Real Church Growth

Wanted;_Americans_in_HeavenI have had the honor of participating in some truly wonderful conversations lately with smart thinkers from across the Episcopal Church, orthodox men and women who see a future for Anglicanism to be hopeful for, in this country and abroad. The shape of things to come has not been written in stone, but there is a movement brewing out there, encompassing young Christians who are united in a love of God and an intuitive sense that things like liturgy and sacraments actually matter, that this is where the action is, and that we can begin to seek and pursue this future right now without worrying about the ongoing squabbles and misadventures that occupy the ecclesiastical powers and principalities.

These conversations have gotten me thinking about what the Church of the future will look like if revitalization is to take place. I am convinced that the answer to our crisis of shrinking numbers in the pews and shrinking influence in the culture is not to be found in the glossy, high powered, corporatized megachurch approach that has engulfed American Evangelicalism in the last thirty years; neither is it to be found in the doe eyed, gooey anti-gospel of moral ambiguity and pop psychology that has been the wheelhouse of American Liberal Christianity for the last fifty years. I have no crystal ball, nor any pretension of being a guru, but I strongly believe that a revitalized Church of the future will have three important characteristics. It will be Christ focused, doctrinally centered, and pastorally driven.

Christ Focused

What do the church growth movement and liberalism have in common? Very little on the surface. It is difficult to imagine what Rick Warren and Gene Robinson would have to talk about if they were placed in a room together. But in fact, while their projects are very different, both share an impressive lack of interest in the cross. This is not to say that either Warren or Robinson lack a genuine belief in Jesus Christ, but rather that the work of Jesus is largely ancillary to what they are trying to do. They want to repair the Church which they believe to be a failing institution, and the way to repair the Church is to focus on the Church. How can we make the Church more attractive? How can we get more people in the door? Who should we target? What should we say? How should we dress and act and think? What music should we play? What politics should we promote? How can WE be the Church that WE want to be so that other people will want to join US?

The leap of faith that we require is not a leap to new and exotic methods of making the Church sizzle and pop. Rather, what we need is a Church that takes seriously the fact that our entire reason for existing is to point away from ourselves and towards the cross. Jesus has told us how He will build His Church, and it isn’t through slick marketing or bold new initiatives. It’s through His own blood poured out for us and His Word that calls us into that mystery. We cannot be content simply to invoke Jesus as our friend, our cheerleader, our example, or a guy who gives really great advice. He may be some of those things, but the job of the Church is to point to the cross and the empty tomb. That’s where the truth of Christ is to be realized. The parables, the moral teachings, and all the rest of it don’t even begin to make sense if we do not start and end at the foot of the cross. That is the Gospel.

Doctrinally Centered

Everybody loves doctrine, don’t they? Well, no, actually. If you ask anybody who is anybody, they’ll tell you that doctrine is the first thing that the Church ought to get rid of as quickly as possible. It is fun to chide liberals for this sort of thing, but honestly, many self-styled conservatives are just as bad. How many American Evangelical churches today ever use words like “justification” or “atonement” anymore? How many kids come through our pizza-party-ski-trip-caffeine-and-sugar-binge “youth groups” ever hearing about “propitiation” or even “incarnation”?

Doctrine may not be popular but it is essential. Whether we dumb it down or class it up, we’re always teaching something. And what most of our churches are teaching today, liberal or conservative, is that none of this really matters very much. It’s all about your own subjective experience. There is no real content to our faith. That may not be what we are trying to convey, but it is the message that is getting across.

We do not give people enough credit. As Dorothy Sayers so famously wrote, “the dogma is the drama!” It isn’t our job to make it better, to jazz it up, to make it accessible, or any of the rest of it. Our job is to point to Jesus over and over again (see above). And the way we do that is by telling people the truth about Him. And however you slice that, it’s called doctrine. People may not say so if you ask them, but this is what they’re hungry for. They want to know Christ, and the only way they get to know Him is if we speak His Word.

This means first and foremost that the Church in our day must make a radical return to Holy Scripture and take a vastly different approach to preaching. We cannot afford to assume that people know the Gospel, nor can we rely on the kind of erudite story telling that has passed for preaching in the last two generations to get the message across. We need to talk about Jesus, personally and passionately, but to root every word of it in the actual text of Scripture. We need to reclaim the language of doctrine. This does not have to be dry or academic. You would be amazed what doing something as simple as telling people that the Old Testament is as much about Jesus as the New Testament will do for them. I’ve seen just saying that much change people’s lives.

