Church Growth makes me Grumpy.

church growth coffeeChurch Growth – surely, given I’m a leader of a Christian church, it’s beyond obvious that I’m in favour of church growth? So how is it that whenever I hear the phrase, I am filled with a sense of dread and start looking for the exits.

I am passionately in favour of people knowing Jesus. I want his followers to learn to follow him more closely, and I want to see new people start on that journey. I became a Vicar because the privilege of helping people in that process matters more to me than most other things I can think of.

It’s not that I don’t want churches to flourish and grow. But there is something about the way the subject gets treated right now that troubles me more and more.

When the talk turns to Church Growth, I start to feel guilty and inadequate. The whole topic seems closely associated with an expectation that I will Do More, Work Harder, Lead Better. I am feeling daunted and overwhelmed with what I have to do already. I don’t need more expectations placed upon me. If we hope to save the church by making our clergy put more and more effort and creativity in, when they are already feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, we are doing it wrong.

Seminars and books and courses on Church Growth acknowledge this. They say, “You don’t need to do more….just stop doing some of the stuff you are already doing”. Not easy, when we are often being asked to do more and more in other areas too – many of them important and worthwhile in their own right, some of them necessary for pressing practical or legal reasons.

Some of us feel like the Hebrew slaves, in Egypt – required to make more and more bricks for Pharaoh, but without being given the straw we need to do it. It’s a biblical image, for sure, but not the one I thought I was signing up for, when I became a priest.

When I chat to other clergy, I often hear frustration about their congregations. There are many people who, for whatever reason, value what already exists and don’t want change. Sometimes the people seem too few, or too old, too traditional or too awkward. So clergy complain about their people. “I could do wonderful things, if only I had a different group of people to work with, if only my folk were more welcoming, or would put their energy into something new.”

Yet, these folk who can frustrate clergy so much are precious to God. They are a small part of his flock, entrusted to our care. How dare we complain about them? How can we say to God, “I would do all sorts of grand things for you, if only you’d given me better/more/younger/cooler people to work with”  These are the ones he has given us.

If we end up saying, “Well, if I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here” we are doing it wrong, because here is the only place we have to start from. If the push for Church Growth makes us resent our people, rather than cherish them, we are talking about it in the wrong way.

When we talk about Church Growth the focus seems to be on all the wrong things. On a recent course, (by a well respected national organisation) we were encouraged to start small, and find achievable changes we could make, to get us heading in the right direction. I’m in favour of starting with the small and achievable, so I was encouraged. Then I saw the list.

“Install Dimmer Switches” was the most memorable item.


There were other suggestions too. Serve better coffee, was another, and pay attention to the quality of your church notice board. They would all make the church a more attractive physical environment. But honestly, it felt more like advice from The Hotel Inspector than how to grow God’s people.

Did people follow Jesus because he had such a nice building? Or any sort of building at all? Because the loaves and the fishes were particularly good, organic loaves and fishes, from Waitrose rather than Cost-cutter?

Because his sermons were 10 minutes, rather than 12?

Because when they came to hear Jesus preach, they were welcomed by those with name badges and good small talk?

Because there was a special meeting, targeted precisely at just their demographic?

Have we lost confidence in what really matters? Like David as a boy, are we putting on all the armour of King Saul, trusting that it will help us to fight Goliath. Trying to wield a sword that is bigger than we are, and stand up in armour that is just wrong, we are trying to grow the church by all the wrong methods, but unlike David, we do not yet realise where our true hope lies – what it is we have of value, that can be found no-where else.

How do we start with the very ordinary, nervous, private, traditional, older Christians that many of our churches are full of? How do we help them to connect more deeply with God? How do we help them in their discipleship? And how do we help them to share that journey with those around them? These are the questions that we need to be addressing, if we long to see our churches grow.

Improving our coffee and our buildings, and heaping more pressure on the clergy to save the day is not the answer.

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7 Responses to Church Growth makes me Grumpy.

