We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Measure of Church Health - Five

In a recent posting entitled, "Eight Diagnostic Questions for a Church's Health," Dr. Chuck Lawless of the Billy Graham School of Missions & Evangelism lays down what amounts to a set of standards by which churches can measure themselves.  If they measure up to the standards, they are healthy. Fifth on his list of questions is:
"Is the church keeping and discipling new believers who join? Suppose a church reached twenty non-believers for Christ in the last year. Did the church see a corresponding increase in attendance? If not, why not? Is the congregation an aging one, and several died within the year? Are longer term members leaving the church as the church changes? Does the church have a poor strategy for discipling new members? Or, more positively, did the church send out a team to begin a church plant? Whatever the cause for the discrepancy between additions and attendance, the church must respond appropriately."
The real question here is more basic: is the church growing numerically at all?  And still more basic: what is the relationship of a church's statistical growth to its health?  Can a church not grow and be healthy?  It does seem possible that a church can have a vibrant, faithful life engaging in effective ministries and yet not grow in numbers, but it is more likely that a healthy church will grow in size.  The quality of its life will attract others to it.  Those "looking for something" will find that something in a healthy church more frequently and fully than not.  So, yes, a healthy church will grow in numbers and display a general balance in age groups.  Theological orientation, it must also be said, is not the issue.  Healthy liberal churches are as apt to grow in numbers as healthy conservative ones.

Let me once not engage in the terminology quibbles that we progressives often quibble about.  We, for example, like to insist that church "growth" is about more than increasing the number of members in a church.  The most important aspects of a growing church, we insist, are more about spirituality, vitality of worship, and other such things than about numbers.   This quibble, however, can obscure the fact that under normal circumstances a church that is growing in faith is likely to be one growing in numbers as well.  In our quibbling state of mind, we might also feel that Lawless seems overly concerned about numbers.  Church growth folks on his end of the theological scale usually are.  Even so and in spite of our quibbles, he and they have a point, which is that healthy churches under normal circumstances should be growing in numbers of people attending worship, participating in church life, and adding their names to the membership rolls.

We have to be careful about our quibbles!  We can quibble ourselves out of facing up to the stern reality of statistical growth.  Numbers are one indicator (in the majority of cases) of health.  This does not mean, of course, that big churches or rapidly growing churches are healthier.  They can and often do build their growth on the shifting sands of a personality cult or social prestige—all of which does not change the relationship of church health to statistical growth.  In the end, not all churches that grow numerically are healthy nor are all churches that do not grow unhealthy, but there remains a general correlation between health and numbers.  Healthy churches are more likely to grow in numbers than not.  Unhealthy churches are less likely to grow in numbers.