Pastorally Driven

Parish churches are shrinking and dying, and one of our knee-jerk reactions has been to assume that the Church of tomorrow won’t need parishes and won’t have full time pastors. Nothing could be further from the truth. We need pastors more than ever. And we need them to know and understand what pastoring actually is.

There are two equally unhelpful models of pastor that have become endemic to the crisis in the Episcopal Church today. The first is the therapist/lifecoach model, whereby the priest is simply there to lead you along the path to self actualization. The long suffering notion that being pastoral is just about being nice has to be overthrown. Equally problematic, though, is the idea of the pastor as the social justice advocate. This is not to say that social justice is bad or that preachers should avoid preaching on issues that are difficult politically, but there is a model of preacher that says that the whole purpose of preaching is to rile people up, to stick it to them and make them uncomfortable unless and until they adopt the right politics that all right thinking people hold. The Gospel is neither self-actualization nor social change. It is the life altering news that God became a man and died so that you and I might live, and that in the wake of that, everything is forgiven and all things are made new.

Pastoring is about applying the Gospel to people’s lives. It is both an art and a science. Preaching from the pulpit is all well and good, but the impact of preaching comes out in the Word that the pastor speaks in relationship with those entrusted to his care. The “cure of souls” as it was once called is the primary work of the pastor, to know the Scriptures backwards and forwards and to bring the right word into the room when a new baby is born or a loved one is dying.

Because it is a task of some intimacy, the pattern of pastoral ministry since the early Church has been communal. The parish is the center and focal point of a common life that the pastor plays an integral role in. It is, I believe, the loss of community and the atomization of the culture that has done more than anything to destroy our parishes. We live in a society in which place no longer matters, in which dependency on one another is seen as a vice rather than a virtue, and in which the primary mode of social interaction is commercial. The cards are stacked against the success of parishes, but this is all the more reason for the Church to invest in building parishes and creating pastoral relationships. The community used to create a comfortable cushion in which pastoral work could take place. Now, in the absence of that cushion, we must not only build pastoral relationships but create community as well. We do so not for its own sake but for the sake of creating a space in which authentic conversion and repentance can take place.

How the Church can or will fund the ongoing work of its pastors remains uncertain. Some careful thinking must go into this problem. But the one thing that is certain is that we cannot afford to allow pastoral work to go by the wayside or to be transformed into something done by proxy rather than in the context of relationship. The standard now in the Episcopal Church has become rectorships of five years or less, hardly enough time to even begin to build the kind of trust that is needed. Many parishes opt now for part time priests since they can no longer afford full time, but that is an oxymoron. How can you pastor people only part of the time? Thus, many “part time” priests are part time in name only.

On one level, all of these ideas are quite simple and could be applied in any age. Nevertheless, it is in our own age and place that the need has become acute. There is no silver bullet for church growth, but if we start to think along these lines, we will see God bless our church, in one way or another, because these are not ultimately methods for us to reclaim the Church but ways in which the Lord of the Church has promised to claim His Bride. There is only one doctrine and only one pastor and it is Jesus Christ. May He set us free from captivity to our fears and bring us into the light of His truth.

Image attribution: By Brian Sawyer from Westford, MA, USA (Wanted: Americans in Heaven) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
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19 Responses to Real Church Growth

  1. Well said, all around. If a quibble were to be had, mine would be that there’s not much sense in this of “going out” to proclaim the gospel. The locus of much of Jesus’ radicalism was in turning inward-focused religion out – go out and compel them to come in, seek and save that which was lost, rejoice over the one more than the 99, etc. You could fill a book with the gospel exhortations to not just sit still and point to Christ, but to go out and find people and point them to Christ. The history of the Episcopal Church shows that our growth always stagnates in times of conflict but also in times when we are primarily concerned with our own identity. We have only and ever grown when missionary bishops began to go to new places, when new churches were planted aplenty, when we were getting out to where people are with the Gospel and the Sacraments. More secularly, we might talk of shifting to match demographic trends: not keeping parish churches in places where people aren’t but taking them to where they are. This going-out is emphatically not natural or normal for us. It takes a real effort and zeal to mobilize Episcopalians to any effort of this sort, especially when most of our parishes are being tempted to circle the wagons because of financial threat. But this zeal and effort can become, or can be mistaken as, an effort toward growth for growth’s sake, where the Gospel is left behind. It is not and should not be that; but neither can we neglect going out – a clear commandment of our Lord – and expect the blessing of which you speak. Can we expect the blessing of right belief if we leave out one person of the Trinity? Nor can we expect the blessing of church growth if we leave out Christ, doctrine, pastoral care, or the effort of going out to find people where they are.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Quite well said, Father, and my intention was not to cut off evangelism of that sort. I see it as part and parcel of being doctrinally centered and pastorally focused. If we see part of the mission of the parish church as being to create community in a world where community has been lost, then that requires us to know who lives around us and what their relationship with Christ is. It means thinking more consciously about the folks who are not yet in the Church. And in that respect, lay people have a huge role to play. The pastor speaks the Word to the flock, but the flock need to also be able to speak that same Word to those in the world. Thus, part of the pastoral ministry has to be equipping lay people for evangelism, leaving the 99 and searching for the 1.

  2. David Virtue says:

    Great piece



  3. Jon Parks says:

    Thanks for this, Father Jonathan. What you said about pastoring made me think of Eugene Peterson and his advocacy of long pastorates. I believe he himself was at one congregation for over 30 years. I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about the value of place and relationships as I’ve been reading Rod Dreher’s book “Crunchy Cons”.

  4. Rob Scot says:

    Well articulated, Fr. Jonathan. You say ‘these ideas are quite simple’, and I suppose that’s true. But it doesn’t make your insights any less profound. Actually, I would say the simplicity is all the more helpful, given the tangled mess of proposed solutions about how to ‘save the church’. Thanks for renewing my hope and focus (it’s not the first time).

  5. Cadog says:

    Fr. Jonathan —

    Doctrinally Driven. Pastorally Centered. Sounds like the title of a symposium. You might think about it. I would help you.

    That said … your reference to Rick Warren is, I believe, unwarranted, and I conclude this based upon your unsubstantiated assertions (espescially that he, like Gene Robinson, shows an “impressive lack of interest in the cross”).

    I have attended Saddleback Church with dear and trusted friends — and strong servants and witnesses of our Lord — who have served a lifetime in ministry alongside others whose names you would know. Truthfully, I went in skeptical, because I share your concerns about the church growth movement, its origins, motivations, and frankly, results. While Saddleback is certainly not classically Anglican, it is also not classically evangelical in the manner that set me on the path to Anglicanism. I would assert that if every Saddleback church wannabe was as effective as that church, and Rick Warren, the face of American Christianity would be different and American culture changed for the better.

    It is quite possible that this and similar churches do not instruct in doctrine the way I would think best (on this as on many other points I would agree with you) but I don’t think they are doctrinally deficient, though some such evangelical churches are (in my experience, that is all).

    I also say this from a parish perspective. While our parish does not express everything that Saddleback does, nor in the same way, and Anglican expressions of doctrine are vividly evident in all that is taught and done, there are some similarities. This church has tripled in size in ten years, and each week 300-400 gather for worship, versus the TEC average of about 50 — the decided result of being consciously doctrinally driven and pastorally centered.

    As to Saddleback — if you wish, we could go out and see what they and others in CA are doing firsthand, including Episcopalians. The change of scenery might do you good!

    Blessings and peace — Friend Cadog

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Cadog,

      I appreciate what you’re saying, and I think I need to be clear that I’m not saying that Warren does not have real faith in Christ or that there is nothing at all of the Gospel in what he does. I picked both Warren and Robinson, in fact, precisely because they do believe in Jesus. I know that a lot of folks will find the idea that Robinson believes in Jesus problematic, but I’ve met the man, read almost everything he’s written, and I believe it’s true. The problem with Robinson isn’t that he has no faith in Jesus, or in the crucifixion and the resurrection. The problem is that in Robinson’s mind these things aren’t sufficient for the life of the Church because the Church appears to be corrupted, appears to be failing, and so we have to cast our nets wider and look for other things. For Robinson, that means faith in Jesus plus faith in the idea of continuous liberation.

      Similarly, for Warren, especially if you read “The Purpose Driven Life” and “The Purpose Driven Church,” it is Jesus plus whatever we need to do to make the Church attractive to various groups, in terms of speaking less doctrine, using music and other things in a certain way, all of which knocks Christ out of the center. Likewise, in Warren’s newer emphasis on helping those in Africa, while the goal is commendable, there is a Pelagian way in which he talks about these things. It’s all about what we have to do for God, not what God does for us. Jesus becomes just another lawgiver, not the crucified one who sets us free.

      That’s not to say that Warren and Robinson are exactly equivalent or making equivalent errors. But merely to say that both kinds of Christianity make additions to the Gospel which have the potential of obscuring the Gospel.

  6. I too have an issue with making Rick Warren and Gene Robinson equivelents–on the left and right. Warren actually does preach the good news of Jesus–along with the authority of scripture, Robinson does neither. BIG difference!

  7. Sarpedon says:

    Could you provide reading suggestions for one desiring to become more literate in terms of doctrine? I’ve been an attending Episcopalian for a decade, but am not well versed in the vocabulary of the church. To be fair to the church, I do not attend bible study.

    Excellent blog, by the way. What follows is something of a rant… I’ve been the youngest person in my church (36) for around a decade. Our church had been rented to Unitarians for several years – whose service immediately followed ours on Sundays – but now it’s being rented to a splinter of the Catholic church that tolerates homosexuality and is thus mainly comprised of avowed homosexuals. I have trouble understanding what our church stands for anymore. Our sermons seem to focus on social justice, ie., revenge and just deserts. I cringe when the story of Saint Rosa Parks is dredged up every February. I sometimes wonder if the problems with the Church aren’t the result of the counterculture baby-boomer generation having aged into positions of power.

    Anyway, I love the aesthetics of the Church, it’s medieval patina, it’s traditional hymns, the common prayerbook, etc., and feel closer to God and my ancestors when surrounded by Anglicanism’s symbols. But the Church, while beautiful, seems tarnished by the social fads adopted by its leaders.

    Anyhow, peace be with you.

  8. FatherThorpus says:

    To return to the church-growth thread a moment, I find churches that aren’t growing have a fairly limited set of comments about churches that are: things like, “It’s not really numbers that counts, but quality.” (I report this as one who fits that category and has said this for years); or “sure, they get people in the front door in droves, but look how many go out the back door!” or “Anyone can grow by selling out to the culture – we’re small and holy and proud of it!”; or “we may be small, but we get a lot done!”.

    We, the ones who deep down wish we could grow, who know that something about growing means Gospel success but we can’t put our finger on it, who are never trained even in how to think about growing churches much less any sort of best practices – we find the church growth conversation is much kinder on us if we shift the discussion away from praxis to identity. It shows up in some of the questions in the original post: How can we BE the church that people want to join? etc. We approach church growth as if it only happens to one kind of church, and the goal is to re-work our identity until we become THAT kind of church, and then we’ll see growth. The pragmatic question then becomes What’s the quickest way from here to there? but still understood as identity transformation, becoming the kind of church that grows. And we who either find that identity out of our reach or distasteful come up with all sorts of reasons why we shouldn’t even be trying. Or we keep doing identity-centered things, like painting the church walls, changing the carpet, adding a screen in the worship space, etc. None of these things directly addresses the people problem: none of them directly proclaims the Gospel. They are all oblique approaches, hoping that somehow if we just keep being X, and being it the best we know how, then Y will happen – even when there’s no direct connection between X and Y. I make fun of this as the “Blind Bartimaeus” strategy of church growth: sit by the side of the road and wait for something good to happen. (Note: Bartimaeus had to get up and run in order to reach Jesus.)

    But there is another way to talk about church growth, and that is the practical way. Less “how can we BE a growing church?” and more “what can we DO to grow?” This is, I think, a step in the right direction. It’s a less comfortable step for small churches or those that think growth is out of reach, because it affords us less room to hide. It requires us to name numerical growth as an essential aspect of the Kingdom of God. This is an audacious move, and most of us clergy wouldn’t survive a Vestry meeting if we took it seriously. It requires us to admit that no matter how good we are at BEING the church, the picture is incomplete unless we are also the Church GOING. The Great Commission itself makes going a matter not of command, but of context: it’s a participle: “As you go into all the world, make disciples…” Going is so essential that Jesus just assumes the discples got that message, even before Pentecost and persecution made it a reality. Taking this out of a discussion of identity and asking pragmatic questions is a way to start moving and going; though, of course, we want to avoid the opposite extreme of thinking that the identity discussion has no place. Of course, it does – but that place is not to allow any shirking of our duty to active witness.