  1. hillmansc says:

    Hear, hear. This is a really good reminder for all of us. I struggle when I hear about church growth, because I’d love it to happen here, but in spite of all our efforts our rural congregations are shrinking not growing. The thing that keeps me going in the midst of the massive expectations that I constantly fail to meet are two things in the main: one the individuals who change and grow – even if there’s only or two they arte mightily precious to God, and the other is that we sow the seeds and then we have to let God do the rest.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah – I keep having to remind myself, to look for the small shoots, and rejoice in those (and nurture them), rather than the bigger, more obvious stuff. It’s a real joy when you spot those moments.


  2. Robb says:

    When we relocated we decided to go to our local parish church. We went to the church on the Saturday night to find out when the service was. There was no notice board. So we went to the pub, awoke the next morning and went to the church at 10am and there was no one there.

    So we got in the car and went drove until we found a church that was open, walked in through the door as it was about to begin.

    If people who want to go to church can’t work out how to do it, there isn’t much hope for people who don’t want to go to church.

    Most of the things suggested as important aren’t important in and of themselves, they are indicative of something else. Badges don’t make a church accessible, people who welcome do. They indicate that welcoming people is important.

    If you go to a restaurant and find that there is no one to see you to a seat and the floor needs sweeping, you are unlikely to order off the menu. If you find a friendly face who takes your coat and sees you to a table with a candle and a vase on it you may look but if you are looking for a hearty meal and get served watered down lemonade and coco pops, you’re unlikely to come back.

    [i’ve started with the metaphor so I’m going to run with it]

    Most people arrive at The Church (TM) expecting a one star hygiene rating. When someone shows them to their seat and serves them a hearty meal you may find they come back for a second visit and recommend it to their friends.

    How many people recommend restaurants starting with phrases like “I know you wouldn’t expect to go to eat Russian food* and it doesn’t look like a restaurant from the outside but you must go and try the goulash!! I had to go back and have the stroganoff!”

    At the heart of The Church there is something deep, meaningful, compelling and life changing. Christ transforms. He challenges. He… Who is this bloke who says ‘follow me’ and people just up sticks and wander off with him?! If you can’t work out how to get anywhere near to being involved with this bloke you don’t think you want to be involved with, how can you?

    How will they believe if they have not heard?

    *other national quisines are available.
    ** I suspect I may have gone off the making sense road and diverted down a culinary road at some point. Feel free to delete this.


    • I’d love to pick a fight with you, Robb, (mostly for the fun of the argument) but in this case, you are much too sensible, and I agree with you. Glad it’s not just me who has a tendency to push a metaphor way beyond the point of no return 😉

      It’s not that I think notice boards, signs saying “way in”, and basic friendliness are bad things. I am in favour of helping people find the entrance and making them feel welcome when they arrived.

      My issue with the training I went on (and other similar stuff I’ve met) is it rarely seems to go further than that. There is loads of stuff on buildings, timings, choreography, housekeeping etc, and nothing at all that addresses the more directly Jesus stuff. Do the people already in our churches talk about God being a part of their lives, day by day. Not pat answers and nice, shiny testimonies, but real, true gritty, messy stuff, full of questions.

      My experience is that within our churches we often have all sorts of inhibitions, for all sorts of reasons, about actually saying this stuff even to one another. (Even clergy find this stuff awkward to talk about, it seems) So how can we share it with those outside the church, if we can’t even say it to our fellow disciples? That seems way more of an issue than the other stuff.

      I may well be wrong, but my sense is that clergy seem to have low expectations – “People in my church would never be able to do that stuff” – so we go for the building stuff, and hope that if our buildings are nice, and our people friendly and our coffee half-decent, the other stuff will just sink in somehow by itself. Or the clergy will do it.

      (Much of the above is broad generalisations, of course)


      • Robb says:

        Ah. You must mean other clergy. I have a guy who has been coming a few months who (on the way out of the bible study he asked me to start) said “if I didn’t know any better I’d say he was trying to empty the place. He said ‘it doesn’t get any easier and the longer you’re part of it the more questions you have. I came for answers'”.

        Yes. Yes indeed.

        Please argue with me. I’m often mistaken.

        Liked by 1 person

        • If you want to be argued with, you’re going to have to stop being so reasonable 😀

          One of the things Richard Briggs (I think) said to us when we started at college was that we probably thought we were coming to college to find answers to some of our questions. He said that we wouldn’t get many answers – but he hoped we might go away with better questions. He was right!


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