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Church Growth: An Insight



Almost every day, I listen to a daily podcast from "pray-as-you-go," a free service by Jesuits in Great Britain that provides a daily prayer as an mp3 download and available on iTunes.

"Pray-as-you-go" is especially intended for people traveling to and from work, and for that reason alone - the chance to turn what could be a stressful commute into calming and centering prayer time - I love it.

Praying using this resource is almost always a good experience, but sometimes - like this morning - I'm particularly moved by something they say or point out.

Today's reading was from the Acts of the Apostles, describing the sending-off of Barnabas and Saul on mission.

The commentator first points out that the passage has a great sense of growth and energy: people are being sent around the Mediterranean to proclaim the word of God and speak of Jesus, and with passion.

He asks three great questions:

"When in the last days or weeks have you noticed yourself sharing something of that kind of passion?"

"What do you speak enthusiastically about?"

"Where do your passions lie?"

Those questions alone are worth pondering for an hour, maybe even a week.

But then he says something that really struck me:

"What's also noticeable about this reading is how few enough people are involved for each one of them to be named:

Barnabas.

Saul.

John.

Manaen."

He then says, "As this reading - this progress report - is read again, notice how personal it is: How the gospel is spread here not on a huge scale by mass communication, but by a series of personal encounters, and by a few enthusiastic individuals."

What an important thing to remember.

Like many clergy and lay leaders in the church, I think a lot about growth. When I first got out of seminary and worked as the youth pastor at St. Mary's in Arlington, we saw "growth in numbers" - kids inviting their friends to come to youth group - as a sure sign of vitality.

And it's not just with youth programs: one of the first questions I'm asked when people find out I accepted a new call as Rector last September is, "Is the church seeing much growth yet?"

(The answer, by the way, I'm happy to say, is yes: keeping in mind that the "continuing Episcopalians" of The Falls Church only had 29 on their very first Sunday after the vast majority of worshippers voted to leave the Episcopal Church in late 2006, and that that group of 29 grew to an average of 80 on Sundays during the six years they were worshipping across the street while waiting for the lawsuits to run their courses, and now - this first Fall back in the Historic Church and Main Sanctuary - that we're averaging just over 200 per Sunday, then yes, The Falls Church Episcopal is growing.)

(And since people like us who have relatively small numbers to report are fond of quoting percentages instead of numbers, I'd just like to point out that means The Falls Church Episcopal has grown 590% since the split!)

Of course questions about growth are not just asked about us, in our unusual circumstances.

Questions about - concerns about - growth are typical: I'd venture to say that most leaders in most churches look to their Average Sunday Attendance figures with more than casual interest.

And "church growth" is itself a cottage industry - Google the term and you get 828,000 results in two seconds, and a quick check of Amazon.comshows over 25,000 results for books on church growth. There are seminars, and experts, and dozens of formulaic "ten quick easy steps" approaches to church growth. Some of these approaches probably make Jesus weep (or get nauseated), but I can see why some others of them are tantalizing to church leaders wanting to grow.

But look at the book of Acts, the "progress report" of the earliest Jesus-followers, and keep in mind that this was a time when the church was growing so fast and so strong it astonished everyone.

And then notice how personal it is: How the gospel is spread here not on a huge scale by mass communication, but by a series of personal encounters, and by a few enthusiastic individuals.

Church growth happens through a series of personal encounters, and by a few enthusiastic individuals.

So here are my three questions:

One: what, do you suppose, are the implications for churches and church leaders who desire growth? Where - with whom - should we spend the majority of our energy?

Two: what, do you suppose, are the implications for teaching Adult Christian formation: who do we focus on teaching, and what do we teach them?

And three: where, do you suppose, a church's energies and monies would be spent differently if this simple were taken more to heart?

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