SMALL church growth

Principles that contribute to small-church growth

Rod Long pastors four church districts and lives in Chadron, Nebraska.

It can't be done!" is a phrase that resounds with darkness, hopelessness, and defeat. Throughout the Christian world we hear increasingly that revitalizing small churches just can't be done. Where did this thinking come from? Have we forgotten that we are an extension of the New Testament church that small, courageous assembly of souls who would have been understood for saying "It can't be done!" But they didn't even seem to know the meaning of those words. They didn't because they were too busy believing such things as "With God all things are possible."

I believe that God is still working, just as He did with those first-century Christians. However, the way we approach things today is significantly different from that of our New Testament predecessors. As leaders and laity, we seem to be easily quieted on the journey, almost as if the "fire" is gone. We become comfortable with the way things are and sometimes don't see the need to step out in faith, to keep trying new things.

Smaller churches seem especially vulnerable to this kind of inertia.

Finding a vision, discovering a mission

Churches in this new millennium, especially small ones, face barriers to growth, most of them having to do with two often expressed yet vital arenas: (1) Do we really feel and do we actually have a sense of deep concern for the struggling humanity around us? and (2) Are we willing to search for God's vision and mission for us and our congregation, and do we have the faith and courage to follow that vision?

Past experience tells me that churches which focus on reaching and befriending lost souls in their communities will be the churches that grow! Churches that actually go through a visioning and mission-building process will be unique among most churches in their community. Why? Because they are wrestling to find a vision or a mission from God for their ministry, and therefore God can work among them and in their community, helping them to discover the roles they are to play.

We often make plans and create strategies for our churches and our ministries, and then ask God to bless them and make them fruitful. But most of the success in any program or church comes from not asking God to bless our work, but listening for His invitation to join Him in the work He is doing where we are. The visioning and mission-building process for a church does exactly that.

This process should begin with 40 days of fasting and prayer. Everyone in the church or at least most of the congregation's leaders should participate in this highly rewarding step. Participants ask God to show them the role that the congregation needs to play in the community. It is probably best for each congregation to work out their way of actually carrying out this important aspect of the visioning process.

The vision speaks of where a congregation is going, and the mission tells how it is going to happen. The vision inspires people to scale the summit of the mission.

Key ingredients for small-church growth

How often have you heard someone say of their church, "We can't do this because we are too small"! People make the word small seem so negative. How can we take the negative away from small so that we encourage and vitalize our people? Could it be that in the word small is the solution to growth in today's church? The word small has become an acronym that sums up my ministry and reveals a way through which all churches can grow:

S Specific vision and mission

M Members in ministry

A Attractive to the community

L Linking to the power of Heaven through prayer

L Loving unconditionally

Every church that I have been blessed to be a part of, has taken the time to actually develop these qualities. I believe that any church that will make it a point to follow this acronym is destined for growth and positive community awareness and impact!

Let me touch on SMALL and what it entails. Because we have already covered much of the first aspect specific vision and mission we will move on to a space-limited expression of the other four qualities necessary for small-church growth.

If a church is to succeed the members must be active! Many church members believe that it is the pastor's responsibility to build the church. Actually, it's everyone's calling. It is the pastor's responsibility to train members to reach out ,to the community in a meaningful way.

The pastor is to build up the saints through the Word of God, and to encourage them in the face of rejection. The pastor is to be the leader who is clearest on the vision and mission of God for himself, so that he or she knows where God wants the congregation to go. Then the pastor leads the church. He doesn't do their work for them.

The members must keenly feel the needs and longings of the souls around them, having a deep desire to bring them to Christ, or they will never feel the need to do service for Christ. The pastor should keep before the people the burden that Christ has laid on them for others.

Jesus' mission statement is the essential mission statement of every congregation: The Son of man has come to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). Jesus was clear and focused when it came to this. Following someone means that we go the same way and do the same things.

The next key ingredient is being attractive to our communities. For too long many of our churches have felt that if people are looking for Jesus, our doors are open. Just let them come in.

It would be nice if that were all we had to do just unlock the door, turn on the light, sit in the pew, and motion for folks to "come on in." Part of the revitalization journey of a church is becoming involved in the community and getting that community involved with the church. When I say the church needs to be attractive to the community, I don't mean just the beauty or functionality of the physical plant. Although that is important, there's more. People need to have positive memories and thoughts about our churches.

One way to achieve this is by doing community appreciation days. Twice a year the churches in my district recognize and thank a community action group for what they do in our neighborhoods. We have invited the volunteer fire department, the police, state patrol, and sheriff. Other churches I have served have honored nurses, ambulance personnel, emergency room staff, and others.

In my community appreciation sermons, I focus on the qualities these community leaders exhibit, especially highlighting those that are directly a part of Christian faith and which Jesus also modeled. We then serve them a meal during which we honor them by giving them a plaque and voicing our appreciation for their contributions to our community.

Many people have come into our churches whose first contact was an Appreciation Day service. We must not use these days as a way of "hooking" members or influencing them with the doctrines of our church. We need to have appreciation days simply to say thank you and show our friends that God loves and protects them. Memberships will come as a natural result of this!

Next in the SMALL acronym is linking to the power of Heaven through prayer. No church grows healthfully without prayer. The power of the universe is unleashed only when we are on our knees. (Earlier in the article we noted that 40 days of fasting and prayer are crucial to the vision and mission building of any church.) Prayer is our help line, our connection to the solution center of the world. There is no mountain too high. Fervent prayer can scale impossible-looking summits. Prayer can lift us from the lowest valley. Prayer from even the weakest soul can bridge the deepest, widest river.

If we want to turn our churches around, and keep them headed in the right direction, we need to build a team of prayer warriors! Fasting with prayer has become almost obsolete in today's Christian world. More time needs to be spent in fasting. It is a time when we give up something important and desirable, replacing it with time spent in earnest prayer.

Jesus began His ministry with a 40- day fast. Fasting is a great opportunity to come close to God, and for Him to come close to us. It is during these times that my members have shared with me how God has opened their eyes in new and surprising ways. They come so close to Him that many continue this deep form of worship past the 40 days. Prayer accompanied with fasting provides time and special concentration so we may commune with God and search His will for our selves and our church.

Finally, and very importantly, there is the matter of loving unconditionally. We cannot grow a church in which we and our leaders and members are so busy pointing out faults and correcting people that we forget that we are called to love as we are loved by God. We have particular difficulty under standing and acknowledging the importance of this virtue.

The world we live in today offers very little in the way of acceptance and support for an individual. Our society is consistently so engrossed in the pursuit of all kinds of self-interest, that others are left out and left alone to struggle through their storms. Our churches should be a haven, a place of ultimate safety, acceptance and love.

People should feel that they can come to our churches regardless of what they wear, how many or what kind of burdens they are carrying. They should feel free to come with their guards down, defenseless and in need. They should find love and open arms. After all, we are to treat others as Christ has treated us. If the Christian world today would more fully reflect the wholehearted, unquestioning love that has been given to us, our churches would be full!

We need to be about lifting up Jesus to heartbroken people. It all too often seems, however, that we are too busy playing the convicting role of the Holy Spirit to actually spend time uplifting and living out the love of Jesus. It is the role of the Holy Spirit to convict others of sin, not ours. It is the role of the Holy Spirit to reprove righteousness, not ours.

Of course, God sometimes uses us to help each other in situations that require an honest word of correction, but even this is to be done in calm, noncondemnatory love. Anyone who has been in ministry for any length of time knows that when we continually look to and point people to Jesus in our talk and walk, people begin to wonder and move in His direction, and their lives begin to change into His likeness. When we've pointed people to Him, then we have an opportunity to share what He has done for us and with us. Notice I didn't say share with them what He can correct for them. We need to lift Him up and people will be drawn to Him.

Conclusion

The real secret of small-church growth lies in congregations and leaders having a willing spirit to do whatever it is that God would lead them to do, as together they search the heart of God for what that is. It means having a church that is not afraid to change some things if it means coming in line with God's mission for them.

Small-church growth doesn't just happen. We must be dedicated to it and purposeful in our actions as God leads us. This takes time and effort but is entirely worthwhile.

So we are longing for churches full of members in action. We are following what God is directing us to do, and not just something we think is a good idea. We want the community to feel attracted to our churches. So we are linking to the power of Heaven through prayer for our churches to grow. And, very importantly, we are loving people in tangible, unconditional ways.

As we step up, initiating and implementing these things, God will be with us, bringing growth of all kinds to churches that may have seemed beyond such progress.


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Rod Long pastors four church districts and lives in Chadron, Nebraska.

June 2003

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