Back in 1988, Kent Hughes, then an emerging pastor, was part of planting a new church. All the signs were positive. The mother church endorsed the project, and Kent was an up-and-coming star. The community was strategically targeted, and a solid core was part of the initial foundation. As he put it, “We had everything going for us…the prayers and predictions of our friends…the sophisticated insights of the science of church growth….a superb nucleus of believers…and we had me, a young pastor with a good track record who was entering his prime. We expected to grow.” But something astonishing happened. The church did not grow. In fact, it began to shrink. Out of it came one of his first books, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome.
Growth is generally hard to predict. Sometimes it happens despite our failures; sometimes it eludes us, no matter our best preparations. There is a certain mystery to growth. People insist upon it, as if pastors control some growth lever. Paul must have felt this pressure when he wrote these words in his first letter to Corinth: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth” (3:6). Looking back, he found that behind lots of human activity was a more active God determining the outcome. Richard Neuhaus, in his pastoral theology, sums it up this way: “At the beginning and at the end of every day, we offer up our ministries. We are responsible for the offering, and God is responsible for the consequences, and His is the infinitely greater responsibility.” We rely on this!
But fresh from the latest conference, where “growth sightings” are showcased and strategies are passed on, we can begin to believe growth rests largely upon us. We do have this tendency to carry too much of the burden for growth. Isn’t this what we’re paid for? It’s not to say we are free of any responsibility. It is critical we constantly discern those factors that impede growth (sloppy sermons; unloving people; inauthentic leadership; unconfessed sin). But it’s also important to understand the nature of how growth works.
In one of his most recent articles, David Brooks of The New York Times writes a fascinating piece on the nature of growth (“The Structures of Growth”, June 16, 2014). We tend to measure growth in a linear manner, but growth has its own rules. For example, when you start something new, you tend to make a lot of initial progress. When I first started taking tennis lessons, my skill level made rapid development over that first summer at Helix High. But the better I got, the harder it was to make dramatic gains. It is similar in churches. New plants may grow 200% in their first year, but forty years later, it may be closer to 2%. Village is 65 years old, and growth has to be measured differently than when it was six and one-half months along. In all too many cases, older churches see only decline.
If older churches are to once again experience dramatic gains, Brooks notes that we must break some of our habits. Back to tennis – By my sophomore year of high school, my development on the court began to flatten. I switched to another tennis pro, who was not interested in tweaking things. He taught me another grip and another stroke. I hated this! For hours, I practiced against a backboard, my old habits warring with new ways. I did this because I became convinced I had to grow to another level. And when I found my new game, I grew. Churches have to do this as well. If we keep the same systems, the same services, and the same approach to staffing, we will likely not see dramatic growth. Next steps will require more than tweaking.
For some, growth is more exponential. There isn’t rapid progress at first. Days and months and years of faithful ministry in an unreceptive context seem to have the same minimal response. It’s tempting to question, doubt, and give up. But this is a different growth structure. Over time, a faithful witness, a life of integrity, and learned skills lead to surprising growth. People are beginning to respond. Instead of a curve flattening out, what was flat begins to curve upwards. As Brooks points out, this kind of growth demands bullheaded determination, patience and tenacity early on. But even here, there has to be a transition for growth to sustain itself. One must also move to the next level. You have to “turn your hard-earned skill into poetry.” An artist must now let loose and create art; pastors must begin to play creatively, let loose, and create sermons. Missionaries in an unresponsive-turned-responsive field must change their approach if the curve is to keep headed upwards.
Other structures of growth include stairway growth. Upward growth followed by stagnation. Two steps forward, one step back. For some churches, this is their history. Some growth is more valley shaped. You have to go down before you go up. You have to come to grips with your inadequacies and experience humiliation before you begin to taste success. This was Moses’ experience, and many others in Scripture. This was Kent Hughes’ experience. He eventually went on to be a very effective pastor, leading a large church near the Chicago area, as well as writing many good books (and serving on Western Seminary’s board!). But he had to go through a dark, deep, depression, a “gray, horizonless sea.” He had to rethink his definition of success, his ideas about growth. Success is more about faithfulness and serving and believing and prayer and holiness—and a lot less about numbers.
All of us are somewhere on the growth curve. Hughes’ book helps us to keep things in perspective. Brooks’ article challenges us to assess the structure we are presently in. Living organisms naturally grow. It is critical we are always growing (lest we die), and lead the organizations we are called to lead to grow. But God’s Word keeps us centered—He causes the growth. He is the Vine—we are simply the branches.