Look around many cities in the USA, as in Europe, and you find empty churches, or churches that have been taken over by businesses or by non-Christian faiths. Dying churches, allegedly, are a sign of our age and coming catastrophe: inevitable, or at least, beyond our ability to reverse the trend.
This negative belief is to be expected. It's suggested that the "average" (mean) church size is about 189 people. Or, to look at the statistics another way, about half of church attenders attend a church of 400 or more, while the other half attend a church of less than 400. We hardly seem to be on the winning side.
What these statistics don't tell you, however, is the distribution by theological persuasion. By that I mean the underlying theology of the churches. Are they predominantly Baptist or Presbyterian? If they are Baptist, what is the distribution of Reformed Baptist as opposed to non-Reformed Baptist? Does the theology of the church give you any indication of the size of the church?
Growth vs. Doctrine
In small conservative churches it is not uncommon to hear the idea expressed that in order to be large, you have to give up your theology. Gary North wrote about this in his book Crossed Fingers. He identified the idea from looking at Presbyterian church history that when the church growth people meet the doctrinally pure people, the church growth people always win out. This implies that church growth is only possible at the expense of doctrine. Is this true?
But there's another question: why is there a conflict between the church growth crowd and the doctrinally pure crowd in the first place? Is it essential that in order to have church growth, you have to give up your doctrine?
It seems self-evident that doctrinal purity and church growth don't go together. And as "proof" someone will nominate so-and-so's megachurch, or someone's megatelevision program as evidence. "See, that person has a huge church, and his doctrine is pure humanism." So they not only assume that the wrong doctrine is the cause of the church growth, but they also conclude that right doctrine and church growth cannot go hand-in-hand.
Now you only need to take a look around and you see that there are small churches of all theological persuasions, too. So if it is the abandonment of Reformed and conservative doctrine that is necessary for church growth, why aren't all these churches also much larger?
This is a curious position to hold, especially if you are postmillennial. Here people believe that in the long run the Reformed gospel wins out and the Messiah becomes ruler of all. But for some reason, in "real" life, the Reformed gospel is a failure, while the un-Reformed are succeeding spectacularly. If the postmillennial vision is to have fruition in our lifetime, many of us cannot see how it is going to come about without a miracle.
Maybe it's time to stop looking at other churches and their doctrine as the reason for small churches and begin to look inside ourselves to find out if the problem lies there. To do that requires the understanding of two issues, doctrine and practice.
Putting Doctrine into Practice
First, it is necessary to look at your doctrine and its purity. But if your doctrine begins and ends with, for example, the Westminster Confession of Faith, it may be time to ask, "Is this all there is? Is this the only doctrine we have to have?"
One of the great challenges faced by everyone is the influence of Greek philosophy. It has many aspects that require our disagreement, one of which is the false notion of spirituality. Too often we read the Scriptures as if "faith" is purely a cognitive activity. "I believe" becomes merely an expression of something held in the mind. But Scripture goes beyond mere cognitive recognition. Scripture tell us that what we think tends to make itself into the external world (Prov. 23:7). In other words, we are the product of what we "think." This has been secularized into "ideas have consequences." But if you accept this, you begin to see what the problem is in the small churches. There is some kind of disconnect between "thinking" and "acting," and the real cause of the small church is what people think rather than what their doctrinal statements might be.
Search as long as you like and you will not find a section in the Westminster Confession "Of the Great Commission." Yes, everyone understands the Great Commission needs to be fulfilled, but the confessional standards are quiet on how that is supposed to be achieved. And so it should be quiet on this issue, because you cannot mandate a doctrinal position on how evangelism should take place.
There is one school of thought that endeavors to explain that "pure preaching" of the Word is the necessary mechanism for church growth. At the same time they will insist that "pure preaching" only takes place in a Reformed church, on Sunday between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m., and can only be undertaken by a teaching elder of the denomination.
Let's accept that these things are true. Let's agree that "pure preaching" of the Word in church on Sunday is the only mechanism for reaching the lost. And then you ask, "But how are we going to get the lost people in the door to hear this ‘pure preaching'?"
For many, the standard answer is "God will bring them." In other words, they have a mystical explanation of how people will turn up on Sunday to hear the "pure preaching."
The doctrinal purists, however, will very soon point out that the worship service is for the redeemed, not for the lost. People must be converted before they can come into the worship of YHWH and sit under the feet of the teaching elder to hear the "pure preaching" of the Word.
