Friday, October 17, 2014

A Healthy Church Is a Growing Church(?)

A healthy church is a growing church.  Someone quoted someone saying this in a recent conversation.  The question at hand was how to encourage (numerical) growth.  My attempt to respond was weak.  My response is one that needs to be processed in writing rather than subjected to the jumble of spoken words.

A highly influential book in my life is Hannah Whitall Smiths' A Christian's Secret to a Happy Life.  One of the most influential concepts in that highly influential book involves Jesus' illustration in John 15 of the branches and the vine.  (Jesus is the vine; we are the branches; God the Father is the gardener.)  The author points out that the way to bear fruit (which is not identified) is to focus on abiding in the vine rather than straining to bear fruit.  Fruit is a natural and inevitable result of focusing on our connection to the vine and accepting the pruning shears of the gardener.

I have found this concept useful in many areas of life.  Many things we most desire cannot be obtained by seeking them directly.  Rather, they are byproducts of efforts in a totally different direction.  Happiness is an example.  People who focus on their own happiness aren't likely to find true happiness.  Happiness is a byproduct of healthy relationships and healthy living.  Focusing on one's own happiness tends to damage the relationships that have the most potential to bring happiness!

So what about church growth?  While I agree that a healthy faith community is likely to be attractive to others, I think we are on the wrong track when we make growth our goal.  Growth is a natural byproduct of a healthy community.  Just as the individual who focuses on connecting to Jesus Christ will bear fruit in keeping with the strength of that connection, the faith community that focuses on seeing as Jesus saw and loving as Jesus loved and nurturing a spirit of compassion like that of Jesus for those who are harassed and helpless will be irresistibly attractive and bear the fruit of growth.  Perhaps connection can be assessed and measured by numerical growth, but when that growth is lacking, it's the connection to the vine that needs our attention.

In my own ministry to children right now I'm going with the philosophy that less is more.  Fewer children means more opportunity for one-on-one conversations, more mentoring.  There were seven in the beginning and I haven't looked for more.  But three more started coming.  Then three 7th-grade boys started drifting over from the teen group to forage for snacks in our area.

Can I do with thirteen kids what I could do with seven?  These are high-risk kids.  Can I foster spiritual growth as effectively with more?

I will accept all who desire to come.  I suspect the group will max out at a fairly small size until we develop enough inner resources to effectively welcome and nurture more.  Meanwhile, I will focus on nurturing those present rather than looking past them to those not yet showing interest in the group.  Maybe it will be a big fail to do so, but connection is my passion and we aren't there yet.  Growing the group by focusing on growth rather than on spiritual nurture could lead to a shallowness that would be difficult to overcome.

Do healthy churches grow?  Yes, barring liabilities such as a transient population I suspect they do.  But I think numerical growth is a lousy goal.  It's like setting a goal of so many grapes per branch while neglecting to make sure the branch stays firmly connected to the vine.  If growth is your ultimate goal, you would do well to set it completely aside while you nurture the connection between the branches and the vine.

1 comment:

Marissa said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing! Also, I am struggling to put my sermon together this week, and this was all actually very helpful in thinking through my sermon. :-)