By Jeff Gill
(This article first appeared in the Newark Advocate.)
Should congregations and denominations want to grow?
To some of you, this may sound odd. Isn’t that what every organization and institution wants to do?
In fact, there are some cogent arguments against growth, and some of them are rather wide-spread these days. As is often noted, growth for growth’s sake is the ethos of the cancer cell, and simply to grow and multiply is not, itself alone, a healthy thing.
And while consumerism today is often in pursuit of an ever-expanding market share, and that much desired next-quarter profit report going up, up, up, that kind of expansion and increase may be destructive not just to the environment, but to the participants.
So it can be within religious traditions. I once was asked about goal-setting, and a church officer thought about his workplace practices and said, without rancor, “shouldn’t we just tie your pay to Sunday attendance?” I answered, hopefully in the same congenial tone, “that’s an interesting argument, and if I went out and rented a bus and offered a free lunch, I’ll bet I can double attendance over the next month. What do you say?”
The idea died for lack of a second.
And in truth, if you just want to pile up more bodies and pack rooms, I am entirely in sympathy with those who question the long-term sustainability and immediate justification of using pop culture and shock value to fill seats.
Even the previous pope, Benedict XVI, said something about a smaller church being a faithful church, more focused and more authentic. Size isn’t everything. I’d agree with that.
What I find myself leaning back away from, though, is the tendency to valorize shrinkage as a sign of faithfulness; a trend to point at growing churches and to presume “they’re just using tricks and fads” without checking out the content and formation going on there more creditably. A dying church is by no means a more committed congregation, nor are all booming worship centers preaching a gospel I’d recognize or impacting the lives of attendees in any meaningful way.
For many religious bodies, the 21st century is a confrontation with challenges. Worship attendance is down, membership is dropping for many denominations whether oriented as liberal or conservative (so-called in any case, since there are always variations within), and the authority of religious leaders and teachers is small and shrinking whether you think that good or ill.
Which makes it tempting to make a cult of contraction. It’s happening anyhow, so let’s make it a good thing, a sort of reverse Chicken Little (“hey look, isn’t it GREAT that the sky is falling?”). And growth, increases in attendance and membership and giving and serving, is rare, so why make it a standard?
And I am acutely aware of my own need for caution here. We are blessed at the congregation where I serve that we have a solid history, a strong ministry under my predecessor, a not-so-old building which isn’t needing major repairs or suffering from decades of deferred maintenance, and plenty of passionate leaders. So we are in a position to grow where other similar churches may be ministering and serving with twice the effort for half the outcomes. I see it all around us.
Yet I want to say a word on behalf of growth. We’ve heard Jesus’ command to “Go therefore and make disciples” and are doing so, which sets us up for “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” and that way we get some wonderful opportunities for “teaching them to observe all I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20 is where our marching orders come from.)
Growth is how we can tell if we’re sharing a good news message that is reaching people. We aren’t reaching everyone, maybe not even everyone we should, but if we weren’t seeing any response, I think it would tell us we are going about it the wrong way.
Likewise, we have financial struggles like most churches, but not so much that we can’t share out from our fellowship a tenth and more of what we receive, and live out as community what we teach to persons and families. A shrinking church can’t do that, and even if we sold the property and rented space, we’d be hard pressed to maintain that outreach.
Growth may not be the only sign of God’s active presence, but I believe it can certainly be one of them.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you see growth in your own life at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.