By Rev. Shane Isner
In the course of my workaday, church pastor life, I have occasional opportunity to chat with consultants. Rarely is this by choice. I’ll be at the office when a call comes in, “Can I speak with the pastor?” “This is he,” I say. The pitch begins. “I’m Ms. Johnson, and I want your church to grow.”
Well, how very nice of you, I’m known to think; services are at 10, and all are welcome. But that’s not the growth Ms. Johnson has in mind (names changed, of course, for propriety’s sake). She’s not offering to join the church. Instead, she has a program to sell, a great opportunity: Five proven principles for making your church get bigger.
Typically, the call ends quickly, and not only because our church can’t afford it. Frankly, I’m skeptical of most church consulting programs I’ve encountered. First, it often sounds too simple, too easy. Five basic principles, three stress-free program changes, just clearly articulate the church’s vision and values. And then, so the narrative seems to suggest, all will be well and all will be lovely. Again, I’m unconvinced, though I realize my response is slightly unfair. No consultant I’ve spoken with actually promises quick fixes. They’re typically honest about how challenging it is for churches to discern and define their identities. They understand, usually, that modern religion isn’t paint-by-numbers. Nevertheless, if there truly is some secret to explosive growth, I haven’t heard it. Perhaps that explains why each consultant markets different products and plans.
That gets to my second reason for skepticism, derived from several plans our church previously crafted under outside guidance. Invest in youth ministry, paper the neighborhood with invitations, within two years hire a family minister, within five years build a bigger sanctuary because, obviously, you’ll be bursting at the seams. Some of those ideas proved useful, I’ve heard (these were tried before my arrival). But they weren’t sustainable, and community life became challenging (as it always will!), and these old plans now read to me like records of failure. At least, that’s how some experienced it. So another plan was crafted, with different ideas, but those didn’t pan out as dictated either. The deflating sense of “we can’t do this right,” however, returned in force. And it hurt.
Thus my disinterest in the church growth guru industry. I’m cognizant, though, of what my wife would say (she, the statistics master and early career church consultant), “Your experiences with consultants don’t define all consulting.” Truth! That got me wondering recently about what kind of planning or consulting would stir my soul rather than stoke my suspicions. An idea emerged, that I’m sure wise consultants have sold before, but it’s new to me.
You see, I realized that I get annoyed when churches talk about getting bigger, and call that growth, as if the two are obviously the same. But are they? My wife says, rightly, that focusing on numbers matters, but also that counting the right numbers matters even more. The church-growth-as-getting-bigger project has the benefit of simplicity; only one number matters- How many people attend your church. This provides clarity for decision makers. Do what adds more people, avoid what keeps them away.
But suppose you’re convinced- like me—that a church can get bigger, but not truly grow. Or it can stay the same size, and grow wildly! Then, measuring “growth” would include different numbers than simply how many attend weekly, right? Obviously, attendance numbers matter. A lot. It’s hard to grow in discipleship, spiritual depth, faithfulness when people aren’t coming, with their energy for worship waning. Still, isn’t a church growing when its attendance is stable but its frequency of Bible Study increases? When it uses more funds for feeding hungry neighbors? When its sermons more consistently address issues broader than solely church concerns? When members talk more about authentic family struggles than budget or building troubles?
I’m unsure how I’d transform that insight into a consulting process; I’ll leave that to my brilliant wife! But I find the question interesting. And I’m anxious to hear others’ answers. What’s the difference between church growth and simply getting bigger? How would you measure that?
Rev. Shane Isner is the pastor of a small Disciples of Christ church in the northwestern suburbs of Minneapolis. He serves on several community non-profit boards, is the chair of his region's Commission on Ministry, loves his wife and his dog, and Jesus. And the church!