What makes a church grow?
If the recent polling by Gallup is any indication, there are many church leaders asking that question these days who are not too sure of the answer. Since I was a teenager in youth group back in the late 1990s, church membership has dropped alarmingly: down from 70% to 47% today. That is a lot of decline in just twenty years. Savvier writers than I have debated what’s behind it — highly publicized sex abuse scandals, historic shifts away from traditional Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality, and political polarization all surely have something to do with it. But whatever it is, church leaders today need to be very aware that complacency will not do. Those of us charged with leadership need to be active learners and prayerful penitents, seeking out what God is doing to renew his Church and humbly open to what God may also be doing to chasten and judge.
There are, of course, shelves full of books on church growth and leadership going back decades. I try to make it a habit to learn from these books, but some of them by now are a bit dated, and some could stand to be a bit more theologically and sacramentally grounded. That’s why I recently read two books that seek to learn from church growth in England, where the secularizing trends that have picked up steam in the U.S. already happened decades ago, and where the Church of England gives myriad examples that are readily translatable to the sacramental worship of the Episcopal Church. If it’s growing in the good old C of E, it’s probably something we Episcopalians can learn from. Even better, the two books — Learning from London by Jason Fout, and Northern Lights by Jason Byassee — were written by scholar-pastors, trained as theologians and with a heart for the local church. I highly recommend both.
What then can we learn from the church in Old Blighty?
1) Do the basics well.
Byassee begins his book with a few observations that should surprise no one: “It seems to me the keys for growth are several: a clear and compelling mission, able and energetic leadership (preferably in place for a long period of time), a welcoming congregation engaged in mission, attention paid to discipleship and growth.”
There are many ways to do all of that, and his book, focused on church growth in the very secular region of northern England, tells the story of a wide variety of growing churches: conservative and contemporary evangelical, ancient cathedrals with high church traditional worship, and socially progressive churches heavily involved in social justice work. Both Byassee and Fout make clear that growth is not the exclusive preserve of one style of churchmanship over another. In that sense, there is no magic bullet: it’s just not true that if you add screens and guitars, or choral Evensong for that matter, they will come!
It does however seem to be true that a church that’s clear and intentional about its mission does better than one that’s fuzzy about what it believes or has a hard time focusing its collective efforts. The Diocese of London, Fout writes, expects its parishes to come up with outward-focused Mission Action Plans and to report back their self-assessment on how they’re doing every year.
It also seems clear that growing churches tend to be ones with long-serving rectors or vicars. A constant churn of leadership puts the brakes on long-term growth, for obvious reasons. This isn’t a new lesson for us, of course, but it does help in the C of E that clergy salaries are standardized churchwide: there’s no leaving to seek better pay elsewhere, so perhaps less incentive to go. There are definite advantages to this arrangement, but it is unlikely that TEC will adopt it anytime soon. So long as we don’t, any church will need to think about whether their clergy and staff are compensated in such a way that it’s easy for their families to stick around, instead of easy for them to feel pressured to look elsewhere.
Being genuinely welcoming is easier said than done. Yes, we say on the sign that The Episcopal Church Welcomes You, but do we really? Fout makes the point that in many Episcopal congregations there are more graduate degrees than the general population has college degrees; for all of our talk about diversity, we tend to be a highly-educated, affluent bunch. As an established church, the C of E still has the sense that it’s meant to be the church for everyone. Where it’s growing, it’s often because it’s doing a good job at reaching out to average everyday people, not simply the highly educated few.
As our own Bishop Scott Benhase has recently noted, the bread-and-butter of church growth is about relationships: shaking the hands of newcomers, writing personal notes, telling people your “elevator speech” about why you love your church and inviting them to come, and so on. Part of Holy Trinity Brompton’s explosive growth, Fout notes, came from a spiritual awakening that led them to grow in openness toward newcomers, really welcoming the stranger with warmth and relational vulnerability. We Episcopalians have, I’m afraid, too often earned our “frozen chosen” tagline, perhaps fearing invading someone else’s privacy or being pushy about our faith.
Attention paid to discipleship, surely, is critical: church must be a place where we’re invited and enabled to grow in faith, in prayer, in holiness, in servant love. It’s intriguing that the Alpha Course, which has been behind so much growth in England and worldwide, began its life as a course at HTB to teach the basics of the faith to new members.
The list of “basics” could be extended: communications, facilities, web presence, and the like. But if a church has long-serving dedicated leadership, a clear and compelling mission, and is a warm, welcoming community, it’s got a lot going for it.
2) Center on the gospel of the risen and living Christ.
On theological grounds, of course, this is actually more “basic” than anything in the previous category. The growing churches surveyed by Fout and Byassee, though they come in all shapes and sizes, are connected by a clear sense that the beating heart of their life and mission is the living God, the gospel of grace, Christ’s atoning sacrifice for our sins, the new life and transformation given to us in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The growing churches they look at tend to be places of prayer. They pray expecting that God heals diseases, changes lives, and transforms hearts. They seek God’s will, in full expectation that God will show up and lead his church. They preach Christ crucified and risen. They tell people about the good news of salvation in Jesus as if their lives depended on it. They are places where people are not afraid to speak openly, from the heart, about what Jesus has done in their lives, and not afraid to share Jesus with others.
Sam Wells writes in his foreword that Northern Lights is actually “a book about the Holy Spirit. Not a Spirit who has self-isolated into tongues and healings, but one who constantly, relentlessly, astonishingly makes the risen Christ present where all seemed lost, forlorn, forsaken.” The same could be said of Fout’s book, which attempts to describe why the Diocese of London has experienced remarkable growth in the very same period that almost all Anglican dioceses in the West have experienced decline. A great part of the story, Fout writes, is simply “openness to God,” and an expectation that God is alive and acting through his Church right now. The churches Byassee and Fout write about tend not to have grown through increased professionalism or this or that program or technique. Instead, they’ve grown as they’ve listened intently and prayed fervently for God’s leading, and sought to follow where the Lord led.
