In my previous blog post, we examined the tell-tale signs of a dying church. In this post, we will examine the opposite question: How do churches grow? How does a dying church become a thriving church?
We might just as well ask, "How does a tiny baby grow up to be a successful, contributing member of society?"
Why do I say that? Because one of the great themes in the Bible is that we’re children of God--and as children, we are a part of a spiritual family. Over and over, Jesus and the apostles refer to believers as "little children" (1 John 2:1,12, 22, Matt. 18:1-6 etc). Jesus tells the apostle Peter to feed His lambs (John 21:15). Paul states that we are adopted as God’s sons (Rom. 8:14-16).
So the answer to the question about how churches grow is the same as for a child: growth consists of multitudes of tiny adjustments, which take place organically under the following favorable conditions.
We wouldn't dream of wrapping our brand-new baby in a blanket, placing him on the sidewalk with a suitcase full of Pampers and baby food, and expecting him to survive on his own--but tragically, this is precisely what we often do with new believers! And it’s not according to Scripture.
The apostles took Jesus’ concept of "family" to heart! The book of Acts tells us that new believers often found Jesus and were nurtured in a small group environment taking place in a home (Acts 2:46; Rom. 16:4).
Believe it or not, the very best place for seekers or new believers may not be a church--but a small group in someone's home. In this intimate family environment, they can make connections, share their struggles and joys without worrying that their secrets will be exposed to others outside, and experience God’s love, grace and acceptance through the tender care of fellow humans.
Someone has said it well: The church grows in circles, not in rows.
In our churches let companies be formed for service. Let different ones unite in labor as fishers of men. Let them seek to gather souls from the corruption of the world into the saving purity of Christ’s love. The formation of small companies as a basis of Christian effort has been presented to me by One who cannot err. If there is a large number in the church, let the members be formed into small companies, to work not only for the church members, but for unbelievers. 7T 21-22
Parents are committed to doing everything to create the right atmosphere for that child’s thriving and growth, including providing the most nutritious and easily digested food possible. Likewise, it is imperative that a small group home setting revolve around the Word (1 Pet. 2:2). It is the Word that feeds people, grows them, and transforms them into on-fire, mature Christians.
It is imperative that churches train leaders to handle the Word so as to properly feed new people. While we would never feed chunks of Fri-Chik or vegeburger to a baby, it has become acceptable to feed baby Christians hard-core teachings, like prophecy and Daniel and Revelation (1 Cor. 3:1,2). Some of them may be able to stomach it, but more often than not, what they really need in the beginning is basic teaching on how to accept Jesus, how to pray, or how to get victory over addictions.
Parents would rather die than allow their child to be hurt in any way. I will never forget the time I, as a 10-year-old, was throwing dust in the air near my neighbor’s home. He came out and angrily yelled, grabbed and shook me. Frightened, I went home and told my parents--and it never happened again! Why not? Because my parents told that neighbor exactly what they thought of him, and that they would call in law enforcement next time it happened.
That's exactly the kind of protection new believers need in our churches (Matt 18:6,7; Acts 20:28-35). Don't allow older men to glob on to vulnerable young women. Don't allow the churchyard bully to hurt those new believers--and if they do, stand up in their defense, letting the bully know in no uncertain terms that their behavior is unacceptable. The church must be committed to bringing incorrigibly abusive people to the point of church discipline and even disfellowshipping if necessary (Matt 18:15-18).
I have a sister operating a successful business near the heart of Los Angeles, a dog-eat-dog society where anyone is willing to use her as a stepping-stone. But I'm quite proud of her. Instead of becoming like all the others, she has risen above them, embracing principles of integrity. Where did she learn those principles? She learned them from our parents.
It is imperative that, instead of merely dipping and dropping new believers, we mentor them into becoming mature Christians that are able to, in turn, mentor others. They should learn to revel in God’s love, nurture relationships around them, and share their faith (2 Pet. 1:5-11).
