The United Methodist bishop of my conference, Mike Lowry, recently noted on his blog that laypeople are asking him, “What makes a church grow?” When the bishop offers a couple of points in reply, the questioners begin to debate him. “I pointed out that my answer wasn’t a matter of opinion,” Bishop Lowry wrote. “It was based on the deep data mining on congregational vitality done by Towers Watson in their report.”
“What makes a church grow?” As a seasoned pastor and evangelist, I have often heard this query tinged with an attitude of survivalism. In other words, some folks want their church to grow because the club is in danger of shutting down. Or, at the very least, the numbers aren’t what they used to be and the pews need to be filled back up to keep the cash flow going. I knew a pastor who had a heart for student ministry. He and his wife wanted to start a college outreach in the church where he was serving. One night, during a finance meeting, a church member strongly suggested that they put their efforts elsewhere. “College kids aren’t revenue-producing,” he said.
“What makes a church grow?” I would answer that question with another question: “Why do you want your church to grow?” Is it because more posteriors in the pews represent more pockets, and more pockets means more shekels in the plate? With increased offerings, the doors can remain open and you, your family and your friends can continue to enjoy the programs and fellowship you’ve had for years–and if the new members want to join in, that’s fine, too, as long as they don’t rock the boat. If this is the motivation of the establishment in your church, you need to realize that everyone is on life support. If your pastor goes along with your narrow vision, then he or she is a hospice manager, not a leader. It’s only a matter of time before a “FOR SALE” sign is on the front lawn.
The desire for church growth should always be “other-focused” and not “me-focused.” The final commandment of Jesus was so magnificent that it became known as The Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:19-20 NKJV)
This is the reason we should want the church to grow. The Great Commission comes straight from the heart of the Head of the Church, who said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15 NIV). We either believe that Jesus said these things or we don’t. And if we feel reluctant to fulfill His last great directive, then we need to drink deeply of the scripture that says, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome” (I John 5:3 NASB). It is a joy to seek the lost and help people discover the wonders of God. Do you remember a moment when you became aware of the presence of the Holy? Do your memory banks contain pictures and sounds of baptisms and sermons and Easter services and Christmas Eve candlelight, recorded long ago through your ears and eyes, that are still vibrant and fresh? Can you recall a time when the Holy Spirit touched you so deeply you wanted to trumpet the experience to the stars? These are the feelings that we, as the church, need to recapture. This is the fire we need to keep burning.
Reports, I suppose, are helpful in fueling a fire that is already there. But a church can follow the findings of a consultation to the letter and still decline. Christ did not die to save programs; He died to save people. And then He rose again to prove His mastery over the ultimate power, death. If God can empty a grave, God can overcome any objections or hesitancy we might have to carry out the agenda of His Son, our Lord and Savior.
“What makes a church grow?”
If we were to ask Jesus this question today, do you suppose He would smile just before He repeated the commission He gave so long ago? “Go therefore and make disciples.”
We know what makes a church grow. Deep down in our hearts, we know. Now we must settle in our hearts whether we think the Great Commission is a blessing to carry out–or a burden to endure.