Churches desire to grow, as well they should. We are, after all, followers of the Great Commission. We desire for more and more people to come to know and proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom.
However, when church leaders want to focus on growth, they often make a crucial mistake. Often, our focus is on getting people to our front door. Whether it’s a social media campaign or a push to invite friends and neighbors or just a flier in the coffeeshop, we put our energies into bringing people in.
One question: then what?
Church growth will never be a matter of slick marketing or information dissemination. Because church growth doesn’t happen when new people stroll in on a Sunday. It happens when those people become part of the body and begin growing more and more into the likeness of Christ.
If you desire for your church to grow, you should not think first about what will lead them to your door, but what will keep them from running for the door the minute the service is over. Over my years as a rector of a parish that experienced such growth, and now as a consultant working to realize this growth in other churches, I’ve developed a metaphor to illustrate this crucial truism. I call it the Good Shepherd Economy.
Green Pastures, Still Waters
Consider Psalm 23. Behind the beauty and poetry of this timeless meditation is an unflappable truth: God desires to lead his sheep into green pastures and still waters. His desire is to restore our weary souls.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he sets us up in the lap of luxury so that we can just ride out our days in self-satisfaction. This isn’t an advertisement for the prosperity gospel. We still may need to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. But the passage makes clear that if we will follow him, God will lead us into a place where our hunger is fed, our thirst is quenched, and our fears are eased.
So, what does your pasture look like?
Some pastures are picked over. It was a nice enough field at the beginning, with plenty of fresh, green shoots, but the sheep who already live here have clipped it all down. There’s probably enough there to sustain those who are already there, but any new sheep will be able to pick up on the hint—there’s really no room for you here.
Some pastures are unruly and wild. There’s some good grass to be had, but it’s getting lost in all the overgrowth. Strange shrubs get in the way, trees sap the nourishment from the ground. Any new sheep would spend a little time trying to navigate through all the confusion, then end up deciding it was just too much work.
Some pastures are terraced. The lower levels don’t get the good grass, and while new sheep hear all the time about the abundance of the field, it’s just not accessible to them. It seems like there are barriers that have to be overcome and alliances made before you are allowed to get to the good stuff with all the other sheep.
Some pastures aren’t secure. The boundaries of the field sprawl out in every direction and the sheep wander without any guidance. New sheep don’t really know where the pasture ends and the wilderness begins, and they are frequently lost to dangers lurking at the edges.
Tend Your Pasture
There’s probably a whole typology to unpack here, but I think you get the idea. If God desires for his sheep to find green pastures and your church (your pasture) is anything but green, we shouldn’t be shocked when God leads them away from us. That’s as it should be.
Let me strip away the metaphor for a moment and put it bluntly: organizational expansion precedes numerical growth. Church leaders must take a hard look at what their church needs to do to accommodate the new growth they hope for. Part of this will include building a culture of generosity, as I covered in Giving Up. But much of it will be about creating and framing a strategic vision to lead the church as it moves forward.
We will be unpacking this more and more in the coming months, but there is a skill set for this sort of evaluation. More than anything it takes wisdom and courage. Wisdom, because the vision that will take you where you want to go will differ from what got you to where you are. And courage, because leading others through change isn’t easy or popular.
The people are out there. Jesus tells us that the fields are ripe for the harvest. They are longing for exactly the nourishment your church can provide. The question is, will your church be ready for them?