Revisiting the Question of Church Growth

Some time ago I was extolling the beauty and power of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy at a gathering of missiologists. After my presentation one of the other participants asked, “if the Liturgy is really all that beautiful and powerful, then why aren’t the Orthodox Churches filled to overflowing?” Of course, anyone who has experienced an Orthodox Liturgy would be hard pressed to deny its overwhelming beauty. But, the questioner did make a valid point and I find myself unsettled by the apparent discrepancy between the ideal of liturgical beauty and the actual number of participants drawn to the Liturgy. I ask myself why it seems so hard to get people to come, why more don’t respond to our invitation to “come and see,” and why even the faithful aren’t more faithful. If, as we rightly claim, the Liturgy really is beautiful and attractive, wouldn’t more people attend, wouldn’t more flock to experience it? And if they did, wouldn’t we experience more church growth, our parishes constantly increasing in membership?

Simply asking these questions puts me in the good company of thinkers, who over the last half-century have explored what they call the growth of the church. The study of this aspect of the church was born of a dissatisfaction, similar to my own, when in the 1930’s, Donald McGavran noticed the lack of numerical growth among his organization’s mission stations in India. As he studied the situation, he developed a series of principles which he claimed would bring the missing growth. These included numerical growth as the mark of a healthy church and the need for social scientific research to determine existing growth patterns, to predict future growth, and to develop the strategies for doing whatever it would take to facilitate that growth. Driven by a desire for numerical success, these ideas caught on and were brought to North America in the middle of the 20th century, where the fierce pragmatism of the market place became the source of even more aggressive activism and ever new techniques for growth. Today church growth in America is a booming business replete with seminars, conferences, consultants, and, of course, publications.

In spite of all of this activity, the growth of American churches has not been very impressive. I recently looked at church growth data for 2000-2014 collected by the University of Chicago’s National Congregational Survey and it revealed several things. Mainline churches (Baptists, Methodists, Lutheran, Presbyterians), which are the very groups that enthusiastically embrace and apply church growth teaching, all showed a decline, in some cases a steep decline, in membership. The survey also showed that there are still a few mega groups (mostly non-denominational) that are growing. These are the groups that have taken church growth thinking to the next level and are now applying straight business practices in the church with the help of books like Marketing for the Church and techniques like branding. One could just as easily conclude that they are growing because they have in fact become businesses to which one can indeed effectively apply business principles. Even so, according to the same study in 2012, churches with over a thousand participants only represent 2.4% of the total number of North American churches, while 66.8% have between fewer than 250 worshipers (Cf. David T. Olson,  The American Church in Crisis : Groundbreaking Research Based on a National Database of over 200,000 Churches.  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2008). So, no, I don’t think doing all of this Church growth business has been working very well. In fact, I have seen first hand the damage this approach has done to pastors and churches.

The reason for all this may be that most of these efforts at growth are actually focusing on the wrong things. Perhaps we have to shake the fascination with numerical growth in order to get at the real potential of ecclesial maturity. I believe that some of the church growth authors are aware of this and are exploring alternatives. They readily admit that it is not simply a numbers game and suggest that that idea is a misrepresentation of the movement’s thought. One author indicates that his book is not about the how, that is the doing of ministry, but rather the whys or the being of ministry. In other words, he seems to imply that being the Church is more important than doing the Church. But what becomes evident in the reading of this book is that whatever misgivings the author might have about the fundamental ideas of the church growth theory, what he comes up with is clearly informed by a persistent desire for one thing, namely numerical growth. In another book the authors promise not to trouble the reader with marketing gimmicks and salesmanship. Yet, near the end of it they openly promote the standard Church growth principle that scientific analysis can and should be used to facilitate the numerical growth of the Church. They even give an unabashed apologetic for using a survey instrument offered by their company, which they will analyze for a price. One has to be impressed by the strength of this underlying idea. It is so powerful that every biblically and theologically sound principle, many of which can be found in these books, are amended or transformed into something that is designed to yield numerical growth. Thus, the really promising idea of being the Church dies amidst the many suggestions on how to do the church in North America.

