A Tale of Two Churches
This post is an account of the start-up and growth of two great churches. The first was started in 1987, the second in 1991. The first has achieved a legacy of 150 other churches (to date), and the second (in its hey-day) achieved a weekly attendance of close to 1,000 people, reaching many more each week through its excellent community outreach projects. To obscure their identities somewhat, I shall call the former Emmanuel, and the latter Trinity.
Both churches were started by groups of mature and gifted leaders, meeting in the front rooms of their houses. The main leaders of the first church had been professionally trained in the UK, and mentored by other fruitful Christian leaders. The main leaders of the second church had also been professionally trained in the UK, and mentored by other fruitful Christian leaders of a previous generation. Their starting points had many similarities.
Photography courtesy of @makeishan
At different points in the maturing of both churches, policy decisions were made about church growth. Emmanuel decided to focus on starting daughter churches elsewhere, whilst also growing its own congregation. Trinity decided to focus on growing its large local congregation, whilst supporting others who wanted to start churches in other places. There is much we can learn from the effects of these nuanced decisions.
We could estimate that each of the 150 Emmanuel Churches might have enjoyed an average weekly attendance of 50 people. In some cases, this estimate would be too small, while in other cases it would be too large. No matter. Such estimated attendance figures, combined together, would result in an overall weekly attendance at Emmanuel Churches of around 7,500 people! That is 6,500 people more than Trinity had, even at its zenith. That’s a lot more fruit.
Photograph courtesy of @terras
Now admittedly, Emmanuel had a four year ‘head-start’ on Trinity, but Trinity’s average weekly attendance in early 2020 had actually reduced to c. 500 people, which further increases the attendance difference between the two churches – to 7,000 people! That is a big difference. Of course, the comparison is likely to be overly simplistic, but it is nonetheless illustrative of my key point, that policy decisions about church growth have very real consequences.
Of course, some people hate church statistics. They prefer stories. They argue that statistics nurture a clinical sort of leadership, which is ‘led by the spreadsheet’ more than ‘led by the Spirit’. This can happen. However, if we simply ignore statistics, we are not actually paying enough attention to people, as every number represents a person. Reality is best captured by a combination of both story and statistic, by both qualitative and quantitative data.
Photograph courtesy of @priscilladupreez
Thus far, we have only looked at the numbers which show what has happened, but we could also use them to help us to estimate what might happen in the future. We are used to this approach, now, having seen how current infection statistics from the pandemic inform future projections, and thereby shape policy decisions. So, while the following projections are only speculative, they are also illustrative of potential trajectories, and should thus be duly considered…
If Emmanuel were to double their number of churches – from 150 to 300, with 50 people in each church – then they would have an overall membership of 15,000 people. If they were to double their churches again – from 300 to 600 – then their total membership would be in the region of 30,000 people. If they did so again, their cumulative membership would be in the region of 60,000 people. Further doubling numbers would be 120k, 240k, 480k, 960k etc.
To get from 1 church in 1987, to 150 in 2020, Emmanuel had to double their number of churches every 4 years or so (approximately). If they were able to maintain this growth trajectory, then they would have a membership of close to a million people in the next 30 years. To put this in context, if they managed to do this they would easily overtake the current weekly attendance of the Church of England (in the UK) by the year 2050.
Photograph courtesy of @dariusbashar
Now, 150 churches means 150 leaders, but it most likely means 750 people on senior leadership teams of 5 in each (as 150 churches x 5 leaders = 750). So, if Emmanuel churches did multiply to 300 or 600 or 1200 churches, they would then need around 1500 or 3000 or 6000 leaders! Creating these leadership opportunities is not only a superb strategy for church growth, but also for church development, as people usually grow when they take responsibility for things.
By way of contrast, if we imagine that Trinity has around 25 senior leaders, today – that would be 725 less senior leaders than there are in Emmanuel churches, today. But, if Trinity leadership statistics remained completely static over the next 30 years (i.e. only replacing like with like etc.), then the projected gap in the number of leaders in each of these ‘two’ churches would have broadened to over 95,000 by 2050. Such fantastical projections are hard to even imagine.
Photograph courtesy of @morganhousel
So, to illustrate this more satisfactorily, imagine this scenario: if we were to attend an Emmanuel Church family conference this year (2020), with its 7,500 members, and then attended a Trinity Church gathering on the following day, with its 500 members, we would easily notice the huge numerical difference. However, if we only went to the Trinity gathering (and not to the Emmanuel conference) would we not still think of Trinity as an impressively large church?
To be fair, perhaps Trinity have actually achieved more than a crude numerical analysis suggests. It all depends on what their numbers mean. If their 500 weekly attendees were all completely new disciples, who had never previously engaged with any other church, then theirs is actually an exceptional achievement. Conversely, if the majority of Emmanuel’s people were simply ‘transfer growth’ from other churches, their numerical growth is not quite so impressive.
Therefore, it is important for us to discern what is actually happening, and not just to look for evidence which supports what we think is happening. This chapter has presented a comparative case study which challenges the common assumptions about church growth (i.e. ‘big is best’), by suggesting that multiplying congregations (of whatever size) might reach more people. Is this claiming too much, from too small a sample? Are the projections inflated? Is more data needed?
Photograph courtesy of @dre0316
Maybe we just need to ‘park’ our statistics for a few moments and hear a more specific story, about someone who has not only applied this approach, but has also seen (in reality) the results which we have only projected as possibility. Such people do exist, but very few live locally. I was privileged enough to spend a couple of days with one of them a few years ago, and the next chapter is my attempt to recall his fascinating story, in my own words.[i]
[i] Ying Kai’s story is told in his own words in a book which he co-wrote with Steve Smith (Smith, S., & Kai, Y. (2011). T4T: A discipleship re-revolution. WIGTake Resources). I have not used this book to inform, correct or supplement my own recollections, so I am to blame for any factual errors or contradictions. However, the reason I mention it here is as suggested further reading for anyone interested in knowing more about Ying Kai and his missional methodology.