What do growing churches look like?

It is hard for Americans to realize the impact their country has on people from other places. We are so accustomed to the exported, secularized, Hollywood view of life that the degree to which Christian cultures have permeated American society surprises us. On my first visit I was simply amazed at the high proportion of the population going to church on Sundays in places like Texas, the Deep South, and the Mid-West. But, I suppose as far as religious observance is concerned, a society that traces itself back to the Pilgrim Fathers is likely to have a better gene pool than one that started as a jail!

In Australia it is much more difficult to plant, sustain and grow congregations. But it is not impossible, as the last few Letters have shown. The problem is that many clergy and lay people from the Catholic tradition (and some other ‘settled’ Christian traditions, too) do not believe that principles stumbled on by churches that are growing could be adapted to their own life.

We are not here talking about what in America and other places are referred to as ‘Church Growth Principles’. The ‘Church Growth’ movement has its critics even within mainstream Evangelicalism. Many of its insights are useful, and in one sense mega-churches with congregations of thousands give a certain visibility to the Gospel. But it is widely observed that the mega-churches often grow at the expense of small churches, without actually increasing the proportion of practising Christians in their locality. Indeed, Archbishop Peter Jensen, when launching his Mission to Sydney said that what he really wanted to see was lots of small churches multiplying themselves all over the place.

A couple of years ago the Rt Revd Reg Piper, Bishop of Wollongong (an area of Sydney Diocese), drew his people’s attention to the principles developed by Christian Schwarz, head of the Institute for Natural Church Development in Germany. Piper commended Schwarz’s approach because, ‘Basically it looks at church health rather than church growth. I am more comfortable with this approach theologically.’ Schwarz’s eight ‘characteristics of healthy, and therefore growing, churches’ grew out of the most comprehensive survey of growing churches ever undertaken, and he maintains that they transcend differences in culture, theological tradition and style. According to Schwarz, those characteristics are:

Empowering Leadership

Leadership is definite, strong and visionary, but also successful in facilitating, equipping and empowering others. Now this takes time, so the senior pastor must delegate anyway. In healthy and growing churches the congregation has learned not expect the senior pastor to minister personally to everyone. Others are drawn into leadership and ministry roles.

Gift-oriented Ministry

The leadership enables every member to discover and then exercise the gifts they have been given by God. This obviously begins with the conviction that each of us does in fact have gifts that the church community needs. Leaders and pew sitters alike need to come to that conviction, otherwise the discovery of these gifts simply will not happen.

Passionate Spirituality

Growing churches are those in which members go way beyond the mere defence of orthodoxy to actually living their faith with passion and contagious enthusiasm. Just being ‘sound’ or ‘orthodox’ will not draw people: we in Forward in Faith need to realize that!

Functional Structures

Growing churches develop programmes. But they have no patience (or money) for programmes that do not satisfy spiritual needs or further their real mission. They are prepared to change things that no longer work.

Inspiring Worship Services

Schwarz distinguishes between church services that are mere entertainment and those that really inspire. He research shows that whether traditional or more secular language is used, whether the worship is liturgical or non-liturgical, or whether the music is old-fashioned or modern is utterly irrelevant. The key criterion is whether the service inspires those who attend.

Holistic Small Groups

In the 4.2 million answers to Schwarz’s survey, the most important characteristic of growing churches was the development of small groups in which people learn to apply the Faith in a practical and personal way. These groups build relationships, they network people, and they are often the real catalyst of growth in the congregation.

Need-oriented Evangelism

Schwarz maintains that most evangelistic programmes are ‘method oriented’. In healthy, growing churches, however, the gifts of members and the resources of the church are matched to the spiritual needs of the community.

Loving Relationships

According to Schwarz the ‘love quotient’ is calculated on the basis of hospitality and laughter in a congregation. Growing churches have a much higher ‘love quotient,’ than stagnant or declining ones. Schwarz says that real love amongst church members ‘spreads that mysterious scent that few can resist.’

Schwartz’ eight points are really common sense. The depressing thing for those who love the Church and are serious about mission is that according to the research congregations that maintain a pattern of growth excel in all eight characteristics at the same time. Take one of those characteristics away, and that church does not grow.

Now there are clergy and laity who are so confronted by the challenge of new ways of looking at things that they would rather take the safe course and settle for the status quo, foregoing the excitement of a growing congregation. Problems, ranging from clergy who will never delegate to lay people who act as if they are paying their priest to be a Christian on their behalf, are sometimes so entrenched it is difficult to see where to begin in typical Anglican circles.

This is why church planting is often seen as a more productive way of expending our energies than trying to bring newly converted people (or even seekers) into a fractious fellowship. A few years ago, Phillip Jensen wrote candidly about this when he said, ‘Some might respond: why don’t we start by building up the many churches that are dwindling and struggling, rather than starting new ones? To which the answer is: it is easier to bring to birth than to resurrect the dead. It is almost always easier to start from scratch and plant a new congregation, than to work with a church that has real problems.’

For most of us, however, the task is to look at the problems and work on them prayerfully over a period of time. There are older parishes that are growing, even in Australia, and who evidence Schwartz’s eight characteristics. The starting point seems to be the ability of the priest to gather a group of parish leaders around him who have a vision for growth and a belief that it is possible, and inspire them to work with him in the spiritual renewal of the congregation and in putting together as many practical changes as possible.

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints’, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane.