Friday, April 21, 2006

Church Growth

The one where Phil might step on some toes (including his own).

As some of you may not know, the congregation I attend, Otter Creek Church of Christ, has recently moved into a new building. It's moved us from a 600 (on a packed day) seat sanctuary to a 1300 seat one. It's enabled us to go to one worship service and it's generally a full one. Apparently there have been quite a few people who have been waiting for Otter Creek to get a larger building to come visit and/or place membership.

Our church is following a standard set up for churches in America.

On one hand, I'm proud that people can come to Otter Creek and find something that they need there. I'm proud that the church I've grown up at is somewhere that people can find encouragement and challenge and good teaching and good worship. I like that people like this guy can come and have a good experience.

But then I wonder...

I wonder if the measure of our success as a church should be the number of people that attend. That's an easy number to count and an easy way to measure "success," but I don't think that's the measure that we as followers of Christ should use. What we should use is a much, much harder standard to measure by any objective means. I believe the standard for church growth is how the people of that congregation are embodying Christ in their lives.

And like I said, that's a hard standard and one that we're not used to measuring. We're used to the measure of a good Christian being how often they attend services and if they're basically good people. But God calls us to such a higher standard than that, that I really think we settle for way less. You see, being called to follow Christ really means to be an imitator of Christ. And that's not so much to do exactly what Christ did, mainly because we're not first Century Jewish Rabbis. What that means is that we try to live our lives as if Jesus were living them. How would Jesus live as a usability engineer, mother, teacher, lawyer, receptionist? If Jesus were confronted by the jerk in the cube on the other side of the wall from me, yakking on his phone all day much too loudly, how would he respond?

We are called to be Christ's disciples in this world. We are called to be the Body of Christ, and the measure of a congregation's success should be the zeal that her members have for carrying to love of Christ to every corner of their lives. It's not enough to punch the church clock and be a good person. It's not enough to believe that Jesus is the Christ. It just isn't. If our lives don't mirror Jesus, we're not really following Christ. And if a congregation doesn't promote that lifestyle to its members, then that church can only be counted as a failure.

It may have huge numbers. It may have great worship. It might have great teaching. But without the person of Jesus being mirrored and lived out in the fabric of the members, it's a nice building with nice people. But not really followers of Christ.


Adam said...

If you judge Jesus by the standards we use to judge churches and church leaders, he was a colossal failure. That really makes you wonder, doesn't it?

Tony Arnold said...

I agree Phil. Good post.

FYI, when I click "comment" it does not open in a separate window, just replaces the open one. Also, if I then click BACK, I get an Explorer error and Explorer shuts down. May be something with my work laptop, but other blogs aren't doing it and yours only started after the change. Haven't tested this on my home PC do see if the same is happening. Just FYI.


Phil said...

Yeah, the comments is the part of it that doesn't open in a new window, so it still works the old way.

TCS said...

well, I HEAR YOU! We ask the wrong question usually when we are saying if someone is faithful or not. Most people seem to mean, do they regularly attend at the church building. What a lousy standard of faithfulness to the way of Jesus.

Of course I've been there and done that.

Suzie said...

I have noticed that my faith has been church dependent. In other words, the depth and meaning of my faith depended largely on the actions, worship service, programs, workings of my church nad my invovlement in all of those things. As a child, I grew up punching my card, earning those "God" points, and memorizing the facts of a flash card faith. I thought that was enough. Now I am trying to let the foundation of my faith be my personal day-to day walk with Jesus and let the church (which is such a wonderful gift of God) be the gravy. It's a tough change for me to make and I am not there yet, but if I can get my church/personal life ratio in its proper proportion then I think I will be a lot better off. Great thoughts, Phil.

scott said...

Great thoughts Phil.
My last youth ministry gig was at a large 1000 member + congregation. I remember having this ministry staff/vision group meeting one day where we were to go around and share our vision for the church 5 years down the road.
As we went around the room it was all stuff like: gymnasium, largest church in the area, 3000 seat auditorium.
When it got to me I stated that I hoped that in 5 years we would be a greater reflection of Jesus.
I wasn't necessarily being wise and more spiritual at that time. I was immature enough at the moment to be doing it just to tweak everybody.
But shouldn't that be our goal?

Phil said...

Scott, I would think that our perceptions on the success of a church have to be tweaked. We've bought so strongly into the idea that numbers and size equal success that I think we've lost the original concept for what the church, the ekklesia, the gathering of the Body of Christ is supposed to be about.

btw, you all should really check out Scott's blog. His current series about how he got to his current theological destination is fascinating and I'm finding it a mirror of the journey many of us are on.

