As we said in the preceding post, the Christian Chronicle has listed three key strategies for church growth: adaptability, moderation, and evangelism. By “adaptability” they mean if your congregation doesn’t reflect your community, either change to reflect your community or move to a community that’s like you.
A common scenario is an urban church. Most of the members have moved to the suburbs and are driving into town to attend church. Many are tired of the commute, and the church isn’t growing because it’s unlike its neighborhood and can’t appeal to people 45 miles away. What to do?
Plainly, the church made a huge mistake. Over the years it failed to reach out to the people in its neighborhood and so it’s become estranged from its neighbors. Frankly, this typically happened for reasons of race and, sometimes, differences in wealth. But, of course, one of the central points of the gospel is to break down such barriers.
(Col 3:11) Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
(James 2:5) Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
I know churches that have repented of their racism and class-ism and effectively reached out to their neighborhoods. Over time, they’ve come to reflect their community. Moreover, the members driving into town are no longer driving in to worship, they are driving in to do mission. It makes a difference.
If an urban church is a place to worship, it had may as well be more convenient. If it’s a place to do mission — to help those in need and seek and save the lost — it couldn’t be better located!
The Highland Church of Christ in Abilene famously found itself in a transitional neighborhood. They considered moving, and decided to do mission instead. They’ve grown — and more importantly — the Kingdom has grown. And they touched and helped many people who needed help. The strategy not only produced numerical growth, it made those who courageously stayed better disciples. They became more like Jesus.
Plainly, this is a better strategy than picking up and moving to the ‘burbs. But that’s not to say that moving is always wrong. But it should always be done reluctantly and only because the church cannot be effective in its presently location.
However, there does come a time when a church has waited too long and doesn’t have the people needed to operate in its present location. I know of urban churches with buildings that once held 300 that are down to 12, with an average age of 70! Such a church will have very few realistic options. Don’t wait too late before making the changes required to survive. You see, for many of our congregations, survival is a far bigger concern than growth!
Let’s pause for a moment and consider how to be genuinely adaptable. What are some solutions other than moving?
* As mentioned earlier, whether the church moves or not, it has to become missional to its neighborhood. Simply providing great programs and pretty facilities may bring in crowds, but it won’t grow the Kingdom.
* It could fire the preacher and use the money saved to vitalize its other ministries. Of course, a church needs its sermons. Either one or more of the members could preach or the church could affiliate with another congregation and use video sermons.
This sounds crazy, but some of the largest churches in the country are going to multiple campuses, with pre-recorded video sermons. It works! But preachers do more than preach. And so the elders or deacons or other staff members will have to take care of the administration and pastoral care. There’s nothing wrong with that.
* For that matter, the church could actually merge with a larger, more prosperous congregation and yet remain a separate campus of that congregation. The urban church would then become a mission outpost for the larger church and could gain volunteers and support. Having multiple campuses is not at all unscriptural, by the way.
* The church could recognize that there are other churches in its neighborhood already serving that community and cooperate or, better yet, merge with them. This would remove many administrative burdens and avoid duplicating efforts. Remember: other congregations are not competition. We all serve the same Savior.
* A church might merge across denominational lines. For example, an a cappella Church of Christ might merge with an independent Christian Church. The church would have to offer two services, but that’s just living the way we’ve been taught in Romans 14.
* The urban church might merge across racial lines. There have been a few mergers among the Churches like this, and all the ones I’m familiar with have prospered. There’s something about being true to your principles that generates excitement and pride that helps build a church.
* In conjunction with other churches, the urban church might cooperate in a suburban church plant, rather than relocating. I think all church plants should be cooperative, as we’re just not supposed to be in competition, you know.
The urban church may lose many members, but in a truly cooperative venture, it may be possible to recruit new urban church goers from other congregations — especially if the urban church becomes a place of mission. Then it’s no longer a question of convenience.
* The urban church might invite a church planting team from Stadia, Kairos or one of the Church-affiliates universities. They’d be better be ready for some dramatic changes, but an existing church willing to make the changes necessary could be a great beachhead for a church plant.
The solution to a great many problems would be genuine cooperation among congregations. This idea that my church must compete with our sister congregations to grow is entirely unbiblical.
Rather, the elders of all the churches in town should consult and cooperate in order to plan for mission to that community–
- Will we plant a church in a high growth area?
- Will will merge struggling congregations?
- Will we share resources, even preachers or youth ministries or buses, so that more money may be invested in serving the needy and in sending out missionaries?
- Will we start an inner city mission or church plant?
- Will we minister to a local university through a joint campus ministry?
- Will we work together to recruit and support missionaries?
But, of course, we never do this. And it’s sin.
And so, should we be adaptable? Yes. But we need to be far more adaptable than just packing our bags and moving to a nicer part of town. We need to adapt to the needs of the community.
And we need to surrender our American pride in being better than the church down the road and learn to cooperate as though we actually loved each other. Now, that would be adaptability!