Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Atmosphere of a Healthy, Growing Church

I do a lot of reading and writing on the topics of Church Growth and Church Health. I ran across an article this week I wanted to share. It was not written by a "wonder-boy" who grew a church to twenty-thousand, but by a faithful, steady plodder who saw God's blessings rain down on his church family. In this article he writes about the conditions that came together to allow God to move in powerful way. I think this article will help us reflect on the conditions that are making us healthy and are contributing to our growth and challenge us to guard and grow the right spiritual climate at Community. This is a fairly long article. I have tried to condense it as much as possible. I look forward to your comments.

Climate Control: Conditions of a Growing Church
Even if we can't change the weather, we can alter the atmosphere of the church.

After twenty-two years of pastors' conferences, I have heard my share of formulas for church growth, revival, and renewal. I have done the "pastoral drool" while listening to stories of skyrocketing attendance. I, too, have visited other churches hoping to find the key to growth. But the only church growth I had ever experienced was the plodding, gradual growth that no one writes books about. It seemed a dream for us to consistently have more than five hundred on Sunday morning. Then it happened! We started seeing our monthly attendance rates 30 percent ahead of the previous year. Before we could get used to that, we found ourselves with more than seven hundred in worship. How did it happen? The disconcerting thing was that we really could not put our finger on any single cause.

It began to dawn on me that what attracted these people, more than anything else, was our "climate." Realizing how intangible that word is, I began to analyze it, and I discovered we had encouraged the components of a growth climate for several years without even realizing it. From our experiences and those of other growing churches, I've identified six atmospheric conditions that contribute to growth. These are the elements common to growing churches regardless of their specific programs.

1. A Positive Atmosphere

Growing churches emphasize what God can do, not what we cannot do . . . what is best in people, not what is worst . . . how we can build each other up, not tear each other down.

This has to begin at a personal level. Every church has an ample supply of negative people. What is desperately needed to balance these are other individuals who practice a positive faith in their walk with God as well as their relationships with people.

The runaway bestseller, The One-Minute Manager, reminded us to be eager to catch people doing something right rather than always looking for something wrong. That spirit is catching! When individuals with that attitude relate both to other individuals as well as God, a climate of expectation can begin to build. The emphasis in a church can begin to shift toward what we can do with God's help. Challenges can be dreamed and accepted.

2. Trust

The burden in creating a climate of trust rests on the ones wanting to be trusted, not the one being asked to trust. You don't command trust; you earn it. At the risk of sounding trite, it must be said that trust exists when people are trustworthy. There is no magic to trustworthiness. For church leaders, it means "going by the book." It means being willing to "lose" graciously on an idea and not seek other means of implementing my plan. It means living by the budget and not seeking to get what I want by "special gifts." If I were to lock horns with our lay leadership or congregation on an issue I felt could not be compromised, I would either have to openly persuade them to my position or leave. I would never resort to underhanded means of getting my way. Trust is too important to take that lightly.

3. Excellence

Excellence in ministry is not one arbitrary line that measures all situations. Instead, excellence is each of us, individually and congregationally, doing our best with the unique resources and limitations we have. Too often we've made peace with mediocrity, rationalizing our substandard efforts. Our goal must always be our best in every part of ministry. This emphasis on excellence is nothing more than being consistent with the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). God deserves our best-whether in the way bulletins are printed or how sermons are preached-and that level of excellence is a key ingredient in a climate of growth. If people know we will be at our best in ministry, methods, and facilities, they respond.

4. Oriented to Outreach

Many churches establish an anti-growth climate without even realizing it by allowing their predominant focus to become the needs of those already in the church. This, I'll admit, is the easiest path to follow, but it will not produce growth. The mentality of a growing church is continually one of reaching out to others. Even the personal development of current members will be seen in light of increasing their ability to genuinely care about others and minister to them. The minute we start to plan for others rather than for ourselves we create a climate where we develop and the church will grow.

5. Flexibility

The willingness to experiment, to innovate, and even to fail are part of flexibility. You cannot program this spirit, nor can you command it, but a few people placed in key positions can model it. Both by their own flexibility as well as their ability to allow (even encourage) such flexibility in others, the attitude can spread.

Another element is the ability to adapt. Almost no program is so good that it never needs to be changed. That means we must try to understand the people we are trying to reach and plan events to reach them where they are. When the climate is right, when risks are allowed and even traditional events can be adapted, it helps develop sensitivity to the changing culture around us, which is essential to effective ministry and church growth.

6. A Serving Spirit

In a sense, the serving spirit is a summary of a growth climate. Where people truly want to serve and minister, they will be positive, trustworthy, devoted to excellence, oriented to outreach, and flexible. Just about everything in our society, however, militates against this spirit. It takes a conscious effort to serve rather than be served. We are encouraged today to look out for ourselves or be "fulfilled" (whatever that means). This attitude easily turns our relationship to God around 180 degrees. Instead of asking what we can do for God, we find ourselves wondering what God can do for us. Christians raised on a pop faith that suggests God is little more than a handy 24-hour heavenly banking service find it hard to relate to words like service, or worse yet, sacrifice.

Thus in church we catch ourselves asking if people want to serve. Put that way, of course, many choose not to, and so dies the growth climate. A better way is to start with the assumption that God's people will serve. That is a given. The question is not if people will serve, but where and how they will serve. That assumption and commitment to service is the necessary mindset for growth.

Again, these components of a growth climate can not be programmed. Rather, they can only be practiced and modeled. They will not begin with action but with attitudes. They will not be limited to certain settings but will be applicable to all situations. Whatever style church growth may take, underneath will be an atmosphere that is positive, trusting and trustworthy, devoted to excellence, oriented to outreach, flexible, and committed to service.
The beauty is that a growth climate does not have to wait for action by the official board. One individual can begin to model the components of this climate and have an incredible influence.


Sean McCarthy said...

great stuff! i definitley agree... espcially with the outreach part. have you ever read "The Externally Focused Church"? Great book!

Brent said...

Rick Rusaw, the author of "The Externally Focused Church" is a friend of mine. He preached about 12 miles from where I preached in Boulder. He is the guy who aided and encouraged by transition to Christian Churches. I love the book. It is a challenging call for the church to be about "carrying God's grace to others."

Dethloff Family said...

I loved how he stated "the plodding gradual growth that no one writes books about. Not that I think those books shouldn't be written, just the fact that they couldn't put their finger on any single cause for their growth excites me because THAT IS GOD, not man or formula. The fact that no one has or can write a book with the secrets to growing a church means only God has the bragging rights for that one.
And finally, I liked the word he used...."CLIMATE". Since the sermons are about Jonah right now, my mind thought about how often we run from what God has called us to do because of the climate; Environment, temperature or atmosphere.

Annie Dethloff said...

While sitting in a whale, I found myself reflecting

How it’s not just Nineveh but God I was rejecting.

Through prayer I was reminded, we are called to be a blessing

To a world that does not know Him and his boundaries they are testing.

Forgiveness I did not deserve or even second chances,

So who am I to run from God and what His mighty plan is?

I’ve wept for loss of worldly things of which I loved so dear

His people who don’t know Him deserve more than my tears.

I may not wish destruction on those who are estranged

So why do I ignore the plans that God has prearranged?

My thoughts say stay, don’t go God’s way, it will be quite unpleasant

Could I hide from Nineveh when God is Omnipresent?

Jane Short said...

Well Brent, I have gotten to #4 and will read that tomorrow. Did not want to stop reading though. This is great. I really want to be as positive as I used to be, even though things have changed I should be able to look on the bright side of things. It could be worse.
Keep up the good work.