the brick wall at the end of the vital congregations rainbow

When is it OK to stop growing?

We’ve had a “vitality team” form and hold several meetings to develop our church’s Vital Congregations growth goals for the coming few years. As they wrestled with numbers for worship attendance, professions of faith, and people in missions an amusing report emerged from that room; apparently, one enthusiastic member of the group wanted to set a goal of 400 professions of faith in 2016. A daunting figure in any size church, but particularly in our small Georgia community. Of 3,000. Where we currently have 400 total in worship. No one faulted his Pentecost-esque vision, but it did leave a question in my mind: where does all of this end?

For many churches, it won’t. Many communities are large enough that you could continue growing indefinitely without ever worrying about hitting your market share. But for a small community of 3,000 that already has at least a dozen other churches, what’s our saturation point? 25% of the community? Higher? Should we not be satisfied until every other church in town has to close its doors? Should we get into the real estate business that we might encourage other people to move here that we might encourage them to attend? I suppose we could modify our membership covenant to include first-and-last-month’s rent. Is “grow, grow, grow” without an endgame in mind sustainable?

There’s a lot I like about the Vital Congregations push. I especially like how it has us reexamining how we approach being invitational and seeking professions of faith. We dodge being invitational like a Baptist dodges communion. Too often our “the altar is always open” mindset leads to a “never open” reality. Not wanting to be pushy about a specific beginning point to our spiritual journeys can result in those conversations never happening. I’m excited about reengaging our youth in their own faith stories. This summer we’re going to do a series focused on teaching them how to share their faith. Not a headhunting training series, but one that gives them words to express their belief within their own experience. So I’m grateful for the extra push Vital Congregations has given to some things that were already in motion.

But it bothers me a bit that I feel an undercurrent of success vs. failure in our goal-setting. Stats are important results of good ministry, but not causal for good ministry. Stat paranoia in a creative environment can be suffocating, and if our focus in worship becomes quantitative instead of qualitative we could easily stomp on the intangibles of the relationship between worshiper and God in an effort to force it to happen. Same with professions of faith. How long before we ask a December Aldersgate moment to keep quiet until January so that we can count them in the next year?

There is no perfect system and Vital Congregations has certainly generated more positive conversations in our congregation than negative. I’m more concerned about when the wave of goodwill dies down and less people are paying attention to it. Think Safe Sanctuaries policy-making. How do we focus on growth positive, healthy, and sustainable? Are all three possible at once? Are there thought processes from the beginning that have considered that your total number of people in missions might continue to grow while your professions of faith might stabilize in a church that has reached maximum impact in a small community but continues growing in discipleship? Or that your professions of faith might skyrocket and small groups might plummet as they engage in lives devoted to mission? Is more always better?

I get that it’s exciting to grow. I also get that growing is the opposite of dying, and “Let’s Grow!” is a more marketable campaign then “Let’s Not Die!” But in a substantial number of our congregations “the sky is the limit,” while positive, simply isn’t true. Should some component of this take into consideration what the most would actually look like and work backwards from there? To look at the most you could be would probably mean you’d have to take a hard look at what kind of ministry as a church you wanted to focus on in your community. Like a church of a 500 dedicated to feeding the hungry. Or a church of 1,000 compelled to shelter the homeless. That sounds more vital to me. We can only get so big–what do we want to look like when we max out?

How are these conversations going in your ministry setting?


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