Every church I've ever been a part of wishes for the exact same thing. They want to grow. I'm fairly certain that no matter who you ask, whether from a congregation of 15 or 15,000; on a list of top desires, church growth is a high priority. We have a sense of evangelistic fervor which makes everyone feel obliged to grow as big as possible as quickly as possible. It's built into our DNA to want more butts in the pews, bigger and better programs, and a better future for our communities.
But let's step back for a second and get real as the modern church. What if most churches, because of their present situation, shouldn't be growing in numbers right now? Now I'm not saying we can ignore a scriptural mandate like Matthew 28:19-20, which says "Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you." In the United Methodist Church, that idea is built into our mission statement, so we can't ignore this passage.
But think for a second about why most churches want to grow. See if any of these relate:
1. We need more people to pay our bills and keep our doors open.
2. We need more volunteers because we are tired of doing everything around here.
3. We want more kids in our church so that we have a future.
4. We want this sinful community to become more like our perfectly obedient and only slightly sinful congregation.
I'm simplifying the problem, but often we focus on growth for the wrong reasons, and neglect one of the assumptions in Matthew 28. Here's a very hard fact we need to acknowledge in our churches before we ever consider inviting others in. The fact is this: We need to be better disciples before we can begin to make other people into disciples. No tree can bear fruit if it has a poor root system. And too often, I've seen really great marketing strategies for churches yield absolutely nothing because a congregation wasn't really interested themselves in being a church of disciples. Most churches want to fulfill the tasks I mentioned above, while leaving the Matthew 28 passage as an unfulfilled side note. The reality is, bringing unhealthy people into an unhealthy church only makes more people sick.
Look at that list above, and consider these possibilities:
1. What if a church could make more disciples if the people weren't isolated inside an expensive building, but were instead out in the world where they could make lasting, transformational relationships?
2. What if exhausting, no longer effective programs that current volunteers don't want to do could be set aside in order to focus on truly loving and serving others the way God calls us to?
3. What if our adults have to grow first in their faith, beyond a childlike curiosity in scripture, tradition and doctrine; before we hope that more kids will somehow make things better?
4. What if the church took a position as humble, repentant and passionately open to sinners of all kinds, acknowledging that we ourselves are as sinful as anyone, and in as much need of God's grace as anyone out in the community?
These are just some questions we should be considering before thinking about what it would mean to add one more person to the church. Unfortunately, most churches are holding on to their structures and bank accounts for dear life. We do this while proclaiming to hold a belief in a God that transforms lives, yet deep down, we don't really believe God has done that for us. If we can't show that God has transformed us, why would anyone want to spend their time going through the same motions that we are? People in every community have had opportunities to come to church. Yet, they haven't, and we have to really, truly analyze the reasons why.
Consider the possibility that our growth strategy should start in our own hearts. What would it look like if we truly experienced the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and in the lives of our congregation? What would that mean to our hurting communities? If this truly happened, I suspect we wouldn't need an expensive marketing campaign with sleek new colors and quippy commercials. If we lived out our faith in ways that God called us to, my guess is that the community couldn't avoid the contagious church we'd become, no matter how much it tried. Are we ready to fan the cold of an unhealthy church? Or are we ready to catch the fire of the transforming Spirit in our lives? Let's start by looking at the ways we need to grow. Then we'll be ready for who the Spirit wants us to reach out to next.