How the Church Grows (pt. II) [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. Though some notes here are specific to that congregation, the letters are a broad attempt to share a pastoral theology.

how the church grows

Last week, I shared part I of “How the church grows” (see it here). Here’s the second part…


Our service is an essential part of the church’s growth. I mentioned staff positions last week, but no matter how much money we have, we never plan to “hire” most of the work we have to do as a church. We’re a body, and we all have a part to play in this.

We grow when you serve within the church—when you change diapers in the nursery or greet people at the doors or show up with meals after someone has been sick. On any given Sunday morning, the number of people we rely on to serve is amazing. This past Sunday, nearly one-third of the people in attendance were formally listed as serving somewhere. And a lot of the rest of you were serving in some unofficial capacity.

This isn’t just about keeping the machine running. This is about caring for people well, doing the small things that create an environment for relationships to grow, for people to worship without distraction, for people to hear a word from God.

We grow when you serve outside the church, too—when you show up at Room in the Inn to share a meal and fellowship, when you fly to Haiti to help in an orphanage, when you go across the street to mow an elderly neighbor’s lawn.

Maybe it’s less obvious how those things affect our growth, but I think they’re crucial to it. These are the things that remind us we’re a sent people.

I believe God calls out to the world, calling people to come into the church. But God also calls into the church, calling us to go out to the world.

The story of a lot of declining American churches is about churches that got self-absorbed and forgot their calling to go out into the world. If we ever forget that calling, we’re bound to shrink away. And no one else will much notice or care.

So I urge all of us to serve. Specifically, if we can, to find two ways to serve—something in the church, and something out in the world. How can you take some of the time and talents and energy and passion God has given you, and put it to use within our community? And where can you do the same out in the world?


For a lot of us, this one is the hardest. I would guess it’s the one least practiced. But we must do it! The church grows when we share the good news—when we’re bold and passionate enough to point to Christ and tell people that he’s King, and that he’s changing our lives.

Our lives are a witness themselves. Our lives reveal God’s work in us when faith sustains us through hard times, or when faith leads us to make hard decisions, or when the love of Christ shows through us.

Our witness at least includes having lives that reveal Christ as our Lord. But I think it needs to mean more, too. It needs to mean a clear invitation.

Maybe that’s an invitation into the church community—I hope someone who takes you up on that invitation will encounter God in our midst.

Maybe that’s an invitation to believe the gospel. I met someone recently who shares a simple version of the gospel and invites people to believe several times a day. And usually at least one person responds each day. Do all of those people remain in the faith? I don’t know. But none of them would if they were never invited in the first place.

As we consider moving to a new location, we have to keep this in mind. “If you build it, they will come” made for a great movie, but in real life it’s usually untrue. A new worship space won’t automatically bring new people. The vast majority of people who come will come because we invited them.

From our time in Spain, I learned a couple of things about invitation:

I learned that more people are interested than I thought. People I had become friends with were very open to an invitation into the church. Some people I was worried about hassling came back later and told me how much they appreciated the invitation.

I also learned to keep inviting. No one responded to the first invitation. No one. It was the second or third or fourth invitation that they responded to.

Let me urge us all to be considering our witness. Who are you inviting into the life of faith? Who are you inviting into the church? Can you make a list of 5-30 people you can pray for and commit to giving some sort of invitation (better, several invitations) in the next few months?

Regular, Scheduled, Disciplined… and Spontaneous

If you haven’t recognized them yet, these are the vows we all take when we join a United Methodist congregation—to support the church with our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. If each of us who took those vows would be diligent about them, I think we would experience an incredible revival.

I’ve learned in my own life that good intentions don’t usually get me far. When I resolve to start spontaneously doing things that I don’t normally do, it doesn’t last long. The things I do most regularly are the things I also do spontaneously—eat, check Facebook, imagine creating awkward social situations…

For things I’m not already doing naturally, I need them to be regular, scheduled, and disciplined. If I do them like that long enough, over time I find them happening spontaneously, too.

For any of these that you don’t already find yourself doing on a consistent basis, how can you find a regular, scheduled, disciplined way to do them?

Can you name a certain time to pray each day? When you do, please pray for our church and our community.

Can you commit to making worship attendance a priority and ask about joining a catechesis group?

Can you take a look at your giving and commit to something regular?

Can you identify one place in the church and one in the world where you will serve on a scheduled, consistent basis?

Can you make a list of people whom you’ll commit to telling about your faith or inviting to worship?

When we do these things regularly, I think we’ll also start finding ourselves doing them more spontaneously.

All by the grace of God

And please remember my first note on prayer. None of this happens by our own strength. It happens by the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. It happens in ways that will shock and amaze us. Our role is secondary, but that doesn’t make it unimportant. God invites us to be co-workers in his service. What an invitation!

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