer believes, “With cultural Christianity in a freefall, I see a rise in robust believers and healthy churches. I’m not discouraged. Effective churches will attract and keep strong believers who are motivated by their faith and not by cultural norms.”  He points out that immigrant, charismatic, community and house churches are growing. The real challenges are being faced by mainline Protestant churches. They are failing to engage younger generations and pass along robust faith.

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Growing the Church when people get in the Way

One of the tests of leadership comes when you have to decide: “Who am I willing to sacrifice in order to reach my goals? Who am I willing to shove out of my way in order to achieve success? Who am I prepared to step over on my way to the top?”

In the scriptures, one of the pivotal stories of David’s leadership is his sacrifice of Uriah while trying to protect his reputation (2 Samuel 11 -12). He had had sex with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, while Uriah was away fighting one of Israel’s battles. When Bathsheba told David that she was pregnant, he arranged for Uriah to come home on a month’s leave. David hoped that Uriah’s visit home would lead to Uriah believing that he was responsible for Bathsheba’s pregnancy. However, Uriah spends his leave sleeping on David’s porch, unwilling to enjoy relations with his wife while his fellow soldiers are on the battlefield. When Uriah returns to battle, David arranges for him to serve on the front line where he is almost certain to be killed.

Sometimes people are willing to sacrifice others in order to save their own skin. We encounter a greater test and greater danger when we convince ourselves that our goal is more noble than mere self-protection.

I have seen this happen when a community sets its goal as growing the church. They want to be part of a success story. They want to pass the faith on to more people. They want to serve God well. Then, some people stand in the way of achieving those goals. Sometimes people resist the changes that must be made. Some people raise uncomfortable questions. Sometimes, like Uriah, their commitments and character make them appear to be obstacles to success.

How a faith community deals with such people reveals its true character. Are people who stand in the way of ‘success’ to be thrown aside? bulldozed? bullied into submission? Does the end justify the means?

The problem for a community of faith is that the ‘end’ is a community of love shaped by the Holy Spirit into maturity in Christ. You cannot cultivate a community that reflects the love of Christ by trampling over people and treating relationships as disposable. Our ends and our means must be consistent. The way we get to our goals must reflect the Way of Christ.

Recently I was in a workshop where people were talking about the ways in which they were trying to grow their churches: updating the music in worship; offering entertaining programmes; issuing more invitations. Then, one woman spoke out: It is about relationships. Those young people see the way we treat one another and then decide that they don’t want any part of the church.”

Cultivating loving relationships that reflect the grace of Jesus Christ is long, slow, hard work. Such work requires patience, forgiveness, humility, courage. As Jesus was gathering his community of disciples he asked, “What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? (Mark 8:36)”.  That would be a good question for churches to ask as they work toward their goals.

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Inward/Outward sent this quotation by Wendell Berry this morning:

” The great obstacle may be not greed but the modern hankering after glamour.

A lot of our smartest, most concerned people want to come up with a big solution to a big problem. I don’t think that planet-saving, if we take it seriously, can furnish employment to many such people.

When I think of the kind of worker the job requires, I think of Dorothy Day (if one can think of Dorothy Day herself, separate from the publicity that came as a result of her rarity), a person willing to go down and down into the daunting, humbling, almost hopeless local presence of the problem–to face the great problem one small life at a time.”

Source: Sex Economy Freedom and Community

It occurred to me that this could also be said about congregational life. As more and more churches in our denomination  are closing, there is increased attention given to planting new churches. We probably should have been doing more of this all along. Now there is a sense of urgency about it –“This will save our denomination!” is the underlying cry of hope.

I know the theory and statistics behind it: denominations start to decline not so much because they are closing churches as because they stop planting new congregations. New life can emerge in new ways, unhindered by the weight of traditions and of existing politics and power-plays in established congregations.

