Whether it is due to persistent decline in attendance, evangelistic zeal, or personal ambition – over the last 40 years we have seen a plethora of thinking, writing and practice emerge around the theme of church growth. Indeed, where I currently work in the Diocese of Liverpool, we have a classic church growth aspiration, as we ask God for a ‘bigger church, to make a bigger difference’, so that we might see ‘more people knowing Jesus, and more justice in the world’ [i].
However, the phrase ‘bigger church… bigger difference’ doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. For some, it means that we should try to attract as many people as possible into our churches, because a growth in attendance (i.e. ‘bigger church’) should result in more new disciples, generate more resources, and lead to more justice being done (i.e. ‘bigger difference’). This all sounds great, at first, but it does contain some inherent limitations.
Photograph courtesy of @ishanwaza
Imagine if the 250 Parish Churches in the Diocese of Liverpool were to double in size, from 50 to 100 people in each one. The Diocese would then double in size from (say) 12,500 people (i.e. 250 x 50) to 25,000 people (i.e. 250 x 100), but what would happen next? Would these Parishes be willing and able to double again – with each one growing to 200 people, thereby reaching 50,000 people in total (i.e. 250 x 200)? And after that? Could any even contemplate doubling in size again?
This might feel like a somewhat irrelevant question, set within the context of perpetual decline in church attendance. Yet surely it is worth considering? Imagine if everyone in our Parishes wanted to worship Jesus with us each week – could they? Would we have the capacity to care for them, teach them, train them, and release them into active service and leadership positions, where appropriate? And if not, why not? And what should we be doing about it?
Photograph courtesy of @forest_ms
A problem with the merely ‘grow a big congregation’ approach, is that it may unwittingly overlook 90% of the overall population. Even if each Parish Church did grow to 1,000 people, what would we do about the other 9,000 people in most Parishes of 10,000? Would we try to grow ten churches of 1,000 people in each Parish, or one ‘mega-church’ of 10,000 people? Do any of our leaders have the appetite to even attempt such titanic undertakings?
For those rare leaders who do see higher than usual levels of church growth, it often only lasts for a season. Huge demands accompany such successes, and maintaining this pace for very long is a huge strain on leaders, which may not even be necessary. It is akin to Adam and Eve trying to ‘fill the earth’ with their own children, or the early disciples trying to reach ‘all nations’ within one generation of disciples. Most families tend to grow by successive generations.
Photograph courtesy of @lindyrogersphotography
However, the key issue here is less about the size of the church, and more about its aspirations. If a church wishes and is able to grow a large congregation, then there is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, some parents choose to have a large number of children, and we would never dream of criticising them for doing so. What is regrettable, though, is when large churches do not aspire to reproduce (i.e. multiply), but rather just try to hold on to the people that they already have.
The reason why this is regrettable is that even the best large church will eventually reach its upper numerical capacity, and needs to have a plan for what happens then, in order to reach everyone else. Many of the new ‘Resource Churches’ have thought this through. Once they have grown their large initial congregations, their plans are then to send out large numbers of well-equipped people to start more new congregations, elsewhere[ii]. This makes sense.
Photograph courtesy of https://twitter.com/churchrevtrust/status/1156963159959384064
To illustrate the benefits of multiplication, imagine if 250 Parish Churches of 50 people were able to multiply (i.e. to start another congregation), and if each of these 250 new congregations grew to 50 people in each. The Diocese would then have a total of 500 congregations, and 25,000 people (using up a very manageable level of resources and effort). Over time, if all these congregations multiplied and grew to 50 again, we would have not only 1,000 congregations, but 50,000 people!
The growth potential of this approach is actually unlimited. To illustrate this further, if each successive ‘generation’ of congregations took a mere 5 years (let’s say) to multiply, and they then grew to 50 people, it would be possible for the 1.5 million population of the Liverpool City Region to come to know Jesus within 40 years (as 8 generations of multiplying congregations x 5 years = 40 years). It is mathematically achievable.
Generation 1: 250 congregations with 50 people (i.e. 250 x 50) = 12,500 people
Generation 2: 500 congregations with 50 people (i.e. 500 x 50) = 25,000 people
Generation 3: 1000 congregations with 50 people (i.e. 1000 x 50) = 50,000 people
Generation 4: 2000 congregations with 50 people (i.e. 2000 x 50) = 100,000 people
Generation 5: 4000 congregations with 50 people (i.e. 4000 x 50) = 200,000 people
Generation 6: 8000 congregations with 50 people (i.e. 8000 x 50) = 400,000 people
Generation 7: 16,000 congregations with 50 people (i.e. 16000 x 50) = 800,000 people
Generation 8: 32,000 congregations with 50 people (i.e. 32000 x 50) = 1.6 million people
Of course, such numerical growth is extremely hard for us to imagine, and it may even be unlikely in reality, as human behaviour rarely happens in a mathematically flawless way. However, at least this strategy does work in theory, which is far better than it not working in theory, which is a basic problem of the merely ‘just grow a really big congregation’ approach (as highlighted above).
Attempting to multiply congregations seems to more closely reflect the way that God has grown both the human race in general, and his own family (the church) in particular. It is an ancient path, which has been tried-and-tested. If we would be more pro-active about pursuing church growth in this way, we might also find that our mathematical projections are achievable, in reality.
Photograph courtesy of @hjwinunsplsh
However, in case we still have some doubts, the next post will look at a few different case studies which demonstrate both the strengths, and the weaknesses, of the theories that have been outlined so far. Their contexts have afforded them certain luxuries which we no longer have at present (like unlimited public use of indoor spaces), but this merely accentuates why we must adapt our approach to church growth, if we wish to be fruitful in this season.
[i] Cited from the Liverpool Diocesan web-page, viewed on 9th September, 2020. https://liverpool.anglican.org/BiggerChurchBiggerDifference
[ii] In a paper about what larger churches can offer a city, written by Bishop Ric Thorpe on the 3rd July 2015, the second of the 5 points made is that… ‘Larger churches must get good at planting other churches that will multiply good practice and mission across a city, working with the bishop and with other congregations. Experience suggests that churches that plant attract leaders and members who themselves want to plant, and this helps those whom they send’. Read the whole paper from this web-link: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2015/3-july/features/features/what-larger-churches-can-offer. Viewed on the 9th September, 2020.