Mission and Church Growth

I am not a fan of the fascination with Church Growth.  Not because there is anything wrong with growing your church or churches in general or even your denomination such as the Unitarian Universalist Association.  What bothers me about the focus on church growth is that I often find the discussion limiting and limited.  Rarely does the conversation leave the topic of numerical growth. How many members? How much money is in the budget?  My concern is one that is at least 40 years old in the Unitarian Universalist Association (see my previous post about Rev. Harry Hoehler’s statement on growth from 1969). The concern is that when we focus on numerical growth, all our mission in the world becomes is to make more of us – more of us in our congregation, more of us in the Unitarian Universalist Association, or more of whatever your faith community is.    The world doesn’t need more of us.  The world needs us to turn our attention to healing it, helping it, feeding it, inspiring it, and making it a more just, equitable, sustainable, and spiritual place.  Making more of “us” in and of itself, doesn’t do that.

Reggie McNeal explains in his work Missional Renaissance  that what is needed is to change the church scorecard. Rather than keeping “score” or measuring our success with how many members we have and how much money is in the budget, we should keep score by looking at how much spiritual growth is happening and how much service we are rendering to our community. McNeal is operating out of a mission paradigm, where the focus is not on attracting more people to worship and other programs and offerings, but on sending people of faith out into the world to address its needs.   Indeed, rather than the church having a mission, the missional church paradigm understands that the mission has a church – a larger and deeper call to act and serve in faith exists, within the context of a particular community with its unique needs.

I suggest that growth strategy terminology can be used to both explain the missional approach and at the same time reorient growth discussion away from numbers.

The missional church approach refocuses the impetus for growth away from numerical growth and onto organic growth, incarnational growth and maturational growth. The fascination with congregational growth in Unitarian Universalism tends to exclusively pay attention to member count and financial budget. A missional focus looks for organic growth, which is the congregational development of qualities needed to fulfill its essential purpose or mission. A missional church approach uses maturational growth, defined as growth in depth of spiritual commitment and practice and wisdom, in order to equip people to work on incarnational growth, which means how the congregation lives out its faith in the world serving the needs of the community through action and outreach and community development.

Putting the focus on organic, incarnational and maturational growth, enables congregations to make the three shifts away from attractional church (seeking to get more people to consume the religious product offered) to missional church (seeing the church as a place for personal deepening in order to serve the world outside the church).
The three missional shifts according to Reggie McNeal are the shifts from 1. Program development to people development 2. Inward focus (on the congregation) to outward focus (on the community) and 3. Church-based leadership (training leaders to manage the systemic dynamics of a congregation) to Community-based leadership development (training leaders to make a difference in the world outside the church). These three shifts embody and force a congregation to focus on maturational growth, organic growth, and incarnational growth, respectively.

Perhaps focussing on maturational, organic, and incarnational growth will result in numerical growth, perhaps it won’t, but I think  focussing on these areas of growth will lead to an increased sense of mission, which will lead to more action and ministry and service to the community.  That scenario at least allows for a mission greater than just making “more of us.”

4 thoughts on “Mission and Church Growth

  1. I completely agree with this assessment. As Tom Bandy says so well in his book, “Kicking Habits: Welcome Relief For Addicted Churches,” the best place to focus is not on RE and young families. Strong churches are based on attending to the spiritual growth of the adult community. When adults start to take risks within a spiritual construct, big things can happen. Youth will follow adults who are sincere in their own faith. In my experience leading long-term secular youth programs, kids can smell hypocrisy a mile away. If older adults and parents are tending to their own spiritual growth and development, young people will clammer for their own….! Tony’s understanding of a missional model deserves real consideration.

    1. Don’t try to tell UUs that churches don’t grow through children (even though that’s what the research shows). I’ve tried to do that more than once and have been told, point blank, that I’m anti-family ministry.

      But what I got from you, Tony, is just how much—for all their talk—most UU congregations don’t want to grow, because they want to invent a square wheel and not pay attention to the research that’s been available for years.

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