How the Church Grows (pt. I) [Pastoral Letters]

In July, I’ll be returning from a sabbatical year to be the lead pastor of the Offerings Community at First UMC in Lexington, KY. I’m sharing some pastoral letters with them in advance of that return. (See the first one, “Three Things I Believe In”) Though some notes here are specific to that congregation, the letters are a broad attempt to share a pastoral theology.

how the church grows

I hear a lot of discussions about how churches grow and why they decline. I hear about great, foolproof strategies for church growth––“just do what we’re doing!” I hear lots of reasons for church decline: we’re not relevant enough or exciting enough or ________ enough.

I don’t have any great new strategies to share here. And I doubt anything below is what people are expecting when they call for more relevance and excitement. Nevertheless, here’s my modest proposal about how the church grows (in two parts—the first part this week).

Prayer

I should really begin this by saying that God makes the church grow. The apostle Paul said as much about one of the earliest churches: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.”[1. 1 Corinthians 3:6] This is God’s church, and he makes it grow. If we ever forget that, we’ve lost the plot.

A few lines later in that letter, Paul explains his role, and I think ours: “For we are co-workers in God’s service.”[1. 1 Corinthians 3:9] The amazing thing about God’s work is that it’s his work, and yet he invites us to join him in it. God makes the church grow, but we don’t sit idly by. It’s a cooperative relationship.

Look at one of the most interesting ways Jesus describes that cooperative relationship: “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”[1. Luke 11:9] When we pray, God hears and answers. I’m convinced of that.

Sometimes that comes in ways we would expect, sometimes in ways very different. One of the letters in the Bible says, “You do not have because you do not ask God.”[1. James 4:2] I would be scared to know how true that has been in my life.

Let me urge all of us, then, to pray. Pray for Lexington and the areas around it, that God would soften people’s hearts and make them open to the message of the gospel. Pray the same for your friends and relatives and coworkers and neighbors. And pray for First UMC, for Offerings, and for our leaders––that we’ll know God is present with us, that we’ll be wise and godly in all of our decisions, that all of us will be growing more and more into the image of God.

Presence

The church grows because of our presence. Each one of us is a vital part of this body of Christ. We form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.[1. Romans 12:5] Your presence makes a difference in the life of the body, and your absence is felt.

The church grows because of our presence in a few ways.

First, we grow as a community because we put ourselves in a place to grow as individuals. As they say, showing up is half the battle. Let me admit—sometimes I haven’t wanted to show up for worship or my catechesis group. Some of those times, I actually made up an excuse and stayed home. But several of the times when I went, even though I didn’t care to be there, something important happened, something that wouldn’t have happened if I had stayed home and watched TV or surfed the Internet.

Second, the church grows because of our presence in a pretty straightforward way… A lot of the declines in worship attendance today aren’t because less people attend worship, but because people attend worship less. What was once a weekly priority has become, for many people, a weekly option.

We show up for worship when we feel like it, when our weekend hasn’t been too busy, when we don’t have other plans or other things we need to do. That lower worship attendance affects us as a community—not just on an attendance sheet. It affects us because we have fewer voices there singing together, fewer smiling faces there to welcome each other and guests, fewer people there to hear our prayer requests and pray with us.

So let me urge all of us to make presence a priority. Specifically, to make a weekly priority for our worship services and a catechesis group. When you take the weekly time for those two things, I believe it puts you in places where God’s work begins to transform you as a person and places where you contribute something important to the life of the church body.

Gifts

The church grows because of our gifts. I’m going to talk specifically about our financial gifts, because I’ll talk about other kinds of gifts next week.

Some churches are slow to talk about money. It feels uncomfortable. In other churches, I hear people say it seems all they ever hear about is money.

The simple truth is that money has always been an important part of the spread of the gospel. Jesus and the disciples had financial support from a group of women,[1. Luke 8:1-3] the apostle Paul made some of his trips using support from other churches,[1. 2 Corinthians 11:8] and since its beginning, the church has used collections to take care of people in need.

One of the things that makes me so proud of First UMC is how we’ve chosen to allocate our money. Regardless of how much or little we receive, we’ve chosen to dedicate 10% of it toward missions outreach and another 15% to the larger work of the United Methodist Church, which includes some important mission work both in Kentucky and around the world. With the remaining 75%, I’m proud of our leaders’ diligence, asking how we can live simply as a community and keep giving generously. They really are trying to be faithful with everything we receive.

With that, let me urge all of us to consider our giving and give generously. The church across the globe grows as we invest the money people need to support current works and to start new works. I believe First UMC and Offerings will continue to grow as we have more money to start more new worshiping communities, to afford new worship locations, and to hire important staff positions. As a church and as individuals, we need to be faithful with the money God gives us. It’s an important part––an essential part––of the church’s growth.

[See Part II here]
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