I am increasingly convinced that church growth is the 'normal' state of the church. If it is not happening, something is getting in the way - something is going wrong.
And I am also convinced that, most of the time, it is not difficult to spot or fix what is going wrong. The difficulty starts when we discover that the answer takes us outside the boundaries of 'normal' church life, and this is not comfortable at all.
I would like to suggest a three-step plan: honesty, activity and direction.
How can honesty be the first step? Isn't it one of the basic Christian virtues? Shouldn't we be assuming that Christians are honest with each other?
Actually, no. We are all sinners. We may all be justified, but we are only part-way along the process of being sanctified. We often find it hard to be honest.
But, without honesty, nothing else is going to work.
I'll just say this, and explain it later if I need to: the most important thing which needs to change is our mindset - our beliefs and expectations. We don't know how this needs to change - if we did, the problem would nearly be solved. So we have to find out, and the only way to find out is by being honest with each other.
In fact, one of the most counter-cultural things we can do is to start to be honest with each other. We need a commitment to be honest with each other. A contract of honesty, if you like.
There are two aspects of honesty which are particularly important:
There is a difference between honesty and rudeness. The trouble is, we find it very difficult to make this distinction. It is too easy to shy away from honesty with the excuse that "I don't want to hurt his feelings." But the important question is not whether you find saying something to be enjoyable: the important question is whether saying it is helpful to the other person.
You can build a culture of honesty, in which godly and loving distinctions are made.
In order to build a healthy church, you need to know how the people involved feel about church life as it stands. So you need to know from every person involved, the answers to questions like these.
The church leaders need to be asking these questions, and the leaders and members alike need to be answering them.
You need to answer these questions, not because everything you don't like will immediately be fixed. They won't. You need to give honest answers to these questions because:
The second step, which can run pretty much in parallel with the first step, is Activity.
It is very simple: get people loving and serving others. Empower them.
We need to get away from the assumption that the church service, the big meeting which happens once or twice a week in the main church building, is the main activity in the life of the church. It is important, but only as one small part of a much bigger whole.
The way the church members - all those involved in the life of the church - live and relate to each other and the people around them, that is what determines the health of the church.
What is our top priority? Love God, and love your neighbour the way you love yourself. (1) It's not about how you feel; it's not about what you believe; it's all about what you do.
How do you love God? "As you did it to the least of these..." We love God by clothing the naked, feeding the hungry and visiting those in prison. (2) It's very simple. We just have to do it.
As the leaders get to hear and understand the things which matter to the members of the congregation, so the activities which form the core of the shared congregational life can be changed. As the activites start to connect better to the things that really matter to the people, there will be an increased energy and enthusiasm. New things start to become possible, and the answers to the questions change.
The third step is Direction.
Hang on - surely we need to know where we are going before we set off and try to go there? This strategy makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, it is sadly, and seriously, wrong.
If we try to get our understanding right before we get started, we will never get started. There is always more truth, just round the corner. Of the reading of books, there is no end. (3)
And, in any case, you don't need to be told the way: you already know the way. According to Jesus, you do. He is the way, so just follow Him. (4)
So - if we know the way, why do we need to work on establishing our direction? Because, once we start to try to follow Jesus and do the things He did, we will find that we just can't do all of it.
We can't do all the good things we want to do. We can't do all the good things we feel we ought to do. We have to leave some things undone, we have to concentrate on some things to the exclusion of others. We need to focus, we need priorities. We need direction.
You need to understand the nature of the mission God has entrusted to you.
This is equally true whether it is being said to an individual Christian, or to a church. You have to understand your calling, your focus, your individual part within the greater whole.
It is rare for anyone to discover this through Bible study or prophetic revelation: you discover how God wants you to serve Him by serving Him. You learn as you work and live and love. But, as you work and live and love, you need to be open to hear and receive and act on His direction for you.
God has a plan for you. He wants to steer your life, and He wants to steer your church, in certain directions. There are really only two requirements.
In this context, the key pastoral question is very simple:
Note that the question is not about the things you don't like, or the things which irritate or annoy you. Many aspects of church life may be deeply frustrating, there may be all kinds of things wrong with it, but are they actually getting in the way of your growth? If you can't grow in an imperfect church, you can't grow.
Your growth is measured by what you do, not by what you know. You can benefit from training only when what you do is limited by what you know. Until you reach that point, you are better off doing more, rather than going on more training courses.
The follow-up question is also simple:
This plan does not mention the obvious topics such as Prayer and Preaching the Word. But I don't think they are actually missing.
I believe that in any church where people want the church to grow, then folk will be praying. If people are motivated, prayer will happen.
And I believe that faithfully preaching the Word of God is vital; but I have yet to see any evidence that there is any direct link between the soundness of the doctrine and the growth of the church. Of course I want you to believe the right doctrines. And, of course, the right doctrines are the ones I believe...
If you look at sound teaching in the Bible, it seems that sound teaching is what you need to know in order to be able to live the way you should be living. This gives the subject of teaching a rather different focus from what we find in most churches today.
I am convinced that most of us Christians in the Western world know far too much doctrine and do far too little with it.