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The myth of success and church growth

The phone rang. On the line was a pastor with urgency, frustration, and desperation in his voice. "I have a problem, and I don't know what to do," he said. He then described the situation in his church. "I have been in this church 6 years, and it has grown. We had to build a new sanctuary as worship attendance grew. We now have two services; both are full. We need more parking space, and we don't have room for educational ministries and Sunday school. Although we have grown, we don't have money to build additional parking or educational space, and we don't have committed people to give or to serve. We can't find workers. My staff and I are exhausted. What can I do?"

How would you answer this pastor's question?

The Success Myth Disclosed

This pastor is not alone, and this church is becoming the norm. Collectively we have a problem, and it will not get better until we recognize it and take decisive action to rectify it. We are dealing with the myth of success and church growth.

The myth of success suggests that a numerically growing worship attendance means success. We focus on the big event--the grand production--and ignore the teaching, training, and discipling of people. We have been taught that we are to produce, and we feel more successful if we have a crowd.

But what about spiritual development and discipleship? Three choruses and a hymn, a choir number and a special song, a pastoral prayer and a 20- to 30-minute sermon on Sunday morning do not make a disciple. Teen's lives are not changed by coming to a youth service that consists of 30 minutes of relay races over and under the pews, 25 minutes of wild worship, and a 5-minute pep talk. Children need more than a large crowd experience with puppets, clowns and prizes. Adults, teens, and children need to know God's Word in order to stand against the storms and tests of life. We forget that it is possible to have a crowd and not a congregation. It is possible to have a sanctuary full of spiritually dysfunctional people who come week after week to be entertained.

Counting people and keeping good records are necessary. However, when we base our success on the wrong indicators, we deceive ourselves, lose our direction and mislead people.

The myth of success suggests that big programs that provide ministry to many people mean success. God never called leaders to build big churches or big programs, but rather to build big people. The size of the church is really the size of the spiritual development of its people. A church is no stronger than its weakest member.

The success of any ministry is measured in terms of the fruit it produces. Jesus could draw a crowd, but He knew His success would ultimately lie in the transformational power of the Word in the lives of His disciples. He ministered to the multitudes. He fed them, taught them, prayed for them, and healed them. But He poured himself into a few men. The crowds left as He got closer to the cross; in fact, they turned on Him.

Jesus measured success by a group of committed disciples He had nurtured, taught, and trained. In John 17, as He prayed in the garden, He said that all 12 of the disciples His Father had given Him were strong and solid except for Judas. He had built the infrastructure of His church.

The myth of success suggests that if you look successful, you are. True success says that looks can be deceiving. It's the core -- the infrastructure -- that counts. It is like the spinal column that ties the body together. Every church has ministries and programs, but every church needs a primary structure through which it ministers, reaches, disciples, develops, and trains its people.

While the church is being seduced by the myth of success and church growth, its impact on the world is minimal. Rather than the church influencing the world, the world is seeping into the church. There is an indication of spiritual revival in America, yet crime and violence are escalating. The Gallup poll indicates that there is very little difference between the ethical behavior between churchgoers and those who by their own admission are not religiously active. Lying, cheating, and stealing are nearly the same for both groups. Only about 10 percent of Americans have a religious faith that affects the way they live.

Have we accepted a Christianity that demands no life-changing walk? Do we as leaders enable or even perpetuate this type of Christianity by leading people to believe that they can be Christians without sacrifice or commitment? Have we lulled our congregations into believing it is possible to be a Christian without growing in the knowledge and grace of Jesus Christ? This kind of thinking and preaching can draw a crowd but it does little to make disciples or build the Kingdom. It gives a false sense of success that leaves both leader and layman empty, bored, weary, and weakened. It is impossible for a world church to change its world.

In 1989 and 1990 the Search Institute did a study of six different denominations as to the value and impact of Bible study and Christian education in the lives of constituents. They found that churches with strong systematic study of God's Word through Christian education (Sunday school) had teenagers and adults whose faith was stronger and more viable. They were less likely to drop away from their faith. They were also less likely to get involved in drugs, alcohol, and sexual activity.

