Our church grew rapidly its first two years, but for the past three membership has stood practically still; I don't under stand why God hasn't blessed my ministry here with more growth."
Pastor Smith's congregation of 140 persons is a typical Protestant church in North America. It began five years ago with thirty members and quickly grew to more than a hundred. Now the church is struggling simply to maintain its size. Few new converts have been added in recent years.
The majority of Protestant churches in America remain small. Research by Lyle Schaller has shown that 50 percent of such churches in the United States have fewer than seventy-five persons in attendance at the weekly worship service; 75 percent have fewer than 140. These small and middle-sized congregations are the typical Protestant churches of America. Only 5 percent of Protestant churches in America average more than 350 in attendance (The Multiple Staff and the Larger Church [Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1980], pp. 28, 29).
Should churches grow larger? After all, small churches provide more spiritual intimacy, greater security in a personal acquaintance with each member, and a sense of being needed. Large churches aren't for everyone! Small churches have their place. Many pastors rightly feel that God would have them plant more small churches instead of growing larger ones.
On the other hand, a large church is big enough for effective youth ministry, a singles ministry, outreach ministry groups, and an exciting service of worship. Many people like the feeling of being "where the action is" that a large church provides. Bigness can be an evangelistic tool. We are called to make disciples, and in the priority of that task the large church serves a vital function. Large churches too have their place!
Most pastors would like their churches to grow, but are frustrated in their attempts to lead their churches into dynamic growth. The hundreds of transient pro grams for evangelism add to their feelings of futility.
Church growth is neither the work of man nor an accident; it is first of all the work of the Holy Spirit. Churches grow because God chooses to bless them with growth. Depending on the Holy Spirit, however, does not diminish our need to understand how church growth occurs. We need to study the nature of a growing church. Of all the images used in Scripture to describe the church, perhaps none is as important to understand in terms of growth as the image of the church as the body of Christ. The body of Christ is a living thing, and living things grow. We may view Christ's body, the church, with an X-ray perspective. If the "internal organs" of the body are healthy and well, the church will grow. Let us then examine the vital internal organs of the church body with an eye to recognizing what promotes their health.
The weekly worship service is normally the only time the entire church member ship group meets together. This is celebration. It is rewarding to be together in one place with many other believers and have the sense of being of one mind. The primary function of this weekly gathering, or celebration, is worship. Secondary functions include identity, various services, various departments, Bible knowledge, unity of doctrinal teaching, and motivation for mission. In a church larger than 140 members, the weekly worship celebration cannot provide personal fellowship, a need that is absolutely vital to the spiritual health of the individual Christian.
People come to church expecting to find close and warm fellowship. "The people here are so loving that I know that God is with them," candidates for church membership typically declare. An individual can become personally acquainted with as many as sixty persons, but will tend to feel isolated in groups larger than sixty. Thus within the celebration group are many smaller "congregations," whether recognized or hidden. A congregation is a group small enough to permit the people in it to become personally acquainted with one another and have authentic fellowship. These congregations number from ten to sixty persons each. Their primary function is fellowship. Here personal acquaintance and the warmth of close fellowship exist. Secondary functions of the congregation may include Bible study, Christian growth, reclaiming inactive members, reinforcing spiritual roots and traditions, and employing spiritual gifts and ministry. Schaller's study, cited earlier, reveals that 50 percent of churches in the United States never grow to be larger than a single congregation or fellowship group. Most churches don't recognize the need for or provide multiple congregations within the celebration group; thus they limit their growth.
When a local church is made up of healthy congregations, cells will exist. Cells are spiritual kinship groups from three to ten persons each. The primary function of these cells is personal spiritual accountability or heart-to-heart sharing. Five ladies within a certain congregation may determine to get together on Tuesday mornings for the express purpose of study ing the Gospel of Mark and praying together, but the real need that brings them together is the need for a close spiritual kinship. Cells provide for spiritual renewal. Secondary functions may be study, prayer, or witnessing. Cell groups are identified by a very close spiritual relationship among three to ten persons. Promoting the good health of these vital internal organs of the body is an important task for the church growth leader. This may necessitate changes in church structure, and that can be a gradual and painful thing. But there are some good places to begin.
Congregations within the church membership require intentional structuring in order to be effective. The church leader can begin to promote the health of the church by examining the life of congregations within the body. These congregations should include people with like interests and backgrounds. This adds to the satisfaction of members and makes the congregation attractive to others. Most churches can identify many "people groups" within their membership retired persons, young adult, young singles, a group of intellectuals, mature widows or widowers, or factory workers who would enjoy being together with "their kind of people." The first step in encouraging healthy congregations is to identify these people groups within the church. This application of the principle of "homogeneous units" will help your church make a start toward growth. A word of caution: people can't be forced to associate with certain other people; they will, however, naturally move toward a group in which they feel comfortable. Forming homogeneous congregations is a process that can be encouraged but not forced.