In a church setting, each of us must learn to ask two questions: Who can I mentor? and, Who can mentor me? If you see someone with skills and gifts you would like to develop, connect with him or her and ask for mentoring. If God has given you gifts and talents (which the Bible tells us are given to everyone! 1 Cor. 12:7) then find people you can grow in those areas. As an example, my wife is gifted in providing beautiful, compelling praise and worship music. While she may not be comfortable teaching someone to be a deaconess, she loves taking young people and training them to become worship leaders.
You see, it's easy to give people token jobs, like having them offer public prayers, but that, in itself, is not mentoring them into becoming future leaders! Mentoring people is messy. They will make mistakes at times and make you look bad. I'm sure people looked at Jesus and thought, "Peter is such a disaster and John has a temper problem. What was He thinking??!"
But Jesus was not training people for token positions. He wasn't getting John and Matthew and Peter involved and then parading them before Jewish leadership, proud that illiterate low-lifers were giving prayers and collecting offerings and being "involved" in ministry! No, he was training them to turn the world upside-down (Matt. 10:1-8)!
This happens almost automatically as parents imperceptibly communicate love, acceptance, and values to the child. Similarly, a new believer discovers his identity and gifts as he is regularly enveloped by loving Christians communicating love, acceptance, and beliefs to him, affirming the work of God in his life. And it is in this cocoon of warmth that a new believer should first discover his spiritual gifts and ministries God has in store for him.
I thank God for my mom, who taught me to read and appreciate good literature, and my dad, who gave me the opportunity to learn by experience that I could fix almost anything. In the tenth grade, my father, perhaps seeing what I didn't, encouraged me to take the Dale Carnegie public speaking course. I loved it, little knowing that I was being prepared to become a pastor.
Just as parents know their little baby won't need them to change her diapers, prepare her meals, and feed and provide for her forever, so a church must also remember that it must train its people for self-feeding in the Word, and for independence under the Spirit’s unique guidance for each believer.
When I arrived to pastor my very first church as a young man straight out of seminary, the grizzled old matriarch of the tiny church took one look at me and loudly remarked to those around her, "It looks like we'll have to diaper another one!"
We may laugh at her audacity, while failing to, on the other hand, recognize the inappropriateness of churches training members to be passively dependent on pastors or church leaders. Just as it is a dereliction of duty to condition a child to be completely dependent upon her parents for the rest of her life, so it is egregious for a church to leave its members underdeveloped, their talents unused and atrophied.
A child is not expected to stay in diapers forever--and neither are churches. But I can't tell you the number of churches that are still expecting their pastors to do everything for them: shoving baby food in their mouths, telling them what to do, putting the pieces of their mistakes back together, and cleaning up their messes!
Our people have had great light, and yet much of our ministerial force is exhausted on the churches, in teaching those who should be teachers; enlightening those who should be "the light of the world"; watering those from whom should flow springs of living water.... Evangelism, 382.5
In simple terms, church members should be …
Growing up, not … throwing up, and …
Confessing Him, not … making messes!
It is a tragic irony that our church usually throws baby Christians into the middle of church life without mentoring or discipling them, expecting them to sink or swim, while long-time church-goers expect to be treated as babies--having sermon food shoved in their mouths weekly (complaining if the quality isn't up to their expectations!) and demanding that the worship format, music, and even church furnishings cater to their "needs" and desires.
Brothers and sisters, we need to turn this inverted situation right-side-up!
They don’t castigate him for cutting the apron strings and making a career choice different from what they, as parents, would have chosen. Instead, they affirm the unique individual he has grown into and set him free to take his unique place in the world. In fact, in cultures of Biblical times (Heb. 11:20, 21) and beyond, this blessing / freeing action has become an established rite of passage. (Before ascending to heaven, Jesus commissioned and blessed His followers - Matt. 28:19, 20; Luke 24:46-51.)
