The answer is not church growth. The answer is church witness. We do not exist in a “church growth crisis.” We rather have a witnessing problem. Witnessing will usually (emphasis – usually) result in growth, but growth should not be our main objective anyway. As long as a church is witnessing to its community and being holy leaven in our towns, then it is successful – period. Size doesn’t matter. There is a word for little churches that have no positive, cultural, gospel-centered influence on their communities – that word is “cult”. There is a word for large churches that have no positive, cultural, gospel-centered influence on their communities – that word is also “cult”. Size doesn’t matter.
Witness-Paralysis comes because we focus on the fruits instead of the seeds, on the results rather than on the realization that we are really not in control, Jesus and His Holy Spirit and His Heavenly Father is. Youth are not the future of the Church, Jesus is. Young families are not the vehicle by which the Gospel is preached to our communities, the Holy Spirit is.
The word “Magic” in Greek is strongly connected to attaining a certain result through a certain technique. Church-Growth gurus have a lot of magic; they have a lot of techniques. So did the Baal prophets. They cut themselves and made loud noises and ran around trying to attract a dumb idol’s attention. Elijah had faith. The Egyptian priests had a lot of magic. They could turn staves into serpents and mimic Moses’ miracles. But Moses’ miracles devoured them up.
The Wesleys, good Anglican clergy who wanted to see the Church witness more effectively to their communities, had holy clubs, leaven for the lump. Does your congregation have “Witness-Paralysis”? For example, you feel in a slump, at a dead end, ineffective in your communities. Or, you feel as if church growth is working for everybody else in town but you. You say your congregation is “graying.” You say you are the youngest member in your church – whether it is true or not. “Nobody wants to do anything.” If this sounds like you or your church, then you probably have “Witness-Paralysis”. More shockingly, you probably have C.G.A. – Addiction to Church Growth. Here is a 12-step process for overcoming this destructive pathos. Yes, it is based on The Twelve-Step Process.
1. We admit that we are powerless over our addiction to church growth and need help. Clergy, adults, even teens, play the “numbers game”. When I was in elementary school, being destined for ministry, I had already “caught the bug”. I checked out the attendance every week to see “how we were doing.” It is exciting. It is quantifiable. It is addicting. And it is sinful. We seek to win God’s favor by showing how well we are doing in the right stuff: Youth and Money. Besides being a wrong way to approach God, being outside of His holy blood-shedding, it isn’t even the stuff He likes. He says, “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats” (Isaiah 1:11). Basically, the number of cattle that you bring to His temple doesn’t matter to Him, and neither do the number of people. The Prophet David says, “For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.” God wants a changed heart. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17). And this step is an essential first-step to a changed heart on this matter.
2. We admit that God, utterly and completely, is in control of revealing to us our Gospel witness to our communities. God is in control of what our witness is. When one starts a ministry, one has a very specific idea who one’s target audience will be. Or, at least, usually we do. Our family. Our friends. People who need healing. People who are down-and-out. People at the country club. God is probably happy about this zeal, until it starts to get in the way of His divine will. But often the people He first puts in our heads as the reason “for” the ministry is the only thing He could put in our heads, because we don’t know what we don’t know. And what we don’t know is the wonderful thing that He has planned for His ministry through us. “For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him” (Isaiah 64:4).
3. We make a decision to turn our wills completely over to Him and the direction of our church witness completely over to Him. It is His church. We know this. Decisively turning this over to Him is hard, however. But He can’t do much with the church to which He has led us (it’s not our church) - He can’t do much if we keep a tight grip on it.
4. We make a complete moral inventory of our faults and failings, especially the seeking after false means (magic) by which to achieve a distorted end (church growth instead of Gospel witness). Besides the importance of confession in Methodism, Charles Finney in his “Revivals of Religion” utilizes the ancient catholic concept of self-examination and confession of sin as a necessary step in preparation for a revival in our congregation. When the inordinate desire for revival (in the guise of “church growth”) is the thing that needs to be confessed, the self-examination process takes on a certain irony. Let’s embrace the irony, chuckle at it, and confess our sins. I overheard once at Valley Forge Christian College a Pentecostal professor talking about how old Pentecostal churches, when they weren’t growing, would fast and pray until they figured out why. I think that one of the things that would be revealed to us if we did fast and pray is that we wanted church growth inordinately.
5. We confess these sins before others and before God. Confessing it means sharing it. Let’s “spread the bug” that we’ve wanted church growth inordinately and for the wrong reasons.
6. We truly intend amendment of life concerning our sins, especially seeking after church growth instead of Gospel witness. We need to actually desire to change our ways. This is hard, which leads to the 7th step.
7. We humbly ask Him to remove these failings. Prayer and fasting here would be very helpful.
8. Make an inventory of all the people we have hurt by seeking church growth instead of the witness of Faith, Hope and Charity. Many churches are the wreck and ruin of desiring church growth, but desiring to control it more. We have sinned against charity time and again by thinking that our ideas (not God’s) are the ways to grow the church; that our ideas will keep the church accounts balanced; that our ideas and our type of people are the right type of people to evangelize. I confess that I have hurt people this way. I have also been hurt this way. We need to make an inventory of the people we have hurt. Some of those people are in churches we’ve left. Some have left our church. Tragic of all, some have left THE Church. Either way they carry wounds and are tempted with bitterness often because of our lack of charity.
9. Make direct amends to those souls who have been hurt by such activity. At the very least, we need to pray for those people. But also pray for insight; See if there are any ways that you can make direct amends to those people, except where doing so would hurt them or others.
10. Continue to seek and destroy sin in our lives, noting lapses in which we slouch towards a distorted understanding of church witness, and promptly confessing such sin, admitting that we are wrong. These tendencies creep up and creep in. The opportunity to fall back into wrong thinking happens every time the pews fill up or don’t, every time the church budget balances or doesn’t. It is a constant struggle.
11. Seek out spiritual growth through prayer and meditation. Resting in the Lord is the best way to overcome the inordinate desire for a little extra, for that little cherry on the top. The Lord wants us. We know that He has called us to be numbered in His flock. He does not wish to lose us. He doesn’t want us to be the one sheep out of the ninety-nine to go astray because we were seeking one more sheep to show Him how much we love Him; or, heaven-forbid, because being with Him wasn’t enough, wasn’t enough to fill the void in our hearts. Let Him do the evangelism. If evangelism is a source of temptation, let it alone for a while and just sit with Him. You’re His.
12. Share this message with others.
Our congregations are a mess. They are a mess often because God wasn’t enough. We had to have a “successful” church too. This is an addiction, just as much of an addiction as alcohol and drugs can be. For the alcoholic, regular life isn’t enough. Family, friends, a job, all imperfect, aren’t enough. For the person addicted to church growth and success, regular Christianity isn’t enough. Regular Christianity, like family, friends and work, is imperfect. There are two ways to deal with imperfection: Take care of it or let God take care of it.
I would recommend the latter. When we try to take care of it, it leads to dysfunction and codependence. It leads to pain, heaped upon imperfection. Just like alcoholic families, congregations exhibit the dysfunction and codependence of a family with addictions. Vestry meetings are filled with plays for control and manipulations. Nobody feels free. Everybody feels miserable. It is a living hell.
But evangelism and witnessing in our communities is freeing. It is fun. Prayerfully finding how exactly God wants you and your brethren in the congregation to witness is finding out who you are in Christ, who you are by nature, who you were born to be! It doesn’t require doing “what works” – for somebody else, for some other congregation in town. Keeping up with the Joneses is boring. Rather, prayerfully seeking God’s will allows you to do what it is that God is working in you! – Indeed, that which is well-pleasing in His sight.