Lies, Damn Lies, And Church Growth

This piece from Dan Hotchkiss of the Congregational Consulting Group on lies about church growth is bang-on, especially these pieces:

Lie #1: Friendly churches grow. Declining churches often marvel at how many visitors show up once and don’t return. "But we’re so friendly!" Like most lies we tell ourselves, this one has a grain of truth in it: a visitor who gets a friendly greeting is more likely to return. But most church consultants know that the more vehemently leaders say their church is friendly, the more likely it will feel quite cold to visitors.

When people say, "Our church is friendly," generally they mean "My friends are here." Visitors to "friendly" churches see the backs of people’s heads—heads gathered into tight, impenetrable groups of friends. Churches that excel at hospitality are more apt to give themselves a B+ or C– in the friendliness department—and appreciate that hospitality takes effort.

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Lie #5: Our church wants to grow. In many churches (especially stable or declining ones) leaders act surprised if you ask whether they want growth. "Of course we do!" they say. This is the biggest lie of all, and the most innocent. Consider what it means to want your church to grow. For established members, growth means taking away the church they love and replacing it with something that feels strange and alien. Leaders in a small church might not qualify as leaders in a big one. Everybody knows me in a small church, but a big church has many people—maybe even the pastor—who don’t know who I am.

No one who understands what growth involves would "want" it, in the sense that we "want" pleasure or consumer goods. The only reason a sane person would want a church to grow is because they believe it has something of importance to offer other people. For that goal, some people will accept the hard work, sacrifice, and inconvenience growth requires.

It’s only a bit strong to call these lies. More precisely (but less headline-worthy), they’re ways churches deceive themselves. Churches think they’re friendly, they think they want to grow, but they haven’t done the hard work of challenging their own assumptions, much less assessing whether their behavior matches their stated beliefs.

The result, as many of you will know from personal experience, is that churches proclaim themselves friendly, leaving the people left out of the inner circle to wonder “Am I not your friend, then?”

Forgive the possibly judgmental tone here. Self-examination is hard work! Not everyone has the inclination, the desire, or the tools it takes to carry it off successfully. In my experience, applying critical thinking skills (which is really what we’re talking about) can be tremendously threatening, because it does leave people feeling judged.

But why is this so? And why, as many of my colleagues have noticed, is resistance to bursting these bubbles growing in all kinds of congregations? The answer, as far as I can tell, is the rise of anxiety in the church.

The source of the anxiety, in turn, is multi-point. All but the quite large congregations (maybe 500+ members) are facing a challenging environment as disaffiliation takes hold in American society. Many churches are simply in survival mode, which leads to a panic about their future. As congregations shrink, they also age as younger generations stop attending. That leaves older adults worried about the legacy they will leave behind, and sometimes grabbing on to tradition with both hands. And of course, there are social pressures. The rural economy is being hollowed out again, and sections of the countryside are depopulating or being replaced with very different suburbanites. Canny politicians have capitalized on these changes to stoke a “politics of resentment.” I wouldn’t say the church got worse across the board, but it’s definitely true in my experience, that the horizon for many church members shrank dramatically after the Walker recall election in Wisconsin, and then again after the most recent presidential election. People who weren’t inclined to trust “outsiders” to begin with put that tendency on rocket fuel.

I don’t know. Maybe that’s just my own experience. But politics aside, everybody knows churches are supposed to be friendly, right? They’re supposed to be warm and welcoming. And so, like people often do, church members paper over their anxiety (Is the world changing too fast? Am I dying too soon? Will my church survive?) with the polite fiction that they’re doing everything they can. That self-deception has always been there—I once attended a church that prided itself on its “cordial welcome” without ever realizing that they were less “cordial” than “cold but polite.” But things have gotten worse, if only because more churches can no longer rely on passive growth from young families or people moving into the neighborhood, and anxiety’s behind it.