Proponents of church growth would have us believe that health and growth are always inexorably connected. They contend that a healthy church must necessarily grow and that an unhealthy church will generally not grow. Rick Warren, in The Purpose Driven Life, tells us that his book is not a church growth manual, but a church health manual. He believes that when the church is healthy it will grow. Of course the book is subtitled “Growth without compromising your message & mission” so there seems to be a mixed message. The question he poses to those who lead static churches is not “what can make the church grow” but “what is keeping the church from growing?” If a church is not growing there must be some disease within that prevents growth.
I am not convinced that health and growth are so firmly linked. Warren says that if a child doesn’t grow, a parent would have cause to be worried, for there must be disease that is preventing the child from growing. Fair enough. However, I doubt he would say the same about adults. I don’t know of many examples in nature of things that continue to grow forever. Certainly humans grow to a certain point and then, if they remain healthy, cease growing. This is natural, not indicative of any kind of disease.
All churches should desire growth, but I do not think a lack of growth necessarily indicates a lack of health. There are several possibilities that could cause a church not to grow. It is God who brings growth and He may choose not to grow a particular church for reasons that are His to know. It is also possible that a church is in a geographical area that is in decline. A church may be healthy but not growing because the population around the church is thinning. Or perhaps there is a new megachurch in town that is drawing people to a more exciting service. Churches committed to the principles of church growth rarely differentiate between attendees and members, between those who just sit in the pews and those who actively participate in church life. We could go on, but suffice it to say that it is difficult to defend the position that a lack of growth necessarily indicates poor health. Focusing on growth as an indication of effectiveness of a ministry or even of a minister will lead to either arrogance, as we take the praise for success, or discouragement as we take the blame for failure.
I have been writing back-and-forth with a couple of friends who are inquiring about the Alpha and Evangelism Explosion programs. While I am not exceedingly familiar with either one of them, I know Alpha is very charismatic and focuses undue attention on the work of the Spirit. People in the course are encouraged so seek the baptism of the Spirit and so on. It is one that most conservative Christians simply cannot support. Evangelism Explosion, on the other hand, was developed by Dr. James Kennedy and represents a conservative, Presbyterian theology. The discussion my friends and I have carried on is whether the problem in many churches isn’t the methodology but the message. Would adopting the Evangelism Explosion program ultimately fail simply because the people in the church are not committed to evangelism? Must the message be in place prior to the introduction of a methodology? And furthermore, might a church eventually place their faith in the process rather than in the work of the Spirit?
I believe these are valid concerns. Anytime we adopt a methodology in our churches, or even in our private lives, that methodology can begin to take the place of the Spirit. We can rely on the methodology while we lose sight of the work of the Holy Spirit. After all, isn’t this a common sin? Weren’t the Israelites constantly losing sight of God right in the midst of the sacrifices they offered to Him? God had to remind them through Samuel that obedience was to be desired above sacrifice. As humans we love methodologies. Any bookstore, Christian or secular, bears witness to this just with the number of self-help and 12-step programs. Far too many Christian books follow a methodology that eclipses or even usurps the work of the Spirit. Obedience to God is not a methodology – it is born from the freedom and joy of thankfulness to God rather than the scrupulous conformity to a set of rules.
Now do not think that I am saying programs like Evangelism explosion cannot work. I trust they have their place. I believe, though, that they are best used only after the message is confirmed. The people in the church have to be given over to evangelism. They have to really want someone with eight earrings who smells like cigarette smoke sitting beside them for two hours on a Sunday morning. They have to look forward to poorly behaved children coming to the church and the occasional blasphemous word during coffee time. Those are the people you want to come to your church because they are the ones that need to hear the gospel. Following a methodology may bring people in, but if they aren’t really wanted they will sense that and will likely leave. But once the message is in place, the people will be ready and eager to accept whomever the Lord brings through the doors. They will be focused more on the message than on the methodology of taking people from first base to home plate, or whichever metaphor they happen to choose. They will be focused more on the work of the Spirit than on their responsibility to teach and mentor those who may come to the church.
So do not be discouraged if growth does not happen. The Bible tells us that our job is simply to plant and water the seed. We need to focus on the work of the Spirit, knowing that it is God who causes the growth. When we are faithful in obedience, we can trust that He will honor our obedience. It may not be with growth, but we can have the assurance that He is. Trust in Him, not in methodology, consequences or results.