At this point, you might begin to see a conflict. People will be converted by hearing the "pure preaching," but they cannot get to hear that until after they are converted. And once you recognize this conflict, you begin to get an inkling of a real problem.
Many people think they have their doctrine figured out, at a cognitive level. And unfortunately, that's where it ends. R. J. Rushdoony battled his whole life against this mistaken notion. He often pointed to the text in Romans 1:17, "the righteous man shall live by faith," which in turn was St. Paul taking these words directly from the Old Testament (Hab. 2:4). In other words, faith is the way you act. This is why both Paul and James insist that faith without actions is dead faith.
Now in our keenness to underscore notions of "faith alone," it can soon be forgotten that what Paul and James are telling us is that faith is never alone. Yet there is a lopsided emphasis in many churches at this point. I've been in Presbyterian and Reformed church for over thirty years, and in this "pure doctrinal" environment, I have yet to hear a sermon on usury, for example. Why select usury? Because in the Westminster standards (Larger Catechism), Q. 142, it asks, "What are the sins forbidden in the eighth commandment (thou shalt not steal)?" And the answer includes usury!
I'm not trying to make an issue here about usury. What I am trying to highlight is that usury is representative of a major problem in conservative and Reformed churches. That major problem is this: a willingness to make Biblical faith more a cognitive activity than a practical one. This amounts to a refusal to take Paul and James seriously when they both insist that faith without works is dead.
But usury is only the tip of the iceberg, one that has been large enough to sink the good ship "Reformed." The iceberg has a name: rationalism. It's the idea that so long as people intellectually hold to an idea, that's all that is needed. Yet Paul and James insist you can intellectually "believe" whatever you like, but, in the words of Paul, "it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified" (Rom 2:13 ESV). To give you some idea of how ingrained is this mistaken notion, you only have to notice how Paul and James are put against one another, as if one teaches "faith alone" while the other teaches a works salvation program. This is the mistake Luther made when he called for the elimination of James from the canon. Well, if you take out James you're going to have to take out Paul's letter to the Romans for the same reason.
Showing faith by your works? That's a novel idea. But there is a need for more action.
And one of those places for action is in church "growth." Now when I use the word "church" here, I am not just thinking of the local congregation or a particular denomination. I am expressing the idea of the church at large, the church as the people of God, the church as the people who are identified not by what they say, but by what they do.
So when you view the status of a local church and its frustration with growth, you have to begin to explore the nature of belief and action, and what you find is often a disconnect between the two on this topic. It is not a complete disconnect, but it is enough to create mistaken ideas that you can only have church growth at the expense of your theology.
I have another idea, though. You can only have church growth if you stop talking about it and get out and do it.
Do what? It's really simple. You have to talk to people. You have to create opportunities to talk to people. And when you find the people to talk to, what are you going to say? Which words will you use that have meaningful communication of what you say you "believe"? Every missionary to a foreign land has to deal with this issue. And unfortunate as it is, our home countries in the west are fast becoming "foreign" mission fields.
It's time tactics were adjusted, not doctrine. I grew up at a time when street preaching was still in vogue, though in its dying stages. At least it was an attempt to find people to talk to, if only they will stop and listen long enough. But if going out on the street is an activity that no longer produces people to talk to, then it's time to find some other way.
New Tactics of Evangelism
Evangelism Explosion was at one time a new way to talk to people. Turn up on someone's doorstep and start a conversation. I know of some very successful church growth that has come out of this activity.
For some people, however, cold-call door knocking is not something they can do. Their temperament and disposition finds this a most uncomfortable way of reaching people. Some of us don't mind talking to people once we are introduced to them, but to initiate contact by door knocking or even cold telephone canvassing is not something we will ever do successfully.
Herein you begin to see one of the broader issues that must be dealt with: personality. The Reformed community is an attraction to the analyst, the intellectual. The expectation of the Reformed pastor is that he will be a "man of the study," and so he should be. But if that is where he spends all his time, don't expect church growth.
Where does that leave us? In this three-part series I've tried to emphasize the place for "rational planning." And if you want to find the real reason for small churches, just ask to see their plan for church growth. If they have a plan and no growth, it will be because the plan itself is faulty.
