10. Church Growth

fruit trees covered in wite blossom.Growth is a natural accompaniment of life. It is normal for a church to grow. If a church is not growing, there is something wrong with it. Church growth is caused by the Holy Spirit and by Bible teaching being applied to people’s lives. We can't  make a church grow, we can only remove the things that stunt or restrict that growth.

People sometimes make a distinction between spiritual and numerical growth as if one is more important or one is possible without the other. In fact they go hand in hand. Spiritual growth always results in numerical growth, as it did in the Acts of the Apostles. Numerical growth without spiritual growth is temporary and unsustainable, like that of the seed on rocky soil in Jesus’ parable (Mark 4 v 5–7).

The sheep to shepherd ratio

The single factor that has the greatest impact on the growth of a church is what I call the sheep to shepherd ratio – the number of people each leader has under his or her wing. The smaller the flock, the more time and care a pastor can give to each individual. The larger the flock, the less time and attention the pastor can give to each. When the ratio is too large, the shepherd will be unable to give individual care to the whole flock and the members of the flock will find it hard to access the attention they need or desire because the pastor is always "too busy".

In his parable of the lost sheep Jesus hinted that the sheep to shepherd ratio should be no more than 100:1.  Interestingly, research has shown that the size of the congregation in an average church served by one full time minister or pastor is about 100. Above that ratio lost sheep will more easily be missed. The energy that goes into keeping 99 healthy "sheep" penned and fed leaves little room for adding more sheep, looking for strays and caring for the sick.

This means that, to keep growing, a church needs to stay ahead of the game by making regular, repeated organisational changes in order to keep the sheep: shepherd ratio below 100:1.

These changes can include:

•    adding new shepherds and
•    multiplying flocks

Adding shepherds

New shepherds can be paid or voluntary, full or part time, lay or ordained and can be generalists or specialists in the work that they do. They may be grown and trained within the local church or called in from elsewhere. Obviously, part time leaders are less effective than full time ones. You need to make allowance for the time and effort needed for leaders to co-ordinate their work. Two pastors will not be twice as effective as one because some of their energy will go into co-ordinating their work. The effectiveness decreases in proportion to the number of leaders.

Multiplying flocks

Multiplying starts with dividing – subdividing the flock so you have two where there was one.  Multiplying flocks is the accumulative effect of subdividing repeatedly as  a church and its offshoots grow, together with planting new congregations. Research has shown that smaller churches tend to grow faster than big ones. A big church can do things a small church can’t do so there is room for both. But as a church gets larger its percentage growth rate goes down because more and more resources are sucked into internal communication and maintenance. A large church has all the same problems as a small church but on a proportionately larger scale. Members of a large church tend to feel less needed and involved than those in a small church. Large congregations attract people who want to keep a low profile and not be noticed. Smaller churches tend to maintain a larger percentage involvement of their membership and can often be more flexible in adapting their activities for individuals. If a congregation of 20 adds one new member every other year it may seem insignificant, but it is the equivalent of a church of 200 adding 5 people a year or a church of 2,000 adding 100 a year.

Multiplying congregations might mean holding more than one Sunday service, planting out new churches in neighbouring areas, multiplying small groups or running courses (for example Alpha or catechism or leadership training).

Satiation point

A church that does not make these changes will quickly reach a satiation point where it cannot effectively care for and nurture any more people. An early sign of this will be people leaving to join another church. The reasons they give for leaving will be various but the real reason is that they are not feeling nurtured  or involved.

If a church has reached satiation point it can still add new members but it will rapidly  compensate by shedding a similar number of existing members. In a church that is at satiation point, evangelistic intiatives simply result in a faster throughput of members rather than an increase in number.

 With a smaller flock, the “sheep” can also have helping relationships with each other, as well as from the shepherd but again, the more of them there are, the more diluted and distant their relationships tend to become. Size affects not only the relationship between leader and led but that between the members of a congregation. In a smaller flock, the “sheep” can have positive, caring relationships with each other, as well as with the shepherd but again, the more of them there are, the more diluted and distant their relationships tend to become.

Nurturing leaders

Making the changes needed to keep a church growing calls for a mentoring, nurturing style of leadership where the overall leader is constantly developing new leaders and is prepared to release authority to others rather than hogging it to themselves. It calls for leaders who are prepared increasingly to adapt their role to become trainers of, and mentors to, other leaders.

Breaking under pressure

If a church stays at satiation point but maintains pressure to grow, the stress put on the leaders and the structure can lead to a fracture taking place at a point of weakness. The weak point may occur as a relationship weakness  between people, expressed as a “split” between factions or a “splinter” involving an individual or a smaller group. Another dynamic that may take place is a process of “Scapegoating”.  This is where members of the congregation unconsciously turn on an individual, family or group they regard as “not fitting in” or whom they see as receiving an unfair amount of leadership attention. In subtle or not-so-subtle ways the majority assert social pressure on those people to leave.  The victims of scapegoating might be people with psychiatric or social problems, people from particular etnic backgrounds, rich or poor people – anyone whose presence might cause social embarrassment to the majority.

Alternatively, the weak point may be within a key leader. Weakness within a leader may take the form of:

•    Physical illness
•    Mental breakdown (“nervous breakdown”)
•    Moral breakdown  (such as inappropriate sexual or financial behaviour; this is not to excuse such behaviour, just to note a common context).

There are other, more minor, things that also have an impact on a church’s growth, for example the building where it meets (is it clean, comfortable and with enough parking?) and the language and style of the worship (are they appropriate for the people in the congregation?) It's good to pay attention to these factors as well but the sheep:shepherd ratio is always the most important factor.

You don't have to be big to grow

You don’t have to be big to grow. A church can grow from any size. In a commercial context, advertisers talk about an organisation’s USP. USP stands for “unique selling point – What do you have to offer that that others don’t?  A church can also have a USP – a unique serving potential – something it offers that other local churches don’t. It might consist of the age and skill of your leaders, a particular theological outlook, an attractive building, a style of worship, the quality of the preaching or music, the youth or children’s work or just that it is a small, welcoming, friendly membership. Whatever your USP is, someone will be attracted to it. Don’t try to be what you’re not. Be good at being what you are. For example, if you are a small group of elderly believers, make your group attractive to other elderly folk. Or find younger believers who would like to learn from your experience and wisdom and start nurturing and encouraging them.

© copyright Michael Jobling  2015