However, what if these authors’ suspicions are right? What if being and not doing was the one factor that determines the Church’s life, potential, and mission in the world? What I am suggesting is that a parish that is deriving its very existence from the divine source of life is actually a Church no matter what external conditions or circumstances it faces or exhibits. In other words, it is communion with Christ that determines the Church’s nature, its unity, its goodness, its beauty, its integrity, and not the structures imposed on it, not market conditions, or the doings of the proponents of numeric growth. Being the Church is not dependent on temporal circumstances for its ecclesial status. If a group of people is actually the Church, then the gradient from unhealthy to healthy, dying to living, declining to grow, is irrelevant to its being a Church. Simply being the Church brings it under the Lordship of Christ and makes it beautiful and healthy. Its existence, not its condition, is the ecclesially determining factor.

If all of this is true, then the very first question we need to be asking is whether or not a particular group really is a Church. After all, how can something that is not the Church experience churchly growth, i.e., grow as the Church. History and tradition show us that the Church is constituted by the gathering of believers to celebrate the Eucharist presided over by a priest duly ordained by a canonical bishop. This theological context is of utmost importance to an Orthodox understanding of church growth because it is the Church’s unique nature that determines the nature of its growth and thus what standards we will use to measure that growth. Unfortunately many church growth thinkers seem to bypass this question and simply assume that the group they are studying is Church, taking it upon themselves to define its nature and thus the nature of its growth as they see fit. In other words, bracketing the question of the Church’s being (its ontology), removes the constraints imposed by its nature and frees the individual to use any standard of success available (such as the prevailing idea of profit and loss) and any techniques  (marketing, branding, statistical analysis) deemed effective in achieving that kind of success. But, ignoring the fundamental nature of Church leads to an attempt to manage non-essential  (as in not belonging to its character) aspects of its being by means of supposed growth—producing techniques before establishing its existential viability as Church and thus the ways in which it can actually grow. In other words, we wind up just doing, that is managing an organization, rather than being the Church.

So I am wondering if it is the best we can do. I realize that simply criticizing other models won’t do. In order to make a real contribution to the discussion, you would have to offer an alternative, not a new technique, but a revised vision of an Orthodox approach to mission, evangelism, and the growth of the Church. I think this will involve a thorough reevaluation of what it means to be a Church, what that implies for the type of growth we can and should expect, and how that determines how we might go about nurturing that kind of growth. It means rededicating ourselves to the teaching that part of what makes the Church the Church, is the unity (one), goodness (holy), beauty (catholic), integrity (apostolic) that is created by God himself and not the conditions or structures imposed on it by its socio-cultural context, the market place, or even the theoreticians of growth. This could be the foundation of a renewed Orthodox perspective on growing the Church.

13 comments:

  1. Simply put… we need to ‘become’ the church once again….What is the opinion out there of the role of the monastery in bringing revival to the spiritual life of the church? One report was that the US had many churches but few monasteries. The Orthodox church offers, in my opinion, the deepest call to discipleship of all the expressions of the church.

    1. Yes, the role of monasteries is crucial to the spiritual wellbeing of the Churches around them. Speaking of the 14th century revival of (hesychast) spirituality in Russian monasteries, one author likened their spiritual power to “…a magnetic field …spiritual energy [which] attracted loose elements and filled the surrounding area with invisible powers” and triggered “one of the most remarkable missionary movements in Christian history.” (James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (NY: Vintage Books, 1966), 52–53)

      As for the US there is a new book coming out an Atlas of American Orthodox Christian Monasteries Edited by Alexei Krindatch, Research Coordinator for the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the USA.

  2. This seems spot on to me, but I wonder if more is needed? Are we succumbing to the “numbers game” just by wondering why there is not more “growth” in the Church?

    I personally think the focus should still be on the statement “come and see” and not on the Church doing more than being the Church. It seems to me that the Orthodox Church is not that difficult to find (for those looking) but it is very difficult and trying to enter into. It takes both time and effort to become Orthodox; it is not simply a matter of “walking the aisle” and choosing to join. It does not cater to the individual, which I believe is a very important. Theosis is never presented as easy in the Church. As my friend reminds me, “Orthodoxy is hard”. We continue the seek and take part in it because it is True.

    1. Indeed, just wondering about growth does not require us to focus on numbers. However, many people who do, honestly ask about growth, do succumb to the “numbers game.” I think this is understandable in light of developments in our society (see the second blog post from Feb 3). However, I do think that gives us a false understanding of the state of a given parish’s health, the very nature of ecclesial growth, and it diverts our attention from the standards of measure given in the scriptures. You correctly point to commitment, holiness, and the fact that following Christ is not to be taken lightly. I could not agree more. These are the very things I want us to focus on when we think about the growth and health of the Church. A healthy and growing Church is going to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, as per Eph 4:11-16 (more on that in future posts).