The structure for these congregations is lying at our proverbial "fingertips." Most church denominations have a Christian education program in which children and adults study a denominationally prepared Bible curriculum in the Sabbath or Sunday school. These class units are an ideal nucleus for congregations within the church membership. Simply recognizing the homogeneous-unit principle and providing a study class for various people groups within the church will make it possible to transform an ordinary class into a dynamic, growing congregation within the church. The primary function of the class unit when it takes this shape becomes fellowship, with Bible study, outreach, and other activities as secondary functions. Members of a Bible study class in a Sabbath or Sunday school often recognize the need of fellowship with one another. Some will express that they enjoy the small class more than any other church activity for the very reason that it provides opportunity for a personal acquaintance and a sharing of themselves with other members of the church. We should recognize that meeting this need and promoting it is in itself an effective evangelistic tool. People quickly become comfortable in such a setting and will come to church when such congregational units exist because they feel love and warmth.
The effectiveness of the congregation will multiply, however, if it has a planned organization. People within the congregation who have gifts of a pastor-shepherd should be recognized and made responsible for visiting and nurturing members of the congregation. People with the gift of hospitality should provide social functions, home get-togethers, or regular fellowship dinners. Those with the gift of teaching should teach. Those who have the gift of evangelism should evangelize inactive members and seek to plant them in the congregational group. Such a congregation may have the study class as its nucleus but include other members of the church as well. The congregations of a church may become the focus of nurturing activity, since they are small enough for its leaders to know the spiritual condition of each person. But they should not take the place of the larger celebration. The celebration of the entire body is an important role of Christian experience that the congregation cannot replace. Those who nurture or teach a congregation must recognize this.
When congregations exist within the church, cell life occurs spontaneously. It can be encouraged by the pastor or other leaders beginning small groups within their own homes. The joy and benefits of spiritual renewal through cell life will spread quickly!
Often these vital organs of the body exist in a church, but their structure is such that they create barriers to church growth instead of aiding it. When this is the case, eliminate the barriers! Remember, a living plant grows!
One congregational pattern that inhibits church growth may be called koinonitis. "Koinonitis" exists when members of a congregation enjoy their fellowship to the exclusion of new persons. It Meets their needs, and they are comfortable with it the way it is. Change is perceived as a threat to their fellowship.
Other congregations inhibit growth because they are overweight. They may include a class of fifty persons, and when family members are included, seventy-five or more. There is simply no room for a new person to come into the group and expect to find the personal fellowship needed in a congregation. The size pf the group is a barrier to growth.
Sociological tissue rejection is another barrier to church growth. It exists when a prospective member is grafted into a group of people whose life style is unfamiliar to him, transgressing the homogeneous-unit principle. Leaders may be unfamiliar with the importance of this concept and fail to help a prospective member find "his kind of people." The new member or visitor is simply not comfortable with the group of people he finds. He may try two or three times to find a group he is comfortable with, become discouraged, and stop coming.
A fourth congregational pattern that inhibits growth is the attitude called pioneer land rights. Unfortunately, this is fairly common in many churches. The pioneers are the ones who have forged the program, and established the structure. They may not tolerate "homesteaders" who view the church as more flexible or who have new ideas. Change is threatening, and the pioneers find themselves, in subtle ways, rejecting new members because of the threat of change.
But if these barriers can be dismantled, congregational units within the church can be made to promote church growth. How rewarding it is when a group of people recognize themselves as a fellowship group and begin to realize that God can use them for kingdom growth! Absorbent congregational patterns are easily identified.
Motivation for growth is the first indication of an absorbent pattern. Members of a congregation must recognize the priority of kingdom growth and be motivated to achieve it. Class units should invest time weekly in this important part of their existence. Testimony, study, and prayer regarding the work of the Holy Spirit contribute to growth motivation. Leaders should talk of adding new members to the group and consider that faithfulness to God requires them to do so.
Accountability to the Lord should become specific. A congregation motivated for growth will establish faith objectives for their growth. This means that class units will have soul-winning objectives. Souls will be prayed for and answers to prayer expected.
When a congregation grows to such a size that there is no longer room to add new persons, it should divide and form two smaller congregations. This is a typical absorbent pattern. But the pride of the members, teacher, or other leaders in the size of their group can often prevent such division. This human pride must give way to an expression of glory to God in His work of adding souls to the church. We provide for the work of the Holy Spirit when we leave room for new persons.
A congregation that invites new members displays an absorbent pattern. A class group can do this easily by advertising its congregational nature. For instance, a young adult class can advertise in the local newspaper that a Bible Study for young adults is being held at the church, giving the time of the weekly meeting and inviting attendance.
Nurture is part of church growth, and time for nurture should be given when the congregation is together. Absent members should be visited and the sick prayed for. Personal interest in each member should be shown. This type of nurture is the most effective, for it is heartfelt and sincere because the members know and love one another.
The growth of the church is the will of God. By understanding the nature of the church as the body of Christ, we can cooperate in God's plan to multiply believers and let the church grow!