Church Growth: A Response
Recently on Rekindle, Graham has reflected on church metrics. What I’m posting here was originally written as a comment on this post, but I've decided to move it to a post of its own, because I feel the topic is important enough to (try) keep the conversation going. Here's what I had to say.
I wonder if Graham isn’t singing in harmony with Carl Trueman and others: there is a big problem with our current desire to be popular and celebrated. Churches are finding themselves in awkward positions, where their use of metrics is driving them to look a pale shade of early church life. We really should be heeding these warnings, and considering where our use of metrics and our ungodly desires are urging us on in increasingly unhelpful directions. This is something Graham's post makes inroads with.
However, it might be worth separating the issues he raises: on the one hand, we need to discuss the wrong desires that are calling for data-comfort, and on the other, we are reading data wrongly, and so need to be helped to use it properly. His post addresses the first, but I think a Rekindle series on the latter would be helpful (and demanding). Perhaps we should attempt it.
Data is a fantastic feedback tool, and larger churches (especially) should have people who know how to interpret and are listening to all the data they can get their hands on, because of the nature of these institutions and the use data feedback provides as a management tool. If done properly, I think it could even help address the problems of Trueman and co.
I read Natural Church Dynamics by Schwarz a little while back. He locates himself within the church growth movement, but almost completely ignores attendance figures because of their inability to explain their existence. All his measurables revolve around the quality of church life because he sees these as the 'growth forces' that result in worthwhile numerical additions. I say this to flag the reduction of metrics to church attendance in Graham's post, but also to segue into this next point.
What I found interesting while reading was the significant overlap between Heard's 5Ms and his 8 growth forces: both see health as the crucial factor that influences numbers. Whether that is helpful or right, and if both, the exact way maturity influences conversions are useful conversations that we should be having.
In my original comment, I posted a quote from Tim Keller's Center Church. I just dropped it in there, out of nowhere. I included it because I felt it provides useful language and an accessible framework, which holds together both the need to be faithful and the need to reach the lost. For the sake of continuity, here's the quote:
"As I read, reflected, and taught, I came to the conclusion that a more biblical theme for ministerial evaluation than either success or faithfulness is fruitfulness. Jesus, of course, told his disciples that they were to "bear much fruit" (John 15:8). Paul spoke even more specifically. He spoke of conversions as "fruit" when he desired to preach in Rome: "that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles" (Rom 1:13 KJV). Paul also spoke of the "fruit" of godly character that a minister can see growing in Christians under his care. This included the "fruit of the Spirit" (Gal 5:22). Good deeds, such as mercy to the poor, are called "fruit" as well (Rom 15:28).
Paul spoke of the pastoral nurture of congregations as a form of gardening. He told the Corinthian Christians they were "God's field" in which some ministers planted, some watered, and some reaped (1 Cor 3:9). The gardening metaphor shows that both success and faithfulness by themselves are insufficient criteria for evaluating ministry. Gardeners must be faithful in their work, but they must also be skilful, or the garden will fail. Yet in the end, the degree of the success of the garden (or the ministry) is determined by factors beyond the control of the gardener. The level of fruitfulness varies due to "soil conditions" (that is, some groups of people have a greater hardness of heart than others) and "weather conditions" (that is, the work of God's sovereign Spirit) as well.
The church growth movement has made many lasting contributions to our practice of ministry. But its overemphasis on technique and results can put too much pressure on ministers because it underemphasizes the importance of godly character and the sovereignty of God. Those who claim that "what is required is faithfulness" are largely right, but this mindset can take too much pressure off church leaders. It does not lead them to ask hard questions when faithful ministries bear little fruit. When fruitfulness is our criterion for evaluation, we are held accountable but not crushed by the expectation that a certain number of lives will be changed dramatically under our ministry."