Our sermon this week focuses a great deal on the church I currently serve, but I hope that if you belong to a group of people who are looking for a way to grow in vitality that this will resonate with you.
“I don’t want us to grow too big.”
That’s what someone told me after a sermon one Sunday afternoon. “I don’t want us to grow too big.” I was serving another church and had just preached on how Jesus instructed us to make disciples all over the world and one of our members came up to me and asked how big I was hoping to grow our church. I actually wasn’t sure what to say for a second. When I did, I said, “Well, I guess as many as God wants us to have.” And he said, “I don’t want us to grow too big. I like it the way it is and I think I would feel lost if we had too many people.” For the second time in one minute, I wasn’t sure what to say. He told me it was a good sermon and walked away. But that moment has stuck with me ever since. “I don’t want us to grow too big.” In my mind, I can understand the desire to remain a tight knit group of people. I know there’s a feeling of comfort when you know those around you. But is that going to stop us from growing the church? The thing is, it’s easy to make a big church feel small, but you can’t make a small church feel big. You can make a big church feel small, but you can’t make a small church feel big. When I was at Roswell UMC in Georgia, our church had nearly 7,000 members and about 1,500 in worship every Sunday, but our most dedicated members also had small group study, Sunday School, Wednesday Night Supper, and volunteered in ministries around the church. Each of those connections helped them to make a big church feel small and gave them that feeling they wanted. But you can’t make a small church feel big. It’s just not possible.
I have been and always will be decidedly “pro-growth.”
Most people in church think they are, too. I don’t know many people who don’t want their church to grow even if they don’t want it to grow too big. But is that really what you want? Is that really what most people want? Or is that just the answer we know we are supposed to give? There’s a big difference between, “I want our church to grow,” and “I don’t want our church to die.” If we’re just trying to avoid closing the doors, then we’ll grow just enough to keep them open. But if we do want to grow, we are willing to do whatever it takes to help people feel the love of Christ. And Paul, whose life was turned upside down by Jesus, was fervent about doing just that. If you would open your Bibles or find in your Bible app 1 Corinthians 9:24. 1 Corinthians 9:24. He said he would be like a Jew to win the Jews, be like unbelievers to win unbelievers, he would be weak to win the weak and he summed it up like this, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” Even Paul did not have this idea that his efforts would persuade everyone, but that he needed to do whatever was necessary to convince people that Jesus Christ came for them.
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Paul believed that to achieve your goals you needed a plan.
He compared it to training for a race and he said that nobody runs around aimlessly when training for it. They develop a plan. They focus on the prize. And they stick to it. And if we want to be like Paul we need to do the same. I was reading an article from Ed Stetzer who is a leading speaker and thinker on the topic of church growth. He is also the chair of mission and evangelism at Wheaton College where he oversees the Billy Graham Center and in his article “Breaking the Attendance Barrier,” he said that churches have to shift their thinking to make it to the next step in church growth. He said churches seem to get stuck at 35, 75, and 125 people in worship and we are at the low end of that scale. The first barrier to overcome is an insidiously embedded anti-growth mentality. I think there are times we resist being truly “pro-growth” because it seems impersonal. It seems too business-like, too focused on the numbers. But I liked Ed’s answer a lot. He said, “Our church is unapologetically pro-growth for a very specific reason. It has nothing to do with status or fame. We are pro-growth because there are people in our city without Christ.” We are pro-growth because there are people in our city without Christ. If you still feel the church shouldn’t be pro-growth I want to challenge you to consider that you might be letting your personal fears and desires get in the way of God’s intention. Because it is pretty clear that God intended for his church to be as big as there are people. If someone were to ask you, “How big do you want to grow your church?” I hope you will answer, “As big as we possibly can.”
The second shift we need to make to achieve growth is a relational shift.
We have to move people from sitting in rows to sitting in circles. That’s how Ed put it in his article. We have to move people from sitting in rows to sitting in circles. By that I mean we need to get people involved in small group activity. Whether that’s a Bible study or prayer group or mission work, we need people to go from sitting in the pews on Sunday to engaging with others in a way so they can build meaningful relationships. And that has to be more than just fellowship time once a week. They need to be a part of something that is deeper and explores their faith in a more proactive way. That is the most sure-fire way of getting people to grow closer to Jesus, if they develop meaningful relationships and feel they are part of the community. One-off events like clean comedy night, church concerts, movie nights – events where we invite them to the church to participate in something else – just don’t work because people are coming for the event and not to open their heart toward Jesus. They don’t see our church as being friendly and open. They see it as a vessel for something they get to do. And generally? People in the church tend to invite their Christian friends to these events – not unbelievers or unchurched people. Could they work? Possibly. Might they bring one or two people to Christ? Maybe. Isn’t that worth it? It’s always worth it to bring people to Christ, but with limited time and limited resources, you have to ask yourself what is the best way I can help others know the love of Christ? And the answer is to get people engaged in a life of faith through meaningful relationships.