Malia said...

Ouch! Could you at least take the steel toed boots off before stepping on my toes?

Tiffany said...

I've been re-reading "Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire" by Jim Cymbala, and this is a point he talks about a lot. His congregation, the Brooklyn Tabernacle in NYC, has made their standard their prayer life as a body. It is a testament to the power of a practice we too often give only a few minutes here and there, when we think of it.

It's made me think, too, if you can't even take it to the opposite extreme. What if we made our goal not to increase the number of people attending the OC, but to decrease it? Here's what I mean: Eventually we'll outgrow the new sanctuary; then what? Will we consider planting churches in other parts of the city? Makes sense to me. So our goal would be to create opportunities for spiritual growth and character formation, so that we can send our "members" out into the community to start their own congregations when they are prepared. We would be most successful, then, when we are able to send all of our people away from us, decreasing our attendance in Brentwood, but increasing God's kingdom and presence in the greater metro area.

Just a thought I've been playing with.

Phil said...

Ok, Tiff, here's a follow up to that thought. Can a church be too big? Or rather can a church get so big that it hinders the growth of the Kingdom in the lives of the members?

I realize that the members have a responsibility to pursue that in their own lives, but what responsibility does the church and its leadership have?

Brandon Scott said...

great post, Phil!

Tony Arnold said...

Great comments Tiffany. I have had similiar thoughts and over the past month I have been asking myself the question Phil asked.

I think a church can get too big. That is it falls into the "big guns take big bullets" scenario.

I worry about OC right now. What I mean is this: evaluate the amount of energy, time, and resources required to:
* manage the church: building and grounds; utilities; capital expenses, coordinate staff; payroll, etc.
* put on services. How much human energy and time and how much money is required to put on service that has a large sound system, big screens, serves a large group, has a praise team, etc.?
* put on other events. Same as above.
* organize, facilitate, and conduct classes.

By my observation it seems that the resources required are exponential or at least a square of the size of the church.

Now everyone is working hard and we all feel like we are doing God's work because it is church related. But how much of all this energy and resource is actually impacting individual lives right were they struggle--impacting them in a way that Christ would have?

Now compare this with how much time and energy is spent to have a life group, partcipate in the prison ministry, participate in YES, Wayne Reed Christian Day Care, Kirkpatrick School, etc. By observation, it seems less overall energy and resources are spent in these than in the first list. Which has the greatest results in individual lives for the amount of expended energy and resource?

Mustard seed investments may produce bigger fruit.

I am not criticizing our church's choices or activities or the peopel involved in them, of which I am one. But I do challenge whether we make a disciplined effort to reflect and truly assess what efforts are the most productive to the Kingdom.

I am worried that we too often, unintentionally fall into the trap of being so consumed with doing church business that we slowly migrate away from the real business of the church.


Tiffany said...

I think that yes, a church can be too big. Quantifying "too big" is another thing. I also think that big churches are able to do things that smaller congregations can't. I love coming to worship every Sunday under BST's leadership, and hearing Tim speak. If we all split into smaller groups, not everyone would get that experience. I love that we are big enough to hold a dodgeball tournament. I love that there is enough financial support that our Singles group has FIVE missions teams going out in the next 4 months. Breaking into smaller churches would realistically probably eliminate most, of not all, of them.

I'm not here to offer a solution. Only to highlight problems. Phil can tell you that's all I'm good for. :)

Jeffrey said...

ditto adam.

Phil, you said, "I wonder if the measure of our success as a church should be the number of people that attend. That's an easy number to count and an easy way to measure "success," but I don't think that's the measure that we as followers of Christ should use."

i'm gonna give a big ole' "rock on, I'm with ya" to that point.

Something God is teaching me in my spiritual journey right now is that there is no such thing as "going to church." Jesus said that we, those who are His children that is, ARE the church. So I'm always "at church", the question is am I always about the Kingdom of God?

That, to me, is a whooooole other question.

amanda said...

hey phil, here's a post from a guy i went to college with that i stumbled upon:

seems numbers vs. discipleship is also on the front burner in montgomery, AL!

Justin said...

