Last week I sat at a dining table at a church planting conference and was reliably informed as to what the growth barriers to my model of ministry were. I was a little bemused.
Granted I had just conducted a workshop on our evangelism strategies in an increasingly hostile cultural setting, so I was up for the critique. Granted too that what I had said, which I considered fairly non-controversial, was described by some attending the workshop as “rolling a grenade down the aisle”.
Granted too that when asked to describe how our church “does church” I pretty much trotted out the ideas I’ve put in my blog posts recently. Especially those posts about making church lighter and simpler, and more manoeuvrable, equipped for the cultural changes and pressures that the church will inevitably face in the West. I’m up for critique.
On the flip side, my interlocutor was a young man who had finished medicine at uni before moving into a theological degree, which he was still completing. He studies at one of the most well resourced and rigorous colleges in Australia. He lives and breathes and has his being in one of the most well-heeled parts of the world, in a church setting replete with money, personnel resources, a rich history of training and sending, a zeal for evangelism borne out of deep theological conviction about the person and work of Christ, a manse for any pastor who needs it, big ministry teams to join and learn from, a seat at the cultural table in a large city over a long period of time, a great salary package for ministers, reduced private school fees for children.
Get the idea? In short everything is laid on for not just him, but for the entire system to knock it out of the park in terms of breaking through any and every growth barrier, whether in a localised and individual church setting, or for the wider denominational area it covers.
Should be knocking it out of the park. Ain’t knocking it out of the park.
In fact, despite all of that theological, financial and personnel resource, this arm of the church is barely keeping pace with population growth in a city just ripe for the picking. Every conversation I have with ministry leaders from that arm of the church raises that worrying stat. They’re open about it. The question is, are they open to the changes they need to make that may not reverse that trend, but which may stop them collapsing quicker than they might imagine?
Never mind my own little congregation’s growth barriers, due in no small part to my leadership inadequacies, there’s a huge, hairy growth barrier problem right there – the growth barrier problem of having everything laid on a plate, but it not making much difference.
And that’s a far bigger concern than my little local church’s growth barrier. I at least have got margin. I at least have a lot of things I could fix up – with some tweaking and training. But when you’ve got it all laid on a plate like that and you’re still in trouble? Then you’re really in trouble. Could it be that the real barrier to growth for the church as it moves into a tighter, harder time will be the growth barrier of having it too easy for too long?
Look, I’m not stupid. I can see the areas of leadership and ministry training that I need to both work on and help others work on. I also recognise that we may soon reach the limits of our growth as a congregation. We have grown from 15 in our lounge room to almost 150 in four years, and the strain of finding leaders among our people, and of leading well myself is quite high.
We’re about to move building for the fifth time: my house, an old bank building, a sports complex, a historic church building, and now a school theatre. Ironically our primary growth barrier seems to be building size. We shift buildings because we keep growing.
But that’s not because we tick all the boxes listed above that are taken for granted in some places. Due to our location and our demographic, we don’t have a ready-made bunch of mid-fifty-somethings with 25 years experience working in middle management just itching to take over one of the “5 Ms” or 3 whatevers. They’re unicorns in our neck of the woods. Building a long term leadership team that can handle the growth we have been experiencing is one of our biggest challenges.
But only one of them. We have plenty more. We have two part time staff (me included), no building of our own, no denomination, no sending college, no Bible Belt of Christians just waiting for the next funky church to come along to attend, no university nearby, no manses and definitely no school fees. Our shire also has the lowest level of university education in the whole state, and the highest number of trade certificates. We’re not the stuff of regular evangelical church plants.
But here’s what we do have. We have a few lean and hungry people who are willing to cut their teeth in places and in roles that are quite demanding. We’re attracting people who want to find out how to get involved in planting out churches and would be keen to be involved in another one if we did so.
We have even attracted someone from the UK who wants to plant, and who, in my opinion, will have less barriers to growing a bigger congregation than I. And most of all, which has been enlightening, we’re getting people who are either de-churched, or have been burnt out by other church experiences, who have suddenly rediscovered the joy of the gospel and the joy of serving
In other words the real growth barrier that I want to see broken is actually being broken, as we showcase Christ from the front, and encourage our people to find their joy in him. We’re finding that this is breaking growth barrier of personal maturity among our people.
That’s the growth barrier that really matters – the growth and maturity of our people individually and as a body of believers. We’re trusting them to feed on the Word together and grow up as a Christians. We’re trusting that our ministry to them is helping them take responsibility both to serve and to learn and to share the gospel in word and deed for themselves. We’re trusting our sermons and teaching not to be about “do more”, “get involved in…”, “turn up at..”, “do more evangelism”, but to be about the wonder of Jesus and how he fulfils all of God’s promises that humans yearn for, even if they don’t realise it.
We’re not cajoling people to get on to ministry teams with the Providence badge on it. We’re not particularly trying to break the growth barrier of Providence Church Midland. We are compelled, however, to break the growth barrier we mentioned above, the sheer inability to do anything other than maintain pace with population growth. Providence Church Midland can be part of that, but not the sum total.
What we are finding, as we free people up, is that they come to us with suggestions about how they might serve, not just among us, but in the wider community. So in mercy ministries and evangelism settings and work settings around the city. And we’re trusting that over time this will bear fruit. If they need advice, they come and ask. That’s what we are finding. And they’re doing it because the gospel is compelling, not because we are.
Do I want our church to grow in size? I’d be stupid and dishonest if I said “no”. But I want to take the long term approach here. If at Providence we simply create a flexible, stripped back model of church that will survive the cultural changes we are experiencing, changes that are enervating people and that will eventually strip away all of the privileges many of the more established denominations have, and will still be a credible witness to Christ then that’s a good thing. That’s mission accomplished.
We are making a considered decision to build a boat for foul weather not fair, as that seems to be the wisest way forward. We won’t have all the bells and whistles and fancy trim, but we’ll have a sturdy hull and a well built rudder. By all means sail as far as you can in fair weather, but don’t assume it will last forever, because the clouds of change are on the horizon and the wind is picking up. For when it comes to size, the Titanic had no real growth barrier, but that didn’t stop it sinking, and sinking very quickly, when the critical time came.