  3. The reason that Orthodox parishes aren’t filled is because nobody wants to repent. That’s the gist of it. People who refuse to believe that they are sick, will not go to doctors. The people need to understand that they need healing because of their sins, but if they don’t acknowledge their sins, then they will not go to church, even the ones who were born into an Orthodox family. You are focusing on the symptom, but not addressing the cause.
    Jesus Christ’s first teaching was to repent. This is what you should be explaining to these people.

    1. You are absolutely right in reminding us of the importance, the necessity, and even the difficulty of repentance. Allow me two observations. 1) Repentance as used in the New Testament is a turning away from sin and a turning back to God. That being the case, it takes place in the context of a personal relationship with Christ. In order for that to happen, the individual will have to get to know Christ, come to trust him, and understand his offer of mercy and forgiveness. So before we can ask people to repent we have to introduce them to Christ. 2) I think there are, at least, two places where that can happen. One is the Liturgy where Christ is really present in the Eucharist. The other is the life of the believer, where Christ shines as light into the darkness of this world. In both cases, we can invite people to come and see Christ, get to know him and his offer of forgiveness. It is then, that the response of repentance makes sense. (See my talks on Evangelism at http://www.ancientfaith.com/specials/sharing_our_orthodox_faith)

  4. Perhaps we are mistaken to use the Divine Liturgy as a means, if not the sole means, of evangelization. Many churches use non-traditional liturgies to lure converts or numbers to their flock, which are built around emotional “highs.” The problem is that once those “highs” wear out and become quotidian, those same people then will jump ship to find another place that can replace the “high” that they just recently lost. And they keep jumping and jumping to other churches and when they cannot replace it, they stop altogether and those form a great chunk of the “nones” in our society today.

    The same goes even for the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. At first, it may appeal to those seeking an “emotional high” because it is so beautiful, but without proper catechesis and evangelization, the Liturgy will no longer live up to the appeal that it first did. As Orthodox, we must make it very clear that the Divine Liturgy is a special gift given to mankind but especially given to those who are called members of the Church. For we Orthodox to use the Liturgy, which is our means to worship our God in truth, as a means of evangelism focusing it on its beauty, we run the same risk of burnout as those evangelical churches.

    1. Yes, that is a great point and we need to be very careful not to transform the Liturgy into some kind of evangelistic technique. But, we do know, as Fr. Schmemann reminded us (For the life of the World), that the liturgy is being done on behalf of the world. It is, in fact, a missionary act (see Chapter two in my book Come and See). However, I am not suggesting that we use the Liturgy as a means of evangelism because it it beautiful (it is) but rather because Christ is present with us in the Liturgy, that is in the Eucharist, for all to see. If our task is to introduce people to Christ, then this is one of the places where that can take place. His presence will, of course, never grow old, will always have it s appeal, will never cause burnout.

      1. But if it is a missionary, then why do we still say, if not just for the sake of tradition, “The Doors! The Doors! Let all the catechumens depart!?” The Liturgy was not meant for everyone, but only for called Christians. Christ can and should be preached to the non-converted but not through the Liturgy.

        1. Yes, I understand. These are good questions, but I think they may grow out of some common misconceptions about the Divine Liturgy. So, for now, consider just a few things.



          First, take note that according to D. Passakos “The Eucharist in Paul was understood not only as an icon of the eschata, but also as a missionary event with cosmic and social consequences. The Eucharist for him was not only the sacrament of the Church but also the sacrament of the world.” (Vassiliadis, P. Eucharist and Witness: Orthodox Perspectives on the Unity and Mission of the Church. Brookline, Mass., Holy Cross Orthodox Press 1998, 63 note 13). This is expressed in several ways throughout the Liturgy, which is the setting of the Eucharist. For example, during the Service of Preparation the Lamb (a cube shaped piece of the bread later fractured and distributed to the faithful) is cut cross-wise while the Priest intones the words “Sacrificed is the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world for the life and salvation of the world.” Of course, there are many other such references throughout the Liturgy. So the Divine Liturgy is, as Vassiliadis says, “undoubtedly the starting point of Christian mission, the springboard of the Church’s witnessing exodus to the world.” It is a fundamentally missionary act, celebrated on behalf of the world and providing a context in which the living Lord can be personally encountered. (For more on this see Rommen, Come and See Chapter 2).

