In light of our recent Annual Parish Meeting, I’ve been thinking a lot about church growth. If you know me, you’ll recognize this isn’t anything new — it’s one of my passions. But the Annual Meeting always provides that extra opportunity to take a step back, get out of the fray of daily ministry, and examine the broader view.
Out of curiosity, I ran some numbers for the three and a half years that I’ve been rector at St. John’s. Anecdotal evidence aside, I was stunned to see that our Average Sunday Attendance has increased 35%, pledging is up 50%, and we’ve doubled the size of the staff. That’s a lot of growth in a short period of time and, while there are many contributing factors, I do think there are some basic transferable ingredients to church growth.
Of course it all starts with leadership — both lay and ordained. I’m increasingly convinced that, to our mutual detriment, Episcopal Church culture minimizes the importance of strong clergy leadership. No, it’s not all about the priest. But show me a growing, vibrant, healthy congregation with poor clergy leadership — it doesn’t exist. Granted, strong leadership is all about encouraging, nurturing, and empowering members of the congregation to share the responsibility of leadership. But poor leaders are unwilling or unable to do this; thus stunting the ministry of all the baptized and the potential for growth.
For me, growth comes down to a passion for sharing the Gospel of Christ. We’re called to share this Good News with which we’ve been entrusted not to hoard it. And when we share the Gospel — boldly, radically, creatively — the church can’t help but grow!
So if sharing the Gospel is the key to church growth, the next logical question is what does it mean to share the Gospel?
It means looking outward, rather than exclusively inward.
It means reaching out to others — the less fortunate and those in need.
It means communicating in creative ways beyond the four walls of the church building.
It means flinging open the doors to welcome people and being intentional about incorporating them into the life of the parish.
It means thinking entrepreneurially about liturgical alternatives to Sunday morning worship that may look and feel and sound different but still reflect the core values of the community.
It means preaching engaging sermons that connect and relate rather than judge and deny.
It means music that uplifts and inspires.
It means listening for the still, small voice within rather than cowing to the anxiety-ridden, strident voice without.
It means leaving room for questions and mystery rather than providing simplistic answers.
It means joyfully inviting people to partake in the peace of Christ that passes all understanding.
These are hardly prescriptive. But if you’re ready to move forward into a new way of being church, I encourage you to reflect upon these. Perhaps with your vestry or parish leadership. You may have others to add to this list and I’d be delighted if you would share them.
Is it “all about the numbers?” Of course not. You can’t measure spiritual growth with statistics. But they can be important indicators of congregational health and vitality. And when more people are hearing and responding to the Gospel, we’re all living more deeply into our calling as Christians.