A church must have a strong infrastructure that helps people grow in faith, in the knowledge of God's Word, and in application to everyday life.

Testing the Infrastructure

How do you know if your church has a weak, vulnerable infrastructure? Here are some warning signs.

  1. Less than 70 percent of worship attendance is in weekly, systematic Bible study.
  2. Twenty percent or less of the congregation do 80 percent of the work.
  3. Leaders spend 80 percent of their time doing ministry for the 80 percent who don't contribute time, talents, or resources and who ignore or take for granted the 20 percent who do.
  4. There is no specific, active strategy for training new leaders and mobilizing and placing more member in places of ministry.
  5. Newcomers feel it is difficult to belong.
  6. Recruiting and enlisting workers are increasingly difficult.
  7. Pastoral care is seen as primarily the responsibility of the pastor and staff.
  8. Minor conflicts destabilize the congregational equilibrium, and people leave the church.
  9. Pastoral changes increase the rate of attrition.
  10. An increasing number of people are becoming inactive or are transferring to other churches in the area.
Four Guidelines for Building the Infrastructure

1. Find and focus on one primary structure that extends from the cradle to the grave and develops people. Many ministries in the church have a narrow issue, age, gender, or life stage focus. These are valuable and necessary but there needs to be one primary structure through which ministry, evangelism, assimilation, discipleship, lay ministry training, and leadership development takes place. In most churches this is the Sunday school/Christian education structure. Other churches use a total cell group structure; some use a combination of Sunday school and cell group. Strengths and weaknesses exist in each structure. However, for most churches the Sunday school structure is probably best.

2. Develop the infrastructure to its greatest possible potential. We tend to segment ministries. For leaders, it is like trying to keep dozens of plates spinning at the same time. There is no focus of energies and resources; effectiveness diminishes.

It is both possible and expedient to develop a single structure to minister to the unchurched and churched alike. The same structure can be used to follow up on visitors, assimilate people, provide for fellowship and relational needs of people, and train and involve people in ministry and leadership in the church. We tend to look at each of these areas separately instead of part of a cohesive whole.

The object is to focus on building the infrastructure rather than the superstructure. Expand the foundation before you expand the building. Develop leaders and train people for ministry before you expand your structure.

3. Plan, promote, and highlight the infrastructure. Communicate the vision, strategy, and plans of the church. Help regular attendees see how it all fits together. Clearly communicate to newcomers the focus of the church and how the infrastructure works to accomplish goals.

4. Find resources to help you develop the infrastructure. One tool that has been effective in helping churches build infrastructure is the Church Growth Spiral.

These are the results of 287 churches who used the Church Growth Spiral for an average of 2 1/2 years:

  • Water baptism increased 86 percent.
  • Sunday worship attendance increased 56 percent.
  • Sunday school attendance increased 50 percent.
  • Sunday school prospects increased 93 percent.
  • Sunday school workers increased 63 percent.
  • Church offerings increased 55 percent.

Another study of 360 churches that used the Church Growth Spiral an average of 2 years also showed significant growth:

  • Water baptisms increased 95 percent.
  • Worship attendance increased 44 percent.
  • Sunday school attendance increased 45 percent.
  • Sunday school enrollment increased 50 percent.
  • Sunday school workers increased 63 percent.
  • Sunday school prospects increased 133 percent.
  • Church offerings increased 60 percent.

The strategy of building the infrastructure involves eight steps:

  1. Enroll people in Bible study.
  2. Identify new prospects to enroll.
  3. Add new classes and departments.
  4. Enlist and train new workers.
  5. Provide regular workers meeting.
  6. Emphasize continual training for all workers.
  7. Provide space of Bible study groups to meet.
  8. Promote and develop visitation and care ministry contacts with guests, members, and prospects.

Any church, cell group structure, Sunday school structure, or combination structure can build its infrastructure by focusing on these eight areas. The outcome will be growth in real conversions, true disciples, Sunday school/Bible study attendance, worship attendance, and finances.

The myth of success suggests that you can ignore the basics and still succeed. To grow, you have to do it the old-fashioned way--you have to work.

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