October 10, 2023

Are Churches Growing Or Are Christians Just Shifting?

This is a guest post by a friend of mine, Dr. Steven McCready, who is the Senior Minister of Riverview Church here in Perth.

You’re Welcome, But It’s Not All About Growing.

I’m writing this to my brothers and sisters, the pastors of the churches in Perth. I am a guest in this great city, and I consider it an honour to co-labour with you in this great work. As I enter my third year of ministry here, I want to offer some fresh perspective into what we are mislabelling as church growth and then offer some pastoral reflections to equip you for this cultural reality that is ours to minister within. 

Is the church growing in Perth? Maybe. Definitely. Theologically, we know that Jesus is building his church. Locally, we have the advantage of immigration, Christians relocating from other places, and some clever strategists leading movements. Still, I caution that most of what we label church growth is more accurately labelled congregational movement. We use the language of growth strategically in and of itself. It is marketing language and a positive spin, and I get it; nobody wants to join the losing team! The reality is that while some people are being born again by the Spirit of God, and many others are exploring faith through programs like Alpha, most ‘growth’ is just movement. 

I think we need to be honest, and I think we need to have integrity as church leaders about this subject. We must also learn how to function more effectively as shepherds in a world where Christians freely roam from one pastoral field into another. 

That said, I first want to thank my pastor friends for all they do and recognize that very little seminary training equips us to lead in moments like this. I want to offer my approach to pastoring in a movement moment, hoping that for some of you, it might be helpful, perhaps even a model to help us all. 

Steven McCready offers five considerations in a culture of congregational movement

Gloating

As a pastor, when you meet that new person or family that has just moved from another church if your immediate response is to allow that to feed your ego, you need to stop immediately and begin the deep work of repentance. When you talk with said ‘new people,’ if your takeaway from that conversation was something like this, ‘They have chosen my church because we are a better church, or I am a better pastor,’ then I would want you to join me in sounding the alarm bells! Something is deeply flawed in your character, which may become your undoing, especially when you are no longer the place or person of choice! If you are using empire metrics to do Kingdom work, you likely won’t be a lifelong vocational pastor and minister of the gospel. A question for reflection: what happens when you are no longer the one being chosen? What happens when your church is not the one being attended? Likely, you will struggle not to make that all about you, too. 

Grieving

I have taught myself a discipline I want to offer my pastor friends. I serve at the sort of church that people come to ‘check out.’ When people arrive and tell me that they are new to my church, the very first thing I do is ask them what their home church is called and what their pastor’s name is. I then intentionally celebrate that pastor and that church vocally. Next, I stop listening to their story and quietly, in my heart, pray for that pastor. Scripture calls us to mourn with those who mourn, and likely on the other side of this conversation is a pastor, a connect group leader, and a congregation that is now grieving the loss of people they have prayed for, pastored, loved, and formed. That pastor is your brother or sister, and since the church elders are first called to care for one another, I would love to invite the pastors of my city to care for one another amid a culture of congregational movement. 

Guarding

 We are shepherds, not salespeople. Therefore, our primary goal is not to gather crowds but to care for souls and safeguard the gospel in our congregations. When new people arrive at our churches, it is incredible how quickly we usher them into intimate spaces like connect groups or ministry teams without first standing guard as shepherds of our flocks. 

People come and go from a church like the one where I work. What is staggering to me, in two years in Perth, is that not once, not a single time, has a pastor lifted the phone to call me and say, “Steve, ‘so and so’ from your church, is now at my church, and I’d love to know, are they safe?” How do we know if the people arriving at our churches (and let’s be honest, the percentage chances here are much higher, given a movement culture) are not divisive, theologically dangerous, immature, or are wolves in sheep’s clothing, to use a biblical image? 

Indeed, our job as shepherds is to serve one another in advancing truth and love into the broader church. I need to do better in this space myself, but I want to lament that I have seen some people leave my church to go to others, and all I can do is pray that they cause less hurt and heartache in their new place. If Dietrich Bonhoeffer is correct, they likely will cause just as much. Shepherds, guard your flock!

Guiding

When new people arrive at your church, they need guidance. I want to suggest that the guidance they need is not how to get connected but how to get healthy. One of the elders at my church in Canada was a soccer coach. When we met with families leaving our congregation or coming into our church, he often used the metaphor of transferring injured players from one football team to the next- don’t do it. If a player arrives injured, they will likely not play well again. He would often say, “Get well, then move churches.”

That is helpful, but it is not reality. People make their minds up about their life choices and then inform their pastor! When injured people arrive in your congregation, I would love to encourage the shepherds of our city to get serious about the deep work of formation. Don’t just fill another seat with another bum. Encourage that person, now surfing the waves of congregational movement, to get healthy. Like their former pastor, chances are, they carry hurt, disappointment, residual relational pain and grief, and while a new environment might put some bandages on the wounds, they likely won’t kill the infection of bitterness. 

Giving thanks

 I give thanks When a new person, couple, or family arrives at my church after praying for their former pastor and congregation. I thank God for their decision to remain in the faith and not walk away. I give thanks that I have been entrusted to be their pastor for this next season. I give thanks for the people who have been involved in their story up to this point. I give thanks for the people who will journey with them in the next season. I give thanks that despite all the bad press, thousands and thousands of people in Australia are still choosing to belong to Jesus-centred communities and congregations, and I give thanks for what God is doing in the lives of these pilgrims. 

Getting help

If you are a pastor who is hurting right now, as people have left, and you are feeling isolated and abandoned, please get help. The Lead Shepherd loves you, and he is for you. He has put his shepherding heart inside you and entrusted you to love his people. The pain of joining with him in his sufferings is as real as the joy of knowing him in his resurrection. Don’t suffer alone. Reach out. Many wise and godly pastors in this city have not set out to rustle sheep from other folds but are serious about shepherding souls, including yours. Please reach out and get help. 

I write this with love and concern for the people I respect and care for with the affection of Christ. 

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. Romans 8:18 

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. Acts 20:28

One caveat: 

Not all movement is for negative reasons, and I understand that. There are many normal reasons for people to change congregations. Moving house, getting married, age, stage, etc. Like many of you, I enjoy it when a departing family asks for advice on where they should explore future membership. I long to recommend churches where the shepherds guard and guide and go beyond simply gathering and ‘growing!’ 

A note from Stephen McAlpine: Steven’s pastoral insights since moving to Perth have been of great benefit to me – and many other leaders – as we navigate our hard secular context. But to be honest, it’s his gospel joy that has been most refreshing to many; his deep love of Jesus, and his desire to see people meet Him. And that’s what makes this guest post so compelling and prophetic, not just for here in Perth, but beyond. Read it, and share it widely.

Written by

stephenmcalpine

Written by

stephenmcalpine
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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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