why churches grow

Everyone has their own theories. And I have always taken Acts 2:42-47 as my model/philosophy. Five years ago Carey Nieuhof (Founding & Lead Pastor of Connexus Church in Ontario) wrote what follows. I think he is on to something, and last night I shared it with the Leadership Team in our new church. My guess is that these are difficult concepts for most traditional, established churches to embrace. However, here in Kimberley, we are not average, not traditional, and certainly not predictable. I modified just a few of Carey’s sentences to make it more applicable to our situation. I would love to hear reports from other churches, other leaders, as to what you have experienced.  Are these three factors ‘the keys’ to health & growth? What are we missing?

One of the questions that keeps coming up these days is, “why are some churches growing when so many churches are not?

I’ve thought about this question a lot over the years.  I remember a long drive to Chicago two years ago with an emerging church leader.  During the trip, he asked me point blank why some churches grow and others don’t.  It really made me think.  Within two months, I’d boiled the answer down to three factors — three factors that still make sense to me over two years later.

You might be disappointed, because few of the factors are shrouded in the mystery of church “language” or hyper-spiritual talk.  It might be more tempting to say “because God blesses growing churches”…but doesn’t that imply that God curses dying churches?  Or we might say “because the Holy Spirit is with growing churches…”  But again, is He then not with stagnant or declining churches?  And isn’t it possible to grow a church (at least on the short term) through human effort?  Is God actually behind every growing church, or sometimes can talented people grow a church while God has nothing to do with it?  I doubt the growth would last for years or decades, but I bet you can get solar-flare growth for a little while on human effort alone.

So, here’s my short list of three factors that I think lead to long term, sustainable, God-honoring, authentic growth in a church.  In my opinion, all three are necessary.  You can’t have two out of three and grow long term.  You need all three:

I. Biblical Integrity.  If you base your ministry on anything other than the Word of God, long term it will fizzle.  If people aren’t being led into a growing relationship with Jesus based on scripture, then they won’t stick around for long.  Scripture is the guide for life, for churches and for people.

2. Cultural Relevance.  You may believe the Bible, but if you speak Greek to a culture that speaks English…good luck.  Too many Christians love stuffy, antiquated church culture as much as they love Jesus.  That’s going to be an issue if you are trying to reach people who live firmly in 2012.  Musically, language wise and otherwise, churches need to move into a culturally relevant model of ministry that speaks to people where they are at.  Jesus did.

3. Structural Agility.  This is the unlikely inclusion in the list.  I added it because I have met way too many church leaders who base their ministry on scripture, do culturally relevant ministry, and don’t grow.  By structural agility, what I mean is that church leadership has to be sensitive to the constantly changing dynamics of size and scope of ministry at every size of growth and be willing to change how they function structurally as a result.

The structural changes are myriad.  A church of 300 must be organizationally different than a church of 100.  A church of 900 is going to be very different organizationally than a church of 400.  Many leaders get hung up because they try to pastor a church so that they “know everybody” when they can’t know everybody. The expectation of personal pastoral care by a pastor only has to disappear (see Exodus 18 & Ephesians 4:11-16). Biblically, it should always be care by-the-people for-the-people-anyway.

The role of leadership needs to become more and more equipping-based, where instead of doing the work they enable the work to be done by people.  Congregations become empowered when leaders release them to do the work of ministry.

Decision making also needs to change in a growing organization. It needs to move from consensus based decision making at a congregational level to leader-led decision making and leadership team-based decision making.  Elders will function more as the spiritual ‘guardrails’ of decision making.

Many people chafe at these changes (partly because they can only think in terms to the concept of ‘control’, partly because they’ve never been part of a growing church, partly because they are not willing to consider new models), but that explains why so many churches in Canada are struggling to survive.  We condemn ourselves to limited influence because we won’t make the structural and leadership decisions we need to make to grow the Kingdom. To ignore structural agility is to condemn your church to always being smaller than your vision (or even God Himself) wants you to be.

Those are my three. I realize when I say these things that they are counter-intuitive and often make other church leaders or church people angry, but I think they are just true.

–      Carey Nieuhof,  Connexus, Barrie/Orillia, November 2007

Modified by Rev. D. Johns & shared with the Session of St. Andrew’s Kimberley, July 17/12

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