    But there is, I think, yet a third way to talk about church growth – the best way, but the hardest to achieve. It’s the moment when persecution and budgets and threats and ambition and all the reasons to grow the church receed into the background, and our eyes are dazzled with the beauty and power of Christ Himself and His Kingdom and His Bride. It was this beatific vision, I believe, that motivated the medieval mendicants, that called Jesuit missionaries to North and South America (if you haven’t seen the movie “The Mission” you must!), that drives Billy Graham, that welled up inside small groups of dedicated Episcopal lay people to begin holding Sunday office services in Iowa (my diocese) when it was not even a state yet and had barely any clergy. These weren’t concerned with growing institutions: they were simply spreading the Gospel that the Kingdom of Heaven is nigh. I think it’s possible for Being and Going to merge seamlessly and mystically into a single worshipful state of saintly mission, one that doesn’t require guilt trips or fear to motivate evangelism, one that never tries to avoid, forget, or explain away the distasteful duty of seeking and saving the lost, or that of faithful and patient being. There has to be a way to so fill and fire our imaginations with Christ that our inhibitions fall away and we want what He wants, love what He loves, seek what He seeks, give all to obtain the pearl of great price or the treasure-soul hidden in the field where we would never have expected to find someone ready for conversion. I don’t think it’s possible, in this state, to lean too much toward praxis or too much toward identity.

    I think all this – but again, I’m in the “small and not growing” category, so there’s no evidence that I can show that any of this is real. Just words

    • FatherThorpus says:

      I might add, too, that small churches really don’t have any advantages on the big churches when it comes to the four comments with which the above post begins. We have the same proportion of saints to sinners in the pews, and they have plenty of long-timers; we have a back door that’s just as wide open, proportionately; growing is a real achievement and we really aren’t as holy as we think we are; and Jesus spent at least as much time teaching his disciples how to spread the Gospel as He did teaching them how to “get a lot done” missionally. And besides, most of our bragging is based on the activities of a few core people, not the whole. We small churches are generally very insecure about that fact already but we’d rather just paper over it with other accomplishments or comfort ourselves with sweet nothings than come to terms with the root of our insecurity and approach it directly. Humility would accept correction and pray for direction without feeling the need to toot our own horn to make ourselves feel better.

  9. Cadog says:

    Wow, Fr. Thorpus! Your comments are an amazing, honest, and bold complement to Fr. Jonathan’s opening of this discussion. Your posts together make my symposium concept even more appealing!

    To Fr. J.: Thanks for your response. Actually, your concerns are very similar to mine, and were prior to my learning a little more about Saddleback specifically. I think part of my caution here is self-directed — because of my own strong reaction in recent years to evangelicalism, to which I may really owe a debt of gratitude, since those attributes are what pushed me into Anglicanism, with no end of delight in spiritual life since. A relevant aside is that my own priest has counseled me to not be so critical of evangelicals.

    Also, your comments re. Gene Robinson are helpful and provide balance to the villification of homosexuals in the church (another conversation altogether and one I am not very good for).

    I also see the “connectedness” of your analysis of Robinson and his camp on the one hand; and and some stripes of American evangelicalism on the other. Hugely insightful.

    btw, Fr. J. — our annual membership at the Phila Art Museum runs out in a couple months, and we intend to get back your way — to church hopefully — before that happens.


  10. FatherThorpus says:

    Here are some more thoughts on Church going out to make disciples, from another Episcopal priest.

  11. Pingback: Forward in Faith | Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

  12. Aaron says:

    Interesting views about the “pelagianism” of both Robinson and Warren, as it fits with my own feelings about the rot in modern Protestantism: having come from being an Orthodox catechumen for years and now exploring Anglicanism, my own thoughts are that there is alot of extroverted oriented work and actvitism going on, self-justifications to distract from the “inner life” that is so important to being authenticly Christian. I’ve encountered a few Episcopalians that regard the emphasis on contrition in classical Christian piety and liturgy as morbid (it’s a pitty that no Prayer of Humble Access is part of Rite II), yet paradoxically I think human depravity is the only doctrine that can set human beings free to really live authenticly, to create space for God to work in us.

  13. MichaelA says:

    Excellent article.

    I can’t comment on Rick Warren as I know very little about him. But the rest is spot on, and should be carefully considered by every pastor and his lay people, regardles of their denomination:

    It all good, but this passage in particular hits the spot:

    “This means first and foremost that the Church in our day must make a radical return to Holy Scripture and take a vastly different approach to preaching. We cannot afford to assume that people know the Gospel, nor can we rely on the kind of erudite story telling that has passed for preaching in the last two generations to get the message across. We need to talk about Jesus, personally and passionately, but to root every word of it in the actual text of Scripture. We need to reclaim the language of doctrine. This does not have to be dry or academic. You would be amazed what doing something as simple as telling people that the Old Testament is as much about Jesus as the New Testament will do for them. I’ve seen just saying that much change people’s lives.”

    Our culture (both in Australia and America) is largely pagan, We need to look at the history of the church through the ages when it has been in missionary mode – that is where we will find our most helpful lessons.

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