This month’s Christian Chronicle completes a series of articles on church growth in the Churches of Christ. It’s an excellent compendium of both what’s right and what’s wrong in how we do church. But you have to read between the lines to tell the difference.
The Chronicle is the only national or international newspaper targeted to a Church of Christ audience. It’s published out of Oklahoma Christian University. As a matter of policy, the Chronicle tries to avoid being involved in doctrinal disputes and instead simply report. It’s a laudable goal.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that the articles have been written in an effort to avoid giving offense to any faction within the Churches of Christ. Sadly, this means that the articles will likely not help as much as they might have. Nonetheless, there is a lot of very useful material here.
Let’s begin with the centerpiece article Traits of growing churches. They list these characteristics, based on interviews with leaders of several growing congregations from many different factions of the Churches —
The demographics of America’s cities are changing, and most congregations face a choice — stay and make your church look like the community you serve or move to a community that looks like your current membership.
Either approach can yield growth, ministers said.
Most church leaders interviewed by the Chronicle described their growing congregations as “middle of the road” theologically.
Growing churches have leaders who stress evangelism, and members who participate.
Now, before we consider these strategies, we need to take a moment and reflect on just what “church growth” is. Some church growth is more desirable than other church growth.
In fact, to even define “church growth,” we need to have some notion of who the “church” is. And we in the Churches of Christ are very confused on this question. Some consider only members of the Churches of Christ saved. Some consider only members of a faction within the Churches saved. Some would add to the Churches the independent Christian Churches. Some would add all those baptized for remission of sins. Some would add all who’ve been baptized into Jesus. Some would add all those with genuine faith in Jesus.
If my church persuades someone from another Church of Christ in town to transfer membership because we have a better youth program, we may have done that family a favor and helped stock our supply of volunteers, but there’s been no real church growth from God’s perspective — which is the only perspective that counts. Right?
Therefore, congregational growth that doesn’t produce Kingdom growth is not real church growth. Hence, the editors of the Chronicle are quite right to stress evangelism.
It’s remarkable how little emphasis is placed on evangelism in much of the church growth literature. But then, if the goal is to grow my congregation, the easiest way to do that is to recruit members away from other churches. If the goal is to grow the Kingdom, it’s a much harder task.
We need to correctly define evangelism as bringing people to Jesus, not bringing people to our congregation or denomination.
(My own views of the boundaries of the church will be found at —
Born of Water–Arguments pro and con as to whether baptism is essential to our salvation)
That does not mean, however, that transfer growth is always illegitimate. For example, suppose a new church is planted in a neighborhood where no congregation presently exists. Many new members join because of its convenience as well as its excellent programs.
This is hardly a bad thing, even though its growth is largely from transfers. We should, in fact, strategically plant churches in areas of rapid growth. The alternative is to leave our brothers and sisters in Christ to make one hour commutes to church, with the likely result that many will lose the encouragement they need to be the disciples God wants.
However, a “growth” strategy built on locating congregations in high growth areas is not a growth strategy at all, but a maintenance strategy — unless coupled with those things that produce Kingdom growth. We need to do this — but just don’t laud these efforts as successful growth stories. And this tosses out many (not all) of the church growth stories the Chronicle reports.
Similarly, if my congregation preaches a Jesus- and grace-oriented gospel and develops excellent programs and so becomes the most attractive Church of Christ in town, we may well grow quite a lot by virtue of transfers from other Churches of Christ and by capturing most of those Church members moving into town, but the Kingdom hasn’t grown.
Nonetheless, we need to do this! We need to have truly sound doctrine and truly excellent programs, and we need to be attractive, because if we aren’t, we risk losing our children and we won’t be evangelistically effective. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met over the years who are former members of the Churches of Christ. Some have found homes in other denominations, but many (I’d say about half) are entirely uninvolved in church of any kind.
This is not so much due to weak teen programs but due to narrow-minded, legalistic, exclusivist preaching. We cannot fight among ourselves and persuade our children that what we are doing is good.
The things that attract members of the Churches of Christ will also attract some from among the lost. We just need to be careful not to be satisfied with transfer growth.
With these thoughts in mind, we’ll consider these three keys to church growth in the following posts.