This is a tough one. I think everyone that attends a large church has thought about it before. I remember attending a devo that consisted of like 8 of my friends and the youth minister on Tuesday nights during high school. For some reason, Bellevue Baptist in memphis (second largest southern baptist church in the country) always seemed to get ragged on. There are probably some legitimate reasons to do that. They have a marching band. Yeah, that's right, a marching band. Anyway, I always thought it interesting that they criticized Bellevue, but we were attending Highland St in memphis, which has 1600 people on the roll. Couldn't people say the same things about us?

I think that as of right now, OC's heart is in the right place. Well, the leaderships heart, from what I have noticed. I think that as long as the leadership is helping the church to see that being the biggest most cool church isn't our goal, but serving others and showing the love of Christ is, then we'll be tracking in the right direction, and will likely use our numbers in a more positive way. Just remember, many at OC haven't read McClaren, Campolo, and others and so they are just learning many of the things we've been thinking about for years, from the pulpit and from friends at OC. It will take time, but as long as the leadership and eldership are committed, the church will follow.

Just had an idea too, what if one sunday a month we met for worship, and afterwards, the whole church could set out across the city to help people. I mean, I just came up with this so I don't have a concrete idea... maybe fan out across nashville and feed homeless people, advertise within areas where the homeless live, so they'll know that there will be a luncheon for them on a sunday.

Just a though, but I think community building exercises like that would really bring the church closer together as well as help us develop relationships with the poor. Oh, and we'd make sure to wear clothes that don't look so brentwood, cause don't we all have a problem with that?

Amanda said...

Phil, that was a great post. You echoed some of my concerns about our new building leading to a "megachurch" type experience, but there is something else that I am also afraid of.

Our church is progressive. That cannot be denied. We do have some tendencies of the emergent churches....and that isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as we're careful. I am afraid that the larger OC gets, the more likely we are to become "seeker sensitive" and then "seeker centered," as a lot of large, emergent churches tend to do.

Being a "seeker sensitive" church is a great thing. We need to be sensitive to those who are in our building on Sunday morning who are curious about Christianity and what following Jesus is about. I don't deny that. What is troubling, however, is finding the balance. A lot of big churches have crossed the line from being seeker sensitive to "seeker centered." This is very dangerous, but it's easy to do once a church decides to be more sensitive about a growing congregation and who is present in that congregation. Most of the time when you become seeker centered, the message becomes watered down, the service becomes more about coming to Christ rather than practical ways we, as Christians, can serve him daily. I am a strong believer that the Sunday service is for Christians, not for bringing people to Christ. We need Spiritual food and challenges for our daily lives, and if we don't get that on Sunday mornings, where can we get it?

I don't see us moving there yet, but it does frighten me that perhaps we will because of the huge leap we've had in attendance since we've moved to our new building. I trust Tim and I trust our elders. I'm placing a lot of trust in them to keep the services meaty.

Just my thoughts about our growing church, for what it's worth.

Phil said...

Amanda, these are some great thoughts and I think the distinction you draw between "seeker-sensitive" and "seeker-centered" is an important one to make.

Here's the followup question I would have about that:

Generally, the most exposure a "non"-Christian has to other Christians is in the Sunday morning worship setting. Is that the way it should be? No. I would hope the most exposure that they truly have is from Christians in the world showing the love and character of Christ.

But it doesn't always happen that way. How do we balance knowing that there are people in our services without much knowledge of Christ and what it means to follow him and those who have been following Jesus for 92 years?

I don't know and I think that's the struggle that growing churches have.

Malia said...

I don't think we have to worry about Tim "watering down" any of his sermons!

I've been mulling over this for the past couple of days. I've kind of skimmed through the comments so this may have been expressed earlier. I beginning to see that "church" is just part of the much bigger picture of life. Frankly, at this point in my life, I'm less concerned with what church looks like and how it's done and how big it is and I'm more concerned with making sure that I am showing Jesus in my life everyday. I often fail quite miserably but it's my daily goal. Like Lee (or was it Doug, I already can't remember!) said this morning, making God apart of everyday can be harder than making Him apart of you "life".

Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...


Greetings from the land of beer and cheese. Stone and Campbell with the sun glasses . . . that is too cool! I should have thought of that for my Stoned-Campbell Disciple Blog. I am just using a modified "Joe Cool."

Hey thanks for coming by. I checked out Post-Restorationist Radio and that is great too.

Don't be a stranger at Stoned-Campbell.

Bobby Valentine

Phil said...

Take a look at this today if you all get a chance:

Furrowed Brows Inc.

Jana said...

Really thoughtful post, Phil. Right on the money. I like Tiffany's idea of planting churches when OC "outgrows" their present facility. Makes sense to me.

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