Why does growth happen?

Most of the time we don’t think about why a Friends meeting grows. It happens, or it doesn’t, and we’re glad about it, or we complain about it. But we don’t often stand back and try to figure out what’s going on.

There are a lot of different models or patterns out there competing for our attention. For example, some Friends think that growth happens mainly as a result of prayer. I agree – but I don’t agree with the way it’s usually done.

Just one prayer, tacked on as an afterthought to whatever else we happen to be doing, isn’t going to make much difference. I don’t think we need to ask God to get interested in church growth. Rather, we need to ask God to help get us interested in growing!

Praying for growth needs to become one of our core concerns. We need to lift it up to God regularly, and ask God for guidance in season and out of season, over a long period of time. Praying to grow needs to be both something we do privately and individually, and also publicly as part of our worship, in our committee meetings, in our newsletters and social media.

Other people think that growth happens as a result of programs. Whether you call them “ministries,” “community services,” or just “things we do,” programs offered by the church can be an open door for new people to enter.

And again, high-quality programs don’t just happen on their own. They need planning, prayer, and practical support. Too many church programs run on inertia – “we’ve always done it that way” – rather than intentionality – “this is what we really want to happen.”

Some churches grow because they have charismatic leadership. I guess the meeting where I serve is off the hook on that one – my leadership style is very low-key, and people tease me and say that I sound more like Mister Rogers than Billy Graham. Still, a meeting with leaders who are depressed or full of angst are probably less likely to grow than meetings where the leaders are upbeat and positive.

Some folks think that church growth takes place when worship is exciting and up-to-date. This is the push behind a lot of contemporary church music, multi-media and new church architecture.

I’m not against change or experimenting with new things – but my question is always, “are people being spiritually fed?” New things can become just as boring as the old ones they replace. Growth comes from nutrition, not novelty.

Another way to encourage church growth is through small groups. Many people enjoy having a small circle of friends who they can get to know better. Too many Quaker meetings promote acquaintanceship, not friendship. Sunday School classes, prayer circles, supper groups, work teams, study groups are all places where people can make deeper friendships. It’s often easier to start a new group than to incorporate people into an existing one.

A lot of importance is attached to the beliefs which are held and promoted by Friends. Some meetings go to great lengths to spell out in detail what they believe (or, more likely, what the leaders think their members should believe!) Well-thought-out intellectual beliefs are important, and Quakers do have a few beliefs which set us apart from the rest of the pack. In the long run, though, belief is more a matter of trust in God than anything else.

My hunch is that growth happens because of all of these things, working together to make our meeting an open and inviting place. And it happens when we pay attention to individuals – when we listen to people’s stories, learn about their lives, encourage them to share their gifts, and welcome their ideas.


3 Responses to “Why does growth happen?”

  1. 1 John Jeremiah Edminster January 26, 2018 at 3:54 pm

    You know, Friend Joshua, I’m truly wishing I’d arrived in Richmond, Indiana earlier, or you’d lingered a little longer, so I could have met you and made my own assessment of where you fit on the Mister Rogers-Billy Graham continuum. I must say, I’d much rather go to church with Mister Rogers than Billy Graham. But the real question is, where is the Lord calling me to go on First Day morning?
    My point is that the word “charismatic” is often misunderstood as meaning “fiery” or “forceful” or “persuasive,” when in fact it simply means “gifted by God,” and the people gifted by God come in all flavors, including humble and quiet as John Woolman or Therese of Lisieux, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection or Ramana Maharshi. They may even seem mad, like Saint Basil the Holy Fool. They may sing and dance, like the Baal Shem Tov.
    There’s a story about a colonial-era Quaker who manumitted his enslaved people — I can’t remember where I heard or read it — who was asked by a friend, “Why did you free your slaves after John Woolman visited you and not after Elias Hicks visited you with the same message?” And his answer was, “I could tell that John Woolman loved me.” All it took was love.
    Perhaps, Friend Joshua, it will prove to be your quiet love that causes growth in your church. Or simply your faithfulness, or patience, or some quality you know nothing about. Or, who knows, maybe just some crazy whim of the Lord’s. And some of those new folks who turn into your parking lot on First Day morning may have no idea why they’re going there and not somewhere else. But others may say, “I obeyed a call.”
    Anyway, I’m praying that your prayer for church growth be answered in such a way that you know that it’s your Lord answering, and not just a side-effect of good marketing technique.

  2. 2 Susan Jeffers January 26, 2018 at 7:24 pm

    What a wonderful reflection, Josh – thank you so much – the sentence that stood out for me is the one about it sometimes being easier to start a new group than to incorporate new people into an existing group. You were referring to small groups within a larger Meeting, but the same seems to apply to small Meetings. Newcomers attend once or a few times, but it seems to take a long time till they’re really part of the group….

  3. 3 Johan Maurer February 2, 2018 at 12:54 am

    These were my favorite sentences: “I don’t think we need to ask God to get interested in church growth. Rather, we need to ask God to help get us interested in growing!”

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All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.



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