Session 7:Church Growth: Numerical Growth?
By the end of this session you should be able to:
Discuss different concepts of “growth” in relation to church.
Consider the strengths of “embracing being small”.
Begin with a time of prayer asking God to teach you new things about the mission to which we are all called and the part God wants you to play in this.
Is “church growth” all about the number of 'bums on seats'?
When we think of church growth the first concern which usually comes to mind is the number of “bums on seats” on Sunday morning. If we understand growth simply in terms of attendance figures we can fall into the temptation to limit the purpose of God’s mission and evangelism to simply be focused upon increasing in number for the sake of increasing in number…
If we understand that our engagement with God’s mission and evangelism is broader than simply being a means of growing the church for the sake of growing the church, then our understanding of the term “church growth” must also be more broad.
The Church of England Growth Research Programme suggests that we should seek to grow as churches in the following three “interrelated ways”:
- Growth in depth (increase in the holiness, transformation and commitment of the members of the church - both individually and corporately)
- Growth in numbers (increased number of people following Jesus Christ)
- Growth in the outworking of our discipleship (increase in the amount of good works done by our church and members). Click here to read the research).
In this more broad version of the concept of “church growth” we still do have a concern for the numbers of members of our church community; but instead of simply being focused upon increasing numbers for the sake of increasing numbers our concern shifts to be focused upon increasing numbers in order that more people will be deepening their relationship with God in Christ, and more people will be active in mission and ministry.
Watch the video and then answer the following questions:
What concepts of “growth” in the church are communicated in the video?
When numerical growth is mentioned, what is the purpose of seeking numerical growth that is being communicated?
Acting Small and Embracing Being Small
This church has a regular congregation of thousands… yet here we see part of a strategy to “act small”.
Bob Jackson is a well known commentator on church growth statistics and strategies for growth. Based on conclusions from research into church growth statistics Jackson promotes a strategy of Acting small or Embracing being small. This concept is presented by Jackson in Hope for the Church (2002) and further developed in What Makes Churches Grow? (2015).
Click on the image to take a look at a page on small groups from an international “mega church” based in California.
According to Jackson’s research and analysis of church growth data small churches are more likely to grow than big churches. One particular example from Hope for the Church is that during the 1990s large churches (average weekly congregation 100-400) showed a high rate of decline, whereas small churches (average weekly congregation of 25 or fewer) showed significant growth.
Jackson proposes four possible reasons for this:
Location - smaller churches are more likely to be located in small communities where there is a stronger sense of community. People are more likely to know one another and church is a valued opportunity for gathering together.
Lay ownership - smaller churches are more likely to have learned to cope without their own full-time resident clergy. Churches with a strong, indigenous lay leadership are more likely to grow than churches who are more reliant on clergy (who are more likely to be relatively transient and spread very thinly in rural settings).
Group dynamics - small churches are essentially “single cell” churches where a sense of fellowship, belonging and mutual care more naturally occurs (see video above from mega church seeking this small group dynamic and fellowship…).
Simple statistics - an increase of one person constitutes a large percentage increase in a small church (20 + 1 = 5% increase… 200 + 1 = 0.5% increase).
Jackson identifies a number of areas where small churches naturally can find that they are at an advantage, and where larger churches can benefit from seeking ways of imitating “being small”:
Have an aim - Set a target that is SMART (Sensible, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-limited). See video below for more detailed explanation.
Imitate/embrace being small - Big churches; find ways of building advantages of small churches into their life (ie Cell Church/Home groups). Small churches; embrace the benefits of being small and, in rural contexts, embrace being part of a small community.
Organise pastoral care - It is crucial that responsibility for pastoral care is shared among the community in any church, not just seen as “the vicar’s job”. Particularly important are people who watch out for newcomers, and follow up regulars who miss services (new people/visitors and absent friends are easier to spot in a smaller church…).
Be a people-shaped church - Rather than seeking to find people to fill jobs; where possible shape the activity of the church around the gifts and talents of the members of the church community. Can be tricky when church law requires certain roles to be filled…
Do a few things well - Be careful not to overstretch by maintaining a programme of events which is unsustainable. Instead focus upon doing a few things well.
Invest in leadership - Help, support and recruit leaders so that there are enough skilled personnel able to share in leadership. Remember that more diversity in leadership will lead to a more diverse church. Also ensure that you have continuity in leadership.
Be radical - Be willing to try new things. Take appropriate time to ensure good change management, but be prepared to try things which haven’t been tried before, and be prepared to do things differently. Be willing to experiment…
Bob Jackson's ideas are very popular with many people. Watch the video to see some young, hipster church vloggers from Canada getting very excited about some of them.
Is the church within which you are a member of a big church or a small church?
If your church is a big church, are there any ways in which your church seeks to imitate being small? Are there any challenges presented to your church due to its size?
If your church is a small church, are there any strengths that you can identify which come from being a smaller church community? Are there any challenges presented to your church due to its size?
Growing Faith Together
A common theme of many fruitful and sustainable ministries with children and young people is working together across churches and communities. Given the reality that numerical decline in recent years has limited the numbers of potential volunteers the need to work together is immediately apparent, but perhaps more importantly there is a missiological imperative to partnership in the gospel even across differences in tradition and theology (John 13:35).
One such example from our Diocese comes from the Glossopdale Mission Community, a group of 5 parishes that are also partnering ecumenically with the methodist and Elim Pentecostal churches, to engage with children and young people across the area. Below is a video about their Tea and Toast Ministry, which acts as a first point of contact with many young people in the area with many young people visiting on their way home from school and is supported by volunteers from several of the churches. Young people who visit Tea and Toast are invited to be a part of other ministries, including more typical church youth groups in the neighbouring parish where they live. Watch the video here.
Lighthouse provides another example of churches coming together around their missional engagement with children and young people. Watch the video here. All the evidence of the various Lighthouse locations across the country, is that the benefits of building relationships extend far beyond an annual holiday club. Once more this is something to share with those in and around your context, and if you would like to find out more about potentially starting a Lighthouse please do get in contact with the Diocesan Growing Faith team.
Spotlight on Doctrine
An important area of doctrine for the church is the theology of the church itself. Ecclesiology is the area of theology and doctrine concerned with the origins of the church, its purpose, its role in God’s plan for salvation, its relationship to God in Christ, and its place as an agent of God in the world. This naturally leads to questions of structure, leadership, and other practical concerns; but we must always be careful that these practical concerns do not overshadow the reasons for the existence of the church…
Spend some time this week reflecting upon this tension between the need to consider the practical concerns of leadership and structures and our need to engage in active mission and ministry. What insights arise through your reflections?
Spotlight on Spirituality
One of the areas of growth discussed in this session is a growth in spiritual depth of both church communities and individuals. What does it mean to “deepen” our spirituality?
In the session the Church of England Growth Research Programme is quoted as identifying the following as an important area of church growth: to increase in the holiness, transformation and commitment of the members of the church - both individually and corporately.
What does this mean for the average local church member, what might this “growth” look like in practice?
What has been the most significant thing you have learned from this session? What has been the most challenging thing? LLM(R) students only: please post some of your thoughts in the Forum here
Blessed are you, Lord our God, for you love all of your creation. May we not become so caught up in matters of the Church that we fail to act on matters of mission. May we always be seeking ways to reflect your love to world as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen
Something Practical To Do
Explore the notice sheet and notice boards in your church. What do they say about being big and being small? Are there ways in which it is obvious that your church does some of the things you have learned about in this session and if so what are they? If not, what might your church do differently to encourage growth?
Share some of what you have found on the discussion board in the Forum here for CMM students
or here for LLM(R) students.