Likewise, great churches recognize that the growth of their members, and indeed that of the church itself, depends on affirming the unique gifts God has given each member, and giving members freedom and blessing to, under the Spirit’s guidance, immerse themselves in a ministry that may not even be listed in the church manual (yet)!
In summary, parents’ entire lives revolve around their child. In the process, they develop greater maturity and unselfishness than had they remained childless. In the same way, a thriving church revolves around caring for their “children,” connecting with, nurturing, feeding, protecting, and growing not the long-time members, but those who are new in the faith or have just walked through the doors. In the process, the more mature members are grown as well, as they become more and more unselfish and Christ-like! It's a win-win all around!!
The process of growing a church is kind of like a bicycle. There's nothing dramatic, noisy or ostentatious about a bicycle; but if used correctly, the bicycle will bring you where you need to be.
I've actually watched this process happen at a particular church. The church had a number of small Bible study groups that met in homes, like hubs of bicycle wheels. How did people get to the hubs? Simple. They were invited.
You see, the first contact the new people had with our church was usually in a secular setting. They were tuning in to the radio, or talking with their Adventist doctor. Perhaps some of our members were going door-to-door, inviting people to pray or participate in a Bible study. Or it might have been a church member hosting a social gathering at her home, or talking to family members about the Lord, or a co-worker talking to his colleague about spiritual matters. It might have been a homeless person showing up at midweek service, or a visitor feeling impressed to find a nearby church. That's where the rubber met the road, and each contact, like a spoke, led to a hub, a home Bible study group.
These small groups met regularly and revolved around food, fellowship, prayer and study of the Word. Here, new people would form connections, bonds and friendships. As they felt comfortable, they would ask questions or share their pain or heartache while the rest of the group listened and prayed.
When you first get on a bicycle, it takes a while to get your balance and actually start moving forward, and pedaling may feel exhausting. But as you continue to pedal, each cycle adds a little more energy to move the bicycle forward. The faster you go and the more momentum you build up, the easier it is to pedal and maintain a straight course. There’s nothing flashy about it--as the bicycle tires remain in contact with the road and the pedals are continually given little nudges, the bicycle gathers more and more speed.
Similarly, there’s nothing at all flashy about church growth. It's just ordinary church members inviting people to small groups. In the first year or so, it may seem like nothing is happening—church attendance may not increase, and there may be no baptisms. But organically, imperceptibly, the bicycle is gaining speed. And 2-3 years later when an evangelist comes to hold reaping meetings, the home Bible study groups invite their participants--and all of a sudden there are 15 to 40 baptisms! And the conference gets all excited and other pastors want to know the secret. However, the answer is surprisingly mundane.
When young, I thought that pastors needed to focus on public evangelistic meetings. In time I learned, however, that without proper preparation, evangelistic series weary the church and exhaust the pastor, with little results to show for all the effort. And even if there are results, most of the newly baptized don't stick around for long.
Just before I left my last church, an evangelist came and held a powerful series of meetings. He baptized nearly 50 people! Neither he nor I, however, can take credit for the amazing results. Of the 50 persons baptized, only 11 were people we hadn't seen before, meaning that the vast majority of those baptized were already connected to us through their home Bible study groups! Furthermore, because of their strong church connections, we didn't need to worry about losing them!
You see, while this process may not seem dramatic at first, it can turn explosive! Do the math. If only 10 people in your church are able to invite 2 people each to be part of a home Bible study group, the first year there will be 20 non-members attending small groups. And if some of those 20 people invite their friends, there could be 40 or 50 people participating in small groups by the end of the year! Continue this process year after year, and you can see how the church could easily experience exponential growth.
This process can also be highly addictive! There is no drug that compares with the high of seeing your friend, who you’ve prayed for and connected with, get excited about what God is doing in his or her life, or about what God has been teaching him or her through Scripture. There is no high compared to watching the light come on in the eyes of people you've worked and prayed for.