Back in the ’80s, when I started out in ministry, everything was about church growth. Every church should grow, but management patterns were stifling growth. Such was the received wisdom of the time. But with strategic structuring a church could grow from cell to a congregation with cells., then to a celebration with congregations and cells. Structuring for growth was the name of the game. Since that time I have been able to observe the growth and decline patterns of many churches and I have noticed that growth sometimes arises through suprising avenues.
In the book of Acts the church in Jerusalem was to become a power house of mission to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. To universalize, that growth was to arise in their locality, in their region, in surprising places and to the ends of the earth. And so it was. So it was too for the church at Antioch. Antioch, Asia Minor, Macedonia and Spain, all correlate respectively with locality, region, surprising places and the ends of the earth.
Sometimes the story of mission and growth follows a more circuitous route. If we consider the following schema:
A) Jerusalem / locality
B) Judea / region
C) Samaria / surprising places / unreached niche communities
D) Ends of the Earth / overseas missions…
King’s Church Portsmouth began as a local, pentecostal church, supporting missionaries overseas, but with negligible impact on its region and reaching no surprising demographics. It was an AD church. Then after 70 years of life, including a long period of decline, the remnant of a dozen or so attenders did something very bold and used their last remaining budget to employ a children’s pastor. For them this was a surprising departure that resulted in the incursion of around 200 children from a totally unreached segment of the city. (I joined the pioneering team second to the kids pastor.)
The growth of that church resulted in the off-springing of two other demographic-specific congregations, creating a more diverse regional impact. It was a suprizing trajectory, resulting in massive growth. It was certainly not a strategy. Our vision documents changed as the pathway revealed itself! It was borne simply of obedience to God’s guidance and a following of the fruit. To summarize, King’s sequence was A-D-C-B.
Another church I pioneered began among a demographic not even on my agenda as I had envisioned the project. These were people not even in my own locality. Jesus Generation began with C. We didn’t have local expressions in the network until we had been running for 6 years. CA. Then our original associates began migrating overseas. Spontaneously the stroy went to CAD. After 10 years we began associating with a wider network through the work of OIKOS, becoming regional leaders through that agency. Our story was a sequence of C-A-D-B.
A wonderful church that flanked my first parish in London had a ministry focused entirely on street people with addictions. Victory Outreach was a ministry-plant out of South America. Their demographic was a surprising one and some of their workers – all converted and reformed addicts – sought them out from far afield. Victory Outreach was a C-D-B-A model all rolled into one. And they excelled in the calling God had given them.
Curiously, how to grow churches is a concern completely unmentioned by either Jesus in the Gospels or the Apostles in the NT. Serving the kingdom, making disciples; those were the orders of the day. The stories above are really stories of groups which simply followed God’s leading. They pursued missional avenues that resulted in fruit. And the fruit reflected in growth. For those churches growth was the by-product of their obedience – not their goal.
Jesus said “Seek first the kingdom of God…and all these other things will be added to you.” There’s the strategy.
Certainly churches need be ready to structure around the growth that fruit may bring. And church growth theory does hold some helpful some helpful insights for that. But first and foremost I get the Fresh Expressions paradigm as expressed by Bishop Graham Cray when he says, “There is no method. The only method is to follow the Holy Spirit!”