three ways to grow

Are we growing?

Pandemic aside, was this Sunday any bigger than last Sunday? Where there more plates out at the spaghetti dinner than last year, or less? Is the choir getting bigger? Or just louder?

I’ve seen or heard-tell of three ways that churches have grown (or not) over the past 70 years or so.

The first is through the charisma of the leader. That term can have some baggage, but let’s state the obvious: from clergy to musicians to youth ministers, a winsome leader is going to help a community stay lively and grow…at least for a little while. Here be serious dragons, mind you, if the charisma masks a character flaw or a deeper insecurity, or if long-term vitality is sacrificed in favor of what someone thinks is the hot ticket today. But when grounded in authenticity and insight, the charisma of the leader can help things to grow nicely.

The second way I’ve seen growth happen is when we ride the cultural waves that flow in our favor. There’s less of this nowadays. The first church I led had posted big numbers in the 1950’s and 60’s and we couldn’t help but wonder why that wasn’t happening anymore. But heavens, consider the cultural momentum from that era: historically high rates of marriage, jobs that created single earners (meaning more church volunteers), and church attendance as a cultural assumption.

There are still places where the cultural tides break our way, and wonderful things can happen there. It was in churches like this where I learned about faith and where I discerned that ministry might be for me. These are also places where faithful people work hard to go deeper, to lead beyond where those cultural tailwinds take them.

But we can also put on blinders about what’s driving the growth: our sermons may be chef’s-kiss-fantastic, but we may well be getting a bigger boost than we think if our city or neighborhood is thriving, or when we’re in a community that still does the church thing on a regular basis.

The third type is a bit less flashy, is a different kind of hard work, and can take a really long time…especially if the prevailing winds aren’t in our favor. (And sometimes it simply doesn’t work, at least not according to the standards of 1 and 2). Yet growth can also come from slow, steady, faithful work where we show up every day, get help from some faithful people, and are open to some surprises from the Holy Spirit. This is flywheel work: slowly, prayerfully, a little bit every day. Gratefully taking some cultural wins along the way but also thinking about that somewhat critically. Not avoiding charisma, but not relying on it either.

All three ways can grow a congregation. Growth is generative and lasting, though, when it’s grounded not in ego but in authenticity. We get trapped when we grow because of the first two – charisma and culture – without realizing what’s lifting us up. We miss out then on the really good growth, the stuff that has little to do with headcounts and raffle tickets, growth that that emerges from humility and patience and a faith that we’re not the ones who are really in charge.

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