That said, I wonder if some of the attraction to planting new churches comes from the perceived glamour of starting fresh and the experienced frustrations that come with working with an actual existing congregation. Planting a new church is hard work and most new churches don’t survive the first five years. But the prospect of ‘starting with a blank slate’  holds so much promise it is enticingly attractive. Transitioning an established congregation also takes a lot of hard work. However, there are many frustrations along the way as existing patterns of behaviour and attitudes are confronted — behaviours and attitudes that have contributed to the congregation’s decline. It is a lot more difficult to make that work attractive and exciting.

It seems to me, though, that it is work that should receive more attention. Existing congregations usually already have land and a building — resources that can take a lot of energy for a new congregation to gather, energy that could be better spent being on mission. There is a community of people already gathered together by the Holy Spirit with some of the relational groundwork already done. Aspects of those relationships may be problematic; however, addressing those problems is part of the work of transitioning. That takes energy, but so does establishing new relationships among people who are strangers.

I’m wondering how many of our established congregations could survive and thrive if appropriate resources were made available to them? Here’s some questions for which I have had to find answers over the years that I have worked with congregations in transition: What are some workable strategies for dealing with persistent resistance to new initiatives? Where does a leader need to spend the majority of her time? What are some ways in which she can handle the congregation’s expectations for her to spend her time doing what has always been done?  What attitudes among the congregation must be cultivated? How long does the process of transition take? What do some of the stages look like? (Is this feeling of being in the midst of chaos an essential part of the transition and not a sign that things are going off the rails?) Where does a congregation find the “strength to endure” in the midst of some very difficult stages? What are the signs that the work of God in a particular congregation really is over and the congregation needs to consider closing? What are the most helpful practices that keep the people of the congregation discerning what the Spirit is saying to the church?

I know resources to answer those questions are available. I have accessed and used many of them. Perhaps what is needed at this point are mentors — a way of connecting actual congregations who have made the transition with congregations that want to.

Does anyone know of denominations that have tried that?

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I have spent much of my ministry serving congregations that are in transition. I have often told them that a turn-around takes 5 – 7 years. This number originally came from a seminar I attended in which the speaker said to a room full of ministers that they would spend the first two years in a pastoral charge ‘burying the ghost of their predecessor’. (Based on my experience, this length of time could be longer if the predecessor stays in the congregation.) Years 3 and 4 are spent putting into place whatever new initiatives or style which the current minister feels called to offer. Not until years 5 -7 will the minister see many results from that effort. Unfortunately, many ministers get discouraged around year 5 and move away.

Again, from my experience, congregations also get worried and discouraged around years 3 and 4. They may not see much significant change (often translated as ‘growth’). That may also be the time period when they realize that, if they are going to see much growth, they themselves are going to have to change. During the first two years, they may have spent considerable energy resisting the newness that the new minister is proposing. Or, they may have made some of the surface changes that are required to make a transition. However, around years 3 and 4, they will be confronted with the need to make some deeper changes in their structures, in their style of operating,and most importantly, in themselves.

Indeed, some congregations have a long-standing pattern of short-term ministries. That often indicates that, around year 3 or 4, they manage to make the lives of the minister so discouraging and unrewarding that the minister leaves. This may not be a conscious attempt to ‘get rid of the minister’, but it operates in subtle ways beneath the surface. This way, the congregation never has to deal seriously with the issues that the minister is raising.

These days, many congregations are so close to the edge of not being viable that they do not have 5-7 years to make the transition. They run out of money or out of people or out of energy (because of the average age of the congregation) before they can make the changes that need to be made.

However, if a congregation has the time and the people and the energy, the changes that need to be made can be made. People can change. Congregations can become places where the Spirit troubles the waters and brings something new to birth. New life can grow from the ground that was weeded and tilled and prepared in those earlier years and from some of the seeds that were sown in years 3 and 4.

Even in a congregation that has resisted change too long and is running out money or people or energy, God may decide to make resurrection happen. In the end, it is always about God’s grace. When the crisis is upon us, that is what we need to be on the lookout for.

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