Thinking Big

09_mytake_JNBy Jennifer Johnson

I looked forward to speaking with Robert Bess because of the similarities between his church and ours. (See Related Article.)  Like Robert’s church in Tennessee, Levittown (PA) Christian Church, where my husband, Matt, serves as pastor, has grown from just a few families to about 100 people. And like Robert, Matt is not content for LCC to stay so small when so many thousands in our community still need Jesus. He spent much of this summer meeting with other local pastors, casting vision with the influencers and leaders in our own congregation, and reading widely to see how other churches jump-started significant growth.

We are in good company. According to the National Congregations Study, the average church in the United States has only 75 people in Sunday morning worship. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with being small, although any pastor who says he doesn’t measure successful ministry at least in part by the number of behinds in Bertolini chairs isn’t telling the truth. But our small churches need to grow for reasons that have nothing to do with the pastor’s ego.

For one thing, these churches are islands of Jesus in a huge sea of secular apathy. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, our county is home to 625,000 people, but only 30,000 claim affiliation to an Evangelical Protestant church. Even adding in the 60,000 who consider themselves “mainline” Protestants, this means only 14 percent of the community is connected to a Christian church of some stripe. And, of course, the number of these “congregational adherents” who actually attend services is much smaller.

Churches also need to get bigger because church growth is about church members’ growth. If our people are steadily maturing in their faith—praying more, serving more, giving more, studying more—the church will grow, too. If we’re losing people or even holding steady, leaders like Robert and Matt are right to ask questions about how ministry is happening and what difference it’s making.

As I talked to Robert I wished we, too, had a second building that could become a café. But, of course, there is no one solution for every church; whether it’s a congregation of 100 or 10,000, every group has its own resources to use and challenges to face in moving forward.

The important thing is wanting this growth more than craving comfort.

“We’re going to have to be willing to do whatever it takes,” Matt told me this week.

“If we’re going to reach people no one else is reaching, we’ll have to do things no one else around us is doing,” Robert told me during our interview. “We can’t do nothing.”

“Doing nothing is not an option,” Matt said later that very same day.

(It was kind of weird, actually.)

So LCC probably can’t start a café worship service, but we’ll continue to think creatively about what we can do, where we are, with what we have. Churches like ours are part of the kingdom just as much as the megas, and their potential for difference-making is huge, even if their membership roster isn’t. Our small churches matter, but it’s time for them to start thinking bigger.

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2 Comments

  1. September 5, 2014 at 10:53 am

    The statement, “And there’s nothing inherently wrong with being small, although any pastor who says he doesn’t measure successful ministry at least in part by the number of behinds in Bertolini chairs isn’t telling the truth,” I would have to respectfully disagree with. This is a hasty generalization. I personally do not at all measure my ministry success by numbers. I measure success in ministry by those who become true disciples. Every time one person “catches the fire” and “gets it”–to learn and serve God fully–God has used me successfully. Numbers ought to be burned. Success in ministry is about making one more disciple and continuing to teach that disciple, and that disciple remains a disciple. If I measured my success on how many “behinds” were in chairs, I would be an utter failure. And for those who measure success based upon how many behinds are in their chairs are focused on the wrong thing. Christ said to make disciples, not get “behinds in chairs.”

  2. September 8, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    Hi Peter,
    I’m not saying we SHOULD measure ministry success by numbers, but that we do. And as I say in the article, “If our people are steadily maturing in their faith—praying more, serving more, giving more, studying more—the church will grow, too. If we’re losing people or even holding steady, leaders like Robert and Matt are right to ask questions about how ministry is happening and what difference it’s making.” We should not only be making disciples, but making disciples who make disciples–which means we should be seeing growth in individual people AND in the numbers of people being changed.

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