Mission Evidences from the Field: What Do Healthy Growing Churches Look Like?
It’s no secret that many congregations are in decline. I can say more about that on another day. But what I have been asking for the past six months is, what do growing churches look like? More specifically, what are the characteristics of newly planted churches that are thriving?
There is a wealth of information out there and I have a long way to go to process what I have already found, but I’d like to begin by sharing what I am seeing in various sources from across the United States. From the nearly three dozen books, reports, studies, and essays that have come across my desk (written in the past 10 years), here are some things for mission-focused church leaders to consider:
Belonging before believing. With issues of mobility, pluralism, isolation, and more, people are looking for meaningful human and divine connection. The idea of human connections needs no deep explanation; however, with divine connection I mean that although the number of persons (especially younger persons) who disassociate with organized faith continues to grow, the interest in spirituality is not going away. Rather persons are actively seeking some meaningful spiritual reality or connection in their life. Belonging does matter for Americans. But the dynamics in play are complex. And launching a coffee shop or a cool new Bible study will not necessarily get millennials to show up or offer a satisfying answer to their spiritual thirst. Belonging emerges in the context of developing deep and trusting relationships.
How truly “gospel” your version of the gospel is. Now I may be about to set off a firestorm with what I am about to say, so I acknowledge what I am say here may be misunderstood. Here goes. The gospel—the good news of what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit—is revealed to us through Scripture. But without fail, the way we talk about gospel, the way we teach the gospel, and the way the gospel gets expressed in our congregational life and programs begins to pick up our own particular history and experience. The way we do things, the songs we sing, and the sorts of ministry we engage reflect our own particular cultural elements. A good visit with a missionary can help illustrate what I am trying to describe. Missionaries know well the importance of communicating the gospel into another culture without their own culture getting in the way. If your congregation is more than 20 years old, in these times of rapid change, there are likely some things that may inadvertently get in the way of the gospel being fully heard and practiced.
Salvation in this world and the world to come. Salvation is not just about the soul and the future; it’s also about this world. In what concrete way does the good news of the gospel speak into the lives of broken people in your congregation? Do you have a holistic vision of God’s intent to redeem the world, starting right in your own neighborhood?
A Trinitarian vision of God. Spirit-filled communities are dynamic communities. Pentecostal churches are showing a great deal of life today, though I don’t think a particular style of worship is the most significant factor at play. Rather, the conviction of newer, flourishing communities is that God is present in worship and in the ordinary aspects of human existence. Assess the language of your congregation’s worship, Bible classes, small groups, and committee meetings. Do all three members of the Trinity show up?
The neighborhood is the thing! Churches that embrace their local identity and understand mission in their local communities are finding traction. The neighborhood looks different for urban churches compared with small town churches. Whatever your neighborhood looks like, it’s important to define it and then live, work, play, and serve in that neighborhood.
There is much more to be said, and I’m still trying to sort this out myself. So I invite you to ponder these ideas with your fellow leaders and ask what might be a good next step for your congregation as it seeks to be faithful to God’s preferred future.
I will say more next month and begin to offer some resources. Until then, God’s peace to you!
If you are in the Austin or San Antonio area, please consider joining me in April 2019 for a face-to-face conversation about this subject. See details at siburtinstitute.org/events.