In an age where bigger is better, the standard for success is often measured by numerical growth. Yet, in reality, numbers alone do not adequately covey the spiritual health of the congregation. The most important aspect of a healthy church is not what is happening in the rolls but what is occurring in the hearts and lives of the people. Every church should grow spiritually, but not every church will grow numerically, for this growth depends on the location and divinely ordained purpose of the church.
In Dining with the Devil, Os Guinness tells the story of Pastor John of the First Independent Church. Having returned from the latest church growth seminars, he was excited about the church’s future. Although the church was small, located in a rural community in Montana, he felt that the principles outlined in the seminar would bring new growth to the church. His excitement, however, was met with guarded acceptance by the church. But after much persuasion, they agreed to implement the ideas.
At first, it appeared to be effective. However, at the end of one year, people were beginning to have their doubts. Even though the people worked hard and implemented all the ideas, only one new family came. Pastor John began to question his call to ministry, wondering if he was the problem. He thought that since the program worked so well with the other church leaders, the failure must be attributed to his lack of leadership.
The reason the program failed was not the Pastor’s fault, nor was it the fault of the people, nor was the program itself flawed. It was an excellent program that provided important principles of church growth that applied to any church. The failure was due to the nature of the ministry of the small church. Ministering effectively in the small church involves understanding and identifying the church type. While all churches are called to proclaim the gospel to a lost world, not all small churches will be able to maintain significant growth, nor should all small churches seek to grow beyond the small church size.
THE STABILIZED CHURCH:
First, Christian Church existed in a farming community in which the town had 400 people, and the whole county numbered 1200. Of those living in the area, 90% identified with one of the four churches in the town. For one family to abandon their past religious heritage and join the First Independent Church was a significant outreach for the church. While challenging the people to witness and minister to the community, neither the Pastor nor the people became discouraged by the lack of results. Instead, they measured success, not by the numerical growth, but by the people’s faithfulness in ministering to the needs of people and proclaiming the gospel of Christ.
Stabilized small churches are churches that maintain a certain attendance average for many years. While there may be some fluctuation in the attendance, overall, the church’s numerical growth has stabilized. These churches are often found in areas where the population base of the community is either stagnant or declining.
Churches located in small communities often lack the opportunity for potential growth. Since the church has existed for many years, sometimes generations, it already has high visibility within the community. Marketing techniques common to the church growth movement will have little impact since most people are already familiar with the church’s ministry. Therefore, rapid growth will be unlikely.
The danger in the stabilized church is that the lack of immediate or external results can become an excuse for people to no longer be aggressive in the proclamation of the gospel. It can become ingrown, no longer seeking to minister to the community at large. The people can become discouraged because “nothing seems to be happening.” Therefore, leading the stabilized church involves giving people a vision for ministry that transcends numerical growth and the barriers they face. Although they may not see numerical growth, they need to remain committed to the great commission regardless of results.
The church, to be healthy, needs to minister to those outside its church walls, reaching others in the community and the world with the gospel of Christ.
Even though the stabilized church does not see “success” in external growth, that does not mean that the church is unsuccessful. Every church can be a place where the gospel is preached, where people are transformed into obedient disciples of Christ, where the love of Christ is manifested. The accurate measure of success is found in being and doing what God has called the church to be and do, which ultimately is internal, not external in preeminence.
THE GROWING CHURCH:
Timberland Community Church had recently experienced moderate growth. The community had transitioned from a logging community to a bedroom community for a growing metropolitan area. The church aggressively reached out to the new families moving into the community and soon saw an increase in membership.
For the first time in the church’s history, the church could afford to hire an associate pastor and a church secretary. New programs were added, and new ministries started. The church sold its original property located on a side street and relocated to a more extensive facilities situated on a major intersection. While long-established church members struggled with accepting the new members, the church nevertheless transitioned from being a small church to a medium-sized church.
The growing church shows moderate to rapid growth (through conversion and transfer) and is transitioning from small to medium or large. The recent urban to rural migration has provided new growth opportunities for smaller membership churches. Many who move into the small communities find the smaller membership church a place of fellowship, mutual care, and personal involvement that did not characterize their participation in the larger churches in metropolitan areas.
Small churches that are growing are often located in either growing communities or large communities. Churches in stagnant or declining communities or smaller communities may experience some growth but are less likely to grow beyond the small church membership. The struggle confronting the growing church is the need to adapt itself to the organizational and philosophical changes that occur. The small church intimacy that attracted many, to begin with, can be lost to an impersonal organization. As the church grows, the challenge is maintaining intimacy through small groups while leading the people to accept the loss of intimacy felt in the more prominent church family.
Thus, leading a small membership church that is experiencing significant growth not only involves effectively continuing the outreach in the community so that the growth continues, it also involves careful leadership and organizational planning. This begins by preparing the people to accept the necessary changes within the church fellowship as a result of the growth.