Which leads to our third shift – staff shift.
We need to move away from thinking of the pastor as the only one qualified to lead people to Christ. Too often we are trapped in the mindset that the pastor is not only the best one to grow the church, but often the only one or at least the primary one. But the Bible would disagree. In Ephesians 4:11-12, Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…” The primary role of the pastor is to equip the people – not to do the work for them. And we see Christ modeling that himself. When he fed the 5000 people that were gathered to hear him and the apostles told him the people were getting hungry, he told the apostles to go out and feed the people. Of course, Christ created the miracle to make it happen, but he wanted the apostles to do the work. The reason? It is not only more effective, but more meaningful to do the work together.
And finally we have the ownership shift.
The idea that we are all in this together has to permeate our church. Giving money to the church doesn’t let you off the hook. We still have to do the work of the church together. Because ultimately, the church is about relationships. Our relationship to one another and each of us to Jesus Christ. It’s one thing for me to share all of these ideas with you, but for it to work, you all have to believe in it as well and follow up by doing the hard work that needs to be done. It is the only way for us to continue to bring people into a relationship with Jesus.
To that end, I want us to become committed to reaching certain goals this year.
Too often churches are fine just going along to get along. But if we don’t set goals for ourselves, then how can we possibly be held accountable? How can we know if we are moving toward becoming a healthy church? I decided to use SMART objectives. I’m not patting myself on the back. It’s an acronym developed by George T Doran which stands for Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-related. Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-related. Following these parameters, I think we can establish goals that will help us see what we have achieved and how far we have to go. I would like for us to increase average attendance by 10 people by Christmas next year. Right now we are between 30 and 40 people in worship on an average week so this would be an increase of about 25-35%. It’s not trying to double worship or even reach the next plateau, but it would show we are making significant effort toward being pro-growth. I would like for our small group weekly attendance to increase from about 8 to 15. It’s important for us to be involved in small groups like our Bible Study and our prayer group to grow deeper in our faith. Plus, those are great opportunities to invite people into a relationship with Christ who may not otherwise step inside our doors or might feel intimidated by Sunday worship. If we need to start a new group or a nighttime group, I am completely willing to work with anyone who wants to be a leader of this group and help get them started. My dream would be that our small groups are so successful that we constantly have to split and form new groups because we are growing so fast. To do that, some of you will need to join a group or if you’re in one, invite someone new to it. This would help us in our relationship shift by connecting people into a deeper relationship with Christ. I also want to see us doing more together to reach people for Christ. This year, we are focusing on our treat giveaways. For each of the major “candy holidays” – Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter – we will go out into the community and share the love of Christ through treats. Our goal is for everyone to participate in at least one of these outreach opportunities. I know for some of you, it would be challenging to do the walking through the community, but you can participate by creating treat bags and donating them to the effort. But as many of you that can walk with us, I hope you will. We can measure this by seeing our community outreach participation increase. By doing more together, we will see this staff shift from pastor-centric to people-centric. Finally, I am also challenging our finance committee to stretch this year and come up with a specified budget that will include a certain amount above our tithe to be given to causes outside of our church. Whether that’s giving to New Church Development or UMCOR or Open Gate or all of them or something new, I want us to focus on others. We will regularly report on the budget on a monthly basis to see if we are meeting our goals and to inspire us to keep giving. This will help us to really adopt an ownership shift – that the work of the church is the responsibility of us all. Not just the pastor. Not just the people. But all of us. And ultimately that’s the key to it all. Together we can be a part of God’s effort to grow the church. None of us can afford to sit on the sidelines – especially with a church our size. We really depend on everyone to be a part of what God is doing in our community. Do you really want to grow the church? Then answer for yourself, “How big do you want the church to be?” Worldwide!
 These ideas about church growth come from Ed’s article in Outreach magazine from his regular “As I See It” column – “Breaking the Attendance Barrier,” July/August 2016, pgs 14-16.
 Ibid, p.14.