          Second, the words “The Doors, the Doors” are a reminder to us that at certain times in the life of the Church persecution made it necessary to take certain precautions like locking and guarding the doors. These words were not meant to keep anyone out except those who intended to disrupt the service. It is still in the Liturgy today as a reminder that not all Christians live in peace and safety as we do.

          Third, the dismissal of the Catechumens is also to be understood historically. It comes from a time in the early Church when there were so many catechumens who could not take communion that they were taken to another part of the Church for further instruction. Today we no longer follow that custom and “no one actually expects the catechumens to depart at this time.” So, again, the dismissal is not intended to keep or put anyone out and it is still in the Liturgy to remind us that we should have catechumens and that something is wrong if we don’t. (https://oca.org/questions/divineliturgy/catechumens-depart).

  5. Thank you for your article. Although not Orthodox, but rather, a Protestant monastic expression, the pressure you ponder is felt in our experience as well. We have over the last 30 years battled the growth, validate yourself, pressure. I found your statement about maturity insightful. The anemic nature of many congregations speeks to being focused on doing rather than being. If we are maturing in Christ, embodying Jesus’s life and love , we are doing what we ought. We will have something legitimate to share, a place to give from. I agree, there is a pressure to shift our paradigm from being the Church. Conversions will be thorough and discipleship transformative if we focus on being the Church. A quick thought from your reflection. Thank you

  6. Father bless!

    I don’t think we should dismiss the church growth pursuit out of hand. There is much to recommend it if we give it a chance.

    Certainly it’s true that it sometimes erupts from short sighted goals of propping up the church budget, but I think it also frequently comes from a deep desire to see the local parish bring the local community to the ark of salvation. It’s hard to look at my tiny parish that has been in existence for almost 90 years, surrounded by a sea of 75,000 non-Orthodox who have never even heard of the Orthodox Church, and not say something is dreadfully wrong.

    You said, “Being the Church is not dependent on temporal circumstances for its ecclesial status. If a group of people is actually the Church, then the gradient from unhealthy to healthy, dying to living, declining to grow, is irrelevant to its being a Church.”

    I have no complaint there.

    You continue, “Simply being the Church brings it under the Lordship of Christ and makes it beautiful and healthy.”

    And that’s where I have to question.

    Certainly we are embodying the Church, but can we really say that is automatically healthy? I don’t see how. That’d be saying that the ancient Corinthian church was perfectly healthy because it was the Church, and so Paul never needed to correct issues. No, correction is part of being the Church. Fixing the sicknesses we have in the local parish is critical, and that’s a large part of the church growth movement. I would urge us to listen to our Lord speaking in St John’s Apocalypse, chapter 2, verse 5:

    “Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”

    “Do you not realize that the body (of Christ) is liable to more diseases and attacks than this flesh of ours, and that it is infected more quickly and cured more slowly.”
    St. John Chrysostom, On the Priesthood 4.2

    Like you, I would roundly condemn many of the practices and methodologies of church growth experts, but I would urge us not to throw out the baby with the bath water. The typical Orthodox parish is not functioning healthily. Better for us all to own up to this, and see what can be done, rather than sticking with the status quo. Doing internal surveys and measure healthy criteria seems to make good sense to me.

    Should we condemn those seeking only numbers? Well, I think that puts the question too uncharitably. I think that using attendance is a reasonable metric for something much harder to define. What these people are really seeking is a living and saving parish, faithfully carrying out the mission of God. Numbers may be a crude way of measuring that sort of spiritual thing, but I think that can be forgiven.

  7. Our parish is growing slowly and steadily as we try to learn to pray together and love each other. Genuine care for your neighbor and especially the one that the Holy Spirit is adding is the place to start. Caring for our children. Working on our own journey of repentance. Fr. Peter Gillquist, former director of Missions and Evangelism for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, whose influence is felt in almost every Orthodox parish in the English speaking world, loved to remind us of the simple statistical fact that most people are brought to church by someone they know or have their heart warmed to God by someone who will take the time to get to know them when they come. We periodically, since our beginning, have had events geared toward attracting others. Special speakers, garage sales, and so forth. I can’t think of one person we have added as a result of those events. They are good for our people but they have not been “successful” in bringing new people. Nevertheless, we are growing.

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