THE SPECIALIZED CHURCH
Crossroads Congregational Church was located in a rapidly growing agricultural community. However, rather than reaching out to the general populous, they focused particular attention on the migrant workers who lived in the community, many of whom migrated elsewhere during the winter. Because of this specialized focus, they chose to be a Spanish-speaking congregation in a predominantly English-speaking community.
To attract the new people moving into the community, the church would need to change its focus drastically. They would have to transition from Spanish to English and forsake a service that reflected the Hispanic culture. In the end there would no longer be a ministry for the migrant workers.
Specialized small churches are those churches that have the potential for numerical growth but choose to limit growth to maintain a specialized ministry. Specialized churches can be ethnic churches in a larger community. They can be churches with a specific target group or churches that remain small to minister to those who are most comfortable in a small church setting.
Specialized churches develop growth strategies based upon their vision and direction, choosing to remain small because of the specific vision of the church. They do this by either planting other churches after a certain attendance level is reached or becoming a feeder church to a larger church in the area. It is wrongly assumed that every church should become larger. Every church should seek to evangelize people, but not every church should become larger. Therefore, leaders within the small church need to carefully consider how the church’s growth and size will affect the target people they minister to.
THE STAGNANT CHURCH
Pastor Bill arrived at the church with an evangelistic heart, a charismatic personality, and a clear vision for the church’s ministry. After working several years to implement new programs and ministries, the church began to grow. Soon, however, grumbling started to occur. The old guard, with their opposition to new ideas, resisted and frustrated the new members. By the time the annual meeting came, the old guard had mustered enough votes to remove all the newcomers from leadership and block any ideas they had.
The unexpressed rule was apparent; newcomers are welcome only if they follow previously established traditions. As a result, the new people left, and the church became stagnant, drained of spiritual vitality and ministry. There are several reasons why some small churches become stagnant and ineffective in ministry. They become lethargic when they are controlled by traditions rather than the desire to fulfill the great commission. They are hamstrung in ministry when they are unwilling to yield power and control to new people who attend, thus driving them away.
Some churches become stagnant when they develop low morale and lose sight of God’s ability to work through them. However, it is essential to realize that churches with stabilized attendance are not necessarily stagnant churches. Stagnant churches are those churches that no longer seek to fulfill the great commission. They are marked by an inward, self-absorbed focus of ministry that demonstrates a lack of concern for the spiritual, physical, and emotional needs of people outside the church community.
To renew the ministry in a stagnant church, the leadership needs to recognize that the problems and causes of an unhealthy atmosphere are not merely organizational but spiritual. To renew the stagnant church, the leadership needs to prayerfully consider the causes of the stagnation and then carefully and thoughtfully address those issues. The danger confronting the leadership in stagnant churches is discouragement and impatience. Bringing healing to an unhealthy church requires time, gentle and loving confrontation, and an unwavering commitment to see the church through the process.
ASSESSING THE CHURCH
To assess the growth potential of a church, several crucial questions need to be asked.
- Is the population base of the community growing, plateaued, or declining?In most cases, the growth of the church will follow the community. A church that is maintaining its size in a declining community may actually be experiencing growth. The growth is merely offset by the losses.
- Who is the target group of the church ministry?If the target group is the young families in a growing retirement community, the church may become a stabilized church even though the community at large is growing. On the other hand, if the church targets those who are most comfortable in the small church, it will need to plant other churches to maintain its smaller size.
- What is the attitude of the people regarding evangelism?Whether the church is growing or declining, people’s perspective is crucial to the church’s health. Therefore, all churches should be actively seeking to evangelize and minister to the community at large regardless of the results.
- What are the internal and/or external barriers to growth?Some barriers confronting the church are beyond the church’s control and cannot be changed. These conditions need to be identified and incorporated into the church’s understanding of what God has called them to accomplish. Other barriers can be overcome and should be addressed through careful planning and problem-solving strategies.
- What is the purpose and vision of the church?The church’s vision should reflect the community in which it resides, the spiritual gifts of people within the church, and the church’s personality. Every church should have an awareness of what God is calling them to accomplish within the community.
- Are people growing spiritually?Healthy churches are churches where people are becoming more obedient to scripture, exercising their spiritual gifts, demonstrating the character of Christ, and witnessing for Christ. The measure of the church is not what happens in the pews or on the membership rolls but what happens in the lives of men, women, and children who attend.
- Does the church have an understanding of the Biblical teaching regarding growth?Growth is ultimately the work of God in response to our faithfulness rather than merely having the right program (Acts 2:47 13:48; 1 Corinthians 3:5-8). Therefore, the focus should be upon faithful obedience in ministry rather than outward results.
Glenn Daman is the author of 5 books on rural church ministry: Shepherding the Small Church, Leading the Small Church, Developing Leaders in the Small Church, When Shepherds Weep, and The Forgotten Church. He is also the author of a forthcoming book, The Lighthouse. A 20-week devotional on the attributes of God.