In the follow-up to his post about relationships, Bishop Benhase makes a similar point, making clear that as basic as everything he said about relational ministry is, even more fundamental is the gospel of Jesus Christ. “The most critical point,” Benhase writes, is a ministry focused “on God’s grace imputed to sinners by Christ’s cross.” During his years recruiting in seminaries, Benhase relates how he made a practice of pretending to be an average Joe asking seminarians why he should join their church. Far too often, he writes, all they could come up with was something about great community, the music program, or active outreach — all of which he’d respond to by saying he didn’t need church for that. “I waited patiently,” Benhase writes, “for some mention of how their church could meet my greatest need, namely, to be reconciled with God through Jesus by his cross. Never came.”
Perhaps the greatest thing we Episcopalians can learn from England is what many of the English learned years ago: when all of the other reasons people used to have to go to church fall away, the only good reason left is Jesus, his cross and our salvation. As it turns out, that is the only reason we’ve ever needed.
3) Churches that intend to grow tend to grow.
At the beginning of his research, Byassee assumed that it probably wasn’t all that important to growth for a church to be focused on growth as such. “Growth is something you get not by aiming at it,” he reasons initially, “but by aiming at something else. Aim at growth and you may get it, you may not, but it’s not the goal. The goal is faithfulness to Jesus Christ, a community’s life shaped around him, taking part in his redemption of the world. Clear and winsome devotion to that — alignment of a church’s budget and hiring and liturgy and attention around Jesus — will fascinate and draw others.”
By the end of his research, he decides that while he had been largely right, it also made a real difference to intentionally work to grow. Learning from the researcher David Goodhew, he comes to agree that “churches that intend to grow tend to grow,” as Goodhew often notes. Growth is indeed something to aim for, as it focuses efforts on actually reaching out to the surrounding community in imaginative ways, instead of allowing collective energies to be internally-focused and then wondering why new people don’t show up. Like a diet, nearly any approach to church growth can work and usually will. The important thing is to try, to learn, and when some initiative inevitably fails, to try again.
Both writers emphasize that no single approach or program is a magic bullet, and that the important thing is to prayerfully seek out what God is calling you to do in your community with your church’s particular set of gifts. There is no one size fits all program to follow, except to be truly focused on Christ’s saving work, to pray as if you expect that God will show up, and to listen and obey the Spirit’s lead.
That said, there are a number of initiatives that God has used to renew congregations time and time again. First and foremost is the Alpha Course, which 24 million people have taken since it started in 1993 at Holy Trinity Brompton. Its creators point out that they never intended it to be an evangelism course, but that’s what it became: it was more of a discovery, they like to say, of what God was up to than any forethought on their part. In essence, Alpha walks through the basics of the faith in an 11-week series, with recorded talks over dinner followed by open-ended conversations. Hosts are there to be hospitable, but not to answer anyone’s questions: that’s left up to the Holy Spirit. Church members are asked to commit to prayer for those taking the course, especially during the Holy Spirit weekend, where inquirers are invited to pray for the Spirit to come into their lives. Many testify that these weekends are where they were met and transformed by Christ.
Messy Church is another C of E initiative that’s met wide acclaim, with some 500,000 attending Messy Church services each month in over twenty countries. Unlike Sunday School, which is designed for parents to drop off their kids and go, Messy Church is designed for parents and children to do together: skits, games, snacks, coloring, a kid-friendly lesson, and so on. Several clergy Byassee spoke with said that Messy Church is their best-attended church service of any kind, including their regular Sunday morning worship! Fout relates a statistic told him by Bishop Nic Thorpe, that 40 percent of church growth in England is owed to Messy Church.
Messy Church is only one example of how growing churches in England have gotten creative about building bridges to their communities, serving felt needs, getting out and about instead of simply focusing on building a better Sunday morning experience. Fout and Byassee both describe a number of outward-focused ministries that seek to lower the threshold for getting involved in church, ways of opening the church up to the neighborhood and sending the church out into the neighborhood. Holy Trinity Brompton offers practically-oriented courses on managing finances, marriage, and parenting. “Fresh Expressions” have popped up in thousands of places, praying and worshipping small communities that meet in coffee shops, pubs, homes, and more. Sam Wells, noticing the stream of people who attend St. Martin-in-the-Fields for noon weekday concerts, began offering theological meditations each Thursday on some piece of great sacred music performed by St. Martin’s musicians. Now, instead of a poorly attended Thursday Eucharist, he has 250 people attending each week to encounter Christ both in word and the beauty of music.
What makes a church grow? There is much that can be said about this program or that initiative, much of it worthwhile. Finally, what makes a church grow is not any particular program, but the holy fire and passionate love that is behind all of the programs, initiatives, handshakes, and hand-written notes that God is using to renew his Church. If there is a great, all-consuming conviction that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the pearl of great price, worth selling all that we have; if there is a great passion for introducing people to Jesus and a great love that sends us out into the mission fields to see lives transformed, then God’s Church will grow. If we have lost our first love, and if our hearts have gone complacent and lukewarm, then the Lord will spew us out of his mouth (Rev. 2:4; 3:16).
But the living God is alive and well in England, filling up old churches that fifty or thirty years ago had dwindled to almost nothing with new life and the fire of the Spirit. God’s Spirit can breathe new life into our dry bones, too.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Jordan Hylden is canon theologian for the Diocese of Dallas and priest associate at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Dallas.