“You are not responsible for a big church or a popular church or a relevant church…culture decides that. You are responsible for a healthy church. Look for signs of health and wellness… not growth potential.”
There are many adages that pastors use amongst themselves about their churches. Things like “what are you running?”, questions about your small group strategy, and how many parking spaces you have. Pastors buy into a variety of growth metrics, usually spiritualizing them to make them sound a bit more holy: Parking spots become experiential faith placeholders, sports teams become activity based discipleship fellowships, increase in offerings are faith-promises for kingdom growth.
The reality is that pastors spend huge amounts of time thinking up ways to become a bigger – and by extension – a more successful church. They employ “Each One Win One’ campaigns. They plan elaborative holidays events or Vacation Bible School programs during the summers. They monkey wrench the current Top 40 One-Hit Wonder into a 40 minutes message. They change terminology from pastor to faith community architect or social innovator. All in efforts to seem more relevant believing that irrelevancy to culture can be solved with a U2 shout-out and khaki pants instead of robes. This just isn’t the case.
Most “church growth” strategies are no different than any recruitment push that other community organizations put together. I’ve heard the same lines from PTA’s, community associations, minor league sports clubs, etc. If a church is somehow successful in one of these strategies (I don’t believe that many actually are) they are really just creating an unsustainable model of ministry because they begin to rely on gimmicks and one-upmanship to facilitate growth. They are plunging THC growth hormones into their ecclesiastical muscles and hoping that they don’t create a freakshow church with a massive head, body acne, steroidal rage and a diminutive penis.
Culture decides if you church grows. That how it is…how it always will be. You cannot change culture. It too big and there are too many influences at play simultaneously to attempt to control it. All we can do is trust that the God is somehow, in someway work in the lives of people. My job than is to help people find health and wholeness. To ask questions and to offer companionship.
Eugene Peterson summarized this best in his book “Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work” (1980), quoting in part from Vinet’s “Pastoral Theology: The Theory of the Evangelical Ministry” (1923):
“Size is not a moral quality. It is a given. It is what is there — part of the environment in which the pastor works. ‘It is not the pastor’s fault if he is born in times of barrenness, when it is difficult to do good.’ Size is mostly the result of cultural conditions. Congregations are large when there is social approval to be part of a religious establishment, small when there isn’t. The pastor cannot choose his or her culture. The size of the congregations we serve is contingent on what decade we happen to be living in and what qualities of leadership happen to be in vogue at the time. While pious ways in the pastor will attract churchgoers in one place, worldly sophistication will attract them in another place. Angry preaching will be rewarded at one time, kindly preaching at another, quite apart from whether either the anger or the kindness communicates the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because these variable are notoriously inconstant, spiritual and biblical integrity is far more important than the skillful use of propaganda in doing pastoral work, the doctrine of providence of more significance than any image-making publicity…No leader – not Moses, not Samuel, not Isaiah, not Ezekiel – was ever responsible for either the formation or the survival of the community of faith. That took place in the counsels of God and by the mercy of God.”
I find this quote incredibly freeing and honest! It’s almost like when you hear those stories about particular actors, writers, comedians and so forth who never hit it big but their proteges do. You get the sense that were just there at the wrong time. They had the right stuff at the wrong time…a time of barrenness that they had no control over.
All I can do…all anyone can do… is be who they are and fulfill their vocation in a manner that is consistent with their character and their calling (whatever that may be – in whatever field it may be). Their public success has no real correlation to anything other than something about them fits with the time they find themselves in…nothing more nothing less. That is a tough pill to swallow at times…but, it is also one of the most liberating notions I’ve ever heard.