Church growth is about more than filling a building with people – it’s developing the many assets that faith reveals in a community.
Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ – Matthew 14:16
I serve as a Seminarian Associate for a church that is preparing to buy land for building a worship and meeting space. The research and leadership that I provided to get this project rolling was exciting and rewarding. I got to know almost all parts of the city, many of its businesses and institutions, presented and led discussions of a vision plan for our church mission, and designed initial plans for a facility. I continue to support the building project, but now I am focusing mostly on reaching out to our local community. So, I am handing off most of these tasks for the building project to emerging church leaders.
The transition to new leadership seems to be the key to the potential success of this project. I have seen how many organizations have problems when one or more people become “indispensable.” It seems to set people up for fear of losing a person’s skills. Such a fear makes it easier for evil to take a hold of ourselves and others. This can be especially true when an organization or group fails to have a tradition of rotating leadership. People remaining in leadership positions can sometimes mistake leadership as personal power rather than being a skill that we all use in service to one another.
Teaching church growth in a field
I think of these church leadership issues when I stand in the vacant field that the church is hoping to buy soon. It has a broad plain on one side of the property, and a hillside on the other side. It reminds me of pictures of the field where Jesus gave his “sermons on the mount” in the gospels. We plan to put the church building near the top of the hill, where Jesus would have stood to address the people below him, if he were there. I imagine people coming up from the parking lot below and walking into the church, much the way that people walked up the hill to listen to Jesus speak. Jesus grew his following in fields like this. Hopefully we will, too.
Sometimes it seems that Jesus would speak on such hillsides, and sometimes he would focus on healing people. In Matthew’s gospel, for example, we see Jesus getting out of a boat in Chapter 14 and healing people in the crowds who had followed him. Jesus’ teaching and healing seemed to have gone together. People were hungry for both, and they got both. Learning how to love God and others went hand and hand with Jesus giving God’s love to others in words and in deeds.
Moving from learning faith to leading it
The crowds grew, and his disciples grew in their ability to support Jesus’ teaching and healing ministries. Jesus was proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of heaven, and his healing was bringing it into the world. Now, it was time to help others to expand the kingdom’s presence. In Matthew’s gospel, there is a tense moment as Jesus’ disciples suggest to Jesus that their work for the day is done – the crowds should be told to go home. But Jesus would have none of this – this was a “teachable moment,” it seemed. Jesus says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
Thinking of our own little church trying to grow, this is the moment of greatest challenge. We are starting to attract new people to our worship in temporary space. Like those following Jesus in the gospels, some are attracted enough to come again. But a pastor’s great words and compassion can help to attract people only so much. The sense of God’s living presence has to pass through everyone there, so that a whole community begins to lead others to the transforming power of the gospel. Jesus saw that moment with his disciples, and called them to become servants of Jesus who were leading others to become servants.
Growing disciples identify assets for growth
None of the gospels’ accounts of the feeding of the thousands tell us how a few fish and loaves of bread fed all of these people with baskets of leftovers. All we know is that Jesus’ disciples divided these sparse resources between them, and met small groups of those who had gathered. My guess is that this did not come out of the blue. It’s likely that the disciples weren’t just kicking back while “the boss” gave a speech, and then expected to shuffle away with him.
No, I think it’s likely that the disciples were with these people throughout Jesus’ time with them, perhaps even teaching them about Jesus before these gatherings. The sequence of these scenes in the gospels certainly seems to support this idea. The scenes of feeding the thousands come early in Jesus’ gospel stories, but not right away. The disciples had grown in faith through Jesus, but they were underused assets. He challenged them to grow in their ministries using the assets at hand, so they could see how God’s grace could transform all of them together into greater assets for the kingdom of heaven.
Dispensability grows churches
None of us are indispensable, even if we are all uniquely loved and valuable in God’s eyes. Even the living presence of Jesus of Nazareth was not indispensable for the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus gave up his life on a cross for our sake, and he came back to life to finish preparing his disciples to bring God’s indispensable grace to the world. The kingdom of heaven had come in Jesus, and yet it was still coming, waiting for others to follow in Jesus’ footsteps as members in the body of Christ. Jesus came to start the kingdom’s coming, to teach others how to continue its growth, and to complete it with his second coming at the end of days.
Every time we grow in faith and in service to our faith, Jesus is getting us ready to bring God’s kingdom of healing, love, and hope to others, who can help God to do the same. What is indispensable is not our individual presence in the church, but the process that Jesus initiated to help the church to grow God’s kingdom. We are healed by God in Christ, we are fed by God in Christ, which is grace, but grace for a purpose. The gifts of grace from Christ grow in us until we learn to see the moment to let go of our fears of a limited world being not able to carry on where God left off with us.
The world is God’s creation: of course it can carry on. We need only the faith and the courage to feed it, so that it can feed all of us, until Jesus brings the final great thanksgiving.