Do you have a savings account? Take a look at the interest rate. If yours is anything like mine it’s under 1%. A savings account is not an investment tool, it will make you money slightly faster than stashing cash under your mattress.
There are very few churches that grow, and those that do are merely grow by addition. (There are essentially no multiplying church movements in North America.) Those churches with incremental growth also seem to have a false sense of security. They look at their additions and treat them as positive indicators, but they’re not. To use a finance metaphor,
Some churches think the return from their savings accounts are suitable for retirement.
But we all know a savings account is a terrible idea for retirement planning, so why is meagre growth thought to be sufficient for longterm sustainability?
I have a few ideas why.
Firstly, what we already know, the church is on the decline. As a whole, churches in North America have been declining since the 60s. Lately there is a substantial decrease in religious affiliation to the point we could call this an ‘exodus’. Within 2 generations mainline churches in Canada dropped 90% in attendance and are now on red-alert. They can no longer pay their bills. A quick look at any church today and you’ll find mostly a) a church that struggles, and a few b) a church that’s doing OK, but the majority of donations come from a declining baby boomer base.
Secondly, there’s an anomaly that’s contributing to a false sense of security. Every denomination is on decline except for evangelicals. They are experiencing, as a whole, tiny addition. How and why?
I think it has to do with how evangelicals approach the Gospel. Contemporary evangelicalism is OK with most aspects of mainstream culture (unless it has to do with morality). In the 80s, with the advent of the ‘seeker sensitive’ movement, churches started to pay attention to the spiritual demands of their congregations. That meant a more attuned church that could reflect some cultural changes. The unfortunate reality was the changes came at the behest of consumerism. Result?
Nowadays, there are a few churches that experience small growth because they’re doing really well offering catered spirituality. The services and music are contemporary and relevant, and more importantly, programs have been tailored to specific demographics, mainly families. In the very least, evangelicals, apart from millennials on down, have done well to hang on to their adherents by ensuring they meet their needs. What does this mean?
Most churches don’t really know why they’re growing if they are. They chalk it up to strategy or format. What they may not know is that churches grow in 3 very specific ways. The kind of growth that is rarely seen, is conversion growth, where the very BEST churches can only add 0-2% / year.
Churches that grow by any number (and remember, the best numbers are in the dozens for churches in the thousands) falsely assume they have something that’s vibrant, when in reality it’s largely only working for already churched people. They also assume duplicating the core while merely changing the package, will continue to work in new ventures.
Even the most contemporary churches are largely incapable of telling the Gospel story to a growing minority of people who have no familiarity with any Christian narrative, let alone the words we use.
Discipleship, baptisms, and conversions, remain utterly stagnant. This doesn’t really seem to bother many lead pastors. They may be aware, but ultimately so long as the pews appear full on Sunday the underlying cultural issues don’t seem to compel any action. It should bother more pastors that a church of, say, over 500, can barely see conversion growth of a dozen per year. If you count the ABCs then count conversions and baptisms and be honest that what you have is a) not working, therefore b) can’t be the only way to do things.
If your church shows small 1-2%* growth, you may not think there’s a problem. You may think that your model is working fine, and you’d be right–in a way. You’d be right only in the sense that your consumer Christianity, the brand that condones a sit and watch modus operandi, is effective, despite largely catering to already churched people. Even within this model of Christendom there’s STILL a kind of person that doesn’t know Jesus that will respond to contemporary church formats. The problem is that pool is dwindling in a hurry, and if you can’t see the writing on the wall, then you need to get out of pews and meet your neighbours, literally.
The unfortunate reality of being in a church that’s holding steady is the difficulty seeing beyond the church walls. It’s true, most large churched need to centralize their people and operation just to function. But that breeds a system and culture that exacerbate these problems–a discipleship epidemic that’s not getting better, a consumer church culture that keeps the church out on the margins, and an abysmal baptism rate where the testimonies don’t begin with, “so, I’ve always been a Christian….”
Maybe, we have a deeper problem? Maybe there’s a deeper issue in how we, as Christians, view the world? Not from a place of privilege but a place of marginalization? Maybe there’s a problem with our insular Christianity? Maybe WE are the problem, and any changes to address these issues isn’t so much about format insomuch as the foundation? Maybe there’s a need to re-orient back to fundamental calling of loving thy neighbour?
Do you even know your neighbour?
Or maybe holding steady and/or growing by increments is vision bold enough for you.
*By the way, 1-2% annual growth (which is by far the BEST many churches can do per annum) isn’t far off from how fast the early church grew. Early church was probably just under 4%. So picture this, the BEST years some churches can ever do, that needs to double, to make a paltry 4% annual growth, but that’s actually incredible because it’s on par with the early church growth (and leads to a multiplying growth.)