I have a friend, Peter. He pastored a small church in the suburbs, and his heart was in reaching the lost. He was not trained in a seminary, comprehended neither Hebrew nor Greek, but understood at least one thing very well. "If we don't have a plan, and work the plan, there won't be church growth." So once a month Peter and his congregation had their potluck after-church lunch in the local park, an advantage available in the Australian sunshine. For the whole month, Peter would remind the congregation to invite their friends to the luncheon. When congregation members brought their friends, Peter would make a point of getting to know them and eventually invite them to a mid-week house group. Once there, he would offer the chance to see a ten-lesson DVD presentation of Christianity. Peter found that by the time the folk were half-way through the DVD series, fifty percent of them would make a serious commitment to Christ.
Now the first thing someone will ask is, "Which DVD series did he use?" This is a doctrinal question, and my response is it doesn't matter when it comes to practical outreach. Look instead at the steps he used to get to the point of commitment from people who regularly did not attend church. First, invite them to a "non-threatening" and "neutral" environment, barbeque in a local park. Second, get to know them. Third, don't invite them to the church, but help widen their friendships in the church through home groups. Fourth, have a mechanism to teach them what Christianity is about. The rest takes care of itself.
If you look at this model, it is just like farming. Find some land, cultivate it, plant the seed, keep the weeds out. And the result? That's in the hand of God. You cannot force a genuine conversion any more than you can force the seed in the ground to sprout.
What's Your Plan?
In the first two parts of this series I used real-life situations and workshops to illustrate one point, and one point only. It is summed up in this question: What is your plan? Now it really doesn't matter which plan you have, although there are good plans and bad plans. A bad plan is usually one that is beyond your skill level at the present time. In other words, you have a plan that you cannot implement, for whatever reason. It could be skill, it could be human or other resources that are needed to make the plan a success.
You can only plan with what you have, though your plan must include what you need as well. So there is a future orientation to the plan. The plan, therefore, needs to be reviewed constantly, and have a mechanism to measure its success. In other words, you have to build accountability into your plan.
To have measurement and accountability you have to devise the mechanisms and the frequency for this to occur. Then don't be afraid to adjust your plan when your measurements indicate you're running short of your objectives.
Goals and objectives-you can learn about this in almost any business book. Step into a small business (I've been in over 200 of them in my consulting career), and you'll find the small business is small because of its management practices. If product quality is poor, it is the result of poor management practices. If staff are in disarray and not meeting expectations, it is because of poor management practices. Customer complaints are likewise the result of poor management practices.
Small churches are small not because of their product offering; they are small because of their management practices. They either fail to plan, or if they plan, they don't live by the plan, or they make a plan that is beyond their reach.
So you're in a small church? Why is it small? Is it growing? Why not? Can I see your plan for growth? Why not? Did your plan work for you the past three months? Why not? Did you adjust the plan to improve the outcome? Why not? Does your plan include ways to communicate better with those outside the church in your local community? It should.
Some objections are anticipated. We don't want "that" kind of music. We don't believe in "seeker friendly" services. But if that's your objection, you haven't understood the message here. I'm only suggesting one thing: talk to people. There have been plenty of churches planted without "that" music, without any compromise in theology. Make sure your plan not only includes church growth, but doctrinal maintenance as well.
When you look at the megachurches, Reformed or non-Reformed, you will see a common thread: good management. Some of those churches have good teaching, and in others it is appalling. It is not the doctrine, however, that caused the numbers of people to be in attendance.
Gary North's observation about the conflict between church growth and doctrine is a correct observation, but you need to understand the cause of the conflict. I'm suggesting the reason for the conflict is because of lack of commitment to an agreed plan by both the church growth people and the doctrinal purists. In business, it is the plan and a commitment to the plan by all that unites people from diverse backgrounds into a successful team. Small businesses do not get large until they develop a team-building environment. Common culture makes it easier.
The western world today has become a "foreign" mission field for Christians. While evidences of Christian influence remain, almost no one holds any kind of Biblical worldview. This is why our culture is in decline, and Christians need to smarten up and get their church growth working while they can.
But for some reason, in the small churches, no one thinks serious planning is necessary. And then they complain about megachurches. The conservative church people are adept at telling people why they are wrong. Their weakness is that they have yet to show how it should be done.
Planning is necessary. But whatever plan you do have needs constant revision. This is because planning and church growth are a journey, not a destination.
P.S. Need help with church growth? Let Chalcedon help you "reconstruct" your church to be a vibrant and growing local community.
- Ian Hodge
Ian Hodge, Ph.D. (1947–2016) was a long-term supporter of Chalcedon and an occasional contributor to Faith for All of Life. He was also a business consultant in Australia, USA, Canada, and New Zealand, and a prominent piano teacher in Australia.