This question, or some variation of it, has been asked of me, my husband, and just about every pastoral candidate I know during most pastoral candidate initial interviews. It’s a loaded question. I would dare to guess that most of the time, if not all of the time, the “growth” being asked of by these search committees has to do with numbers, in the pews and in membership, and therefore, in pledges and tithes. We sometimes talk about growing spiritually as well as growing in numbers, but we almost always talk about growing to survive, to keep afloat, and to make it through the next fiscal year.
This definition of growth that is about survival underlines how everything runs in the church. It is the purpose behind new programming and the hiring and letting go of staff. While a church may do a lot of things the same way year after year because “we’ve always done it that way before,” what gets churches often to change is the hope of bringing new people in. So an event is planned, a program created, a new outreach minister is hired—but the driving force behind it is an attitude that often does not change: we need more members for the church to surivive.
Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber at the recent Wild Goose Festival West talked about the authority of failure, and she mentioned how events in the life of the church, such as the Rally Day she had planned in which so few people attended, are not failures when we stop looking at them as means to an end, but as the end in themselves. This is the exact outlook we need to take on in the life of the church. This shifts the view from surviving to thriving, because people are gathering simply to gather. People are celebrating simply to celebrate. People are worshipping to worship, instead of gathering in hopes of adding more people to the club.
All too often, we look at events as potential membership drives. We see dollar signs above people who enter the church. We think events=more people=more members=more money to meet our budgets that are in the red. We operate as a club rather than as a church, a congregation, a community of faith in Christ.
We have to transform our thinking, because that thinking is not Christian and does not come from Christ. We are called to disciple and make disciples. We are called to bring the Gospel to the world. We are not called to gain members for our club.
When I have been asked the question, “How will you grow the church?” I often explain that it is the wrong question to ask. Instead, I often counter with the question, “How can God best use the church in the community?” Where can we go out and be Church with a capital C? How can we best serve God in the name of Jesus Christ in this community and beyond? Long gone are the days when new people moving into the community meant new people would be coming to church. Instead, we must go out and be Church in the world.
I do believe we have to trust God in all of this. Right now, there are still people who want to gather in a community of faith inside a designated space to sing familiar and new (sometimes!) songs, pray and learn and study and be church in a specific location. The traditional church is not dead. But the way of thinking of church membership as a means of survival has to die, because it is what is killing the church. You can’t focus on the message of Christ when your focus is on the numbers.
To move from surviving to thriving, we need to release this old way of thinking and take the leap to remembering that Christ is calling us to serve in the community, to share the Good News. And this does not require membership in our church, or in any church.
Rest assured: there will be people drawn to your community of faith. There are still people visiting traditional mainline churches. People who want to be part of a community of faith. They don’t need a club. And you don’t need another club member. Even if your budget is in the red, it’s time to turn your thinking around. Stop trying to survive, and be the Church. It’s a leap of faith. It is hard. It is easy to worry and fret. It is much harder to trust. Part of the trust is understanding that death and resurrection will also happen: the death of old ideas, the death of old traditions, and sometimes, even the death of the original community. But we are an Easter people. There is resurrection, and there is hope.