What Will Really Help Your Church To Grow?
"Literal interpretation of Bible 'helps increase church attendance'"
The Guardian reports this morning on the results of a research project which has taken five years and looked into the growth and decline of Protestant churches in North America.
On one level, it isn't very surprising. Churches which take seriously Jesus' commandment to make disciples, are likely to end up making more disciples. There's a bit more to it, though.
Very few churches and denominations actually teach literalism. Much more likely to be found, especially in American evangelicalism, is the teaching of inerrancy.
Inerrancy is the pre-eminent position of US conservative evangelicals and was codified by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in 1978. This was the culmination of discussions and debates on the topic and summed up the position like this: "Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching."
UK evangelicals may hold this position or, more likely a position of the infallibility of Scripture. This means that the Bible's message is true and it presents God in the correct way – but an infalliblist position wouldn't necessitate belief in a literal six day creation and worldwide flood (as posited in the Chicago statement).
Why does any of this matter?
Because it's important that we understand what helps churches to grow. As the Guardian report goes on to say, "The results of the new study are likely to fuel anxious debate among church members about the reasons for decline and what measures or approaches might stimulate growth."
If we come to the conclusion that the only churches which can grow are of a very specific, reformed evangelical stripe, then it's not clear what the message is to everyone else. Prepare for decline? Hardly...
Theology is important, as is our view of Scripture (and any other sources of authority). Yet it's not the only thing which needs to be thrown into the mix here. A growing church will have many facets.
Theology is a key component of a growing church. We need to believe that the gospel is good news for people and that those outside the Church deserve to hear about it. We need to believe that the gospel has the power to transform people and situations. We also need to be convinced that it's our job to tell people this good news. Insofar as this is a theological position, then our theology has to be correct. But none of these beliefs are exclusive to reformed evangelicals. Christians of all stripes who want their churches to grow will affirm the efficacy and importance of the gospel.
This brings us to the second point. More than theology – it's the attitude of the church which is most important. The church whose leaders and members want to grow is much more likely to actually grow. Canon Dr Angus Ritchie, priest-in-charge of a growing congregation in east London argues, "There is no one-size-fits-all pattern to such growth. It can happen in churches with very different theologies and liturgies. It can also be promoted by very different means, using models appropriate to those different traditions and contexts. It does, however, need to be pursued intentionally, surrounded by prayer, and informed by experience."
Ritchie's belief that attitude is a key factor in whether a church grows is backed up by research from the Centre for Theology & Community. It found, "the degree of intentionality behind growth is related to the likelihood of growth. Those [congregations] that have seen significant growth, it seems, have made structural changes in terms of leadership or 'models' of church."
In other words, growth is only likely to happen if growth is the goal. It is obvious why this might be more the case in reformed evangelical churches – if there is a belief in the reality of the eternal conscious torment of hell, then there is a large incentive to win converts.
More liberal churches which don't believe in this vision of hell may be less likely to use it as a motivation to evangelise. Yet churches which don't cleave to inerrancy, or to a particular reformed view on hell, can and do grow and no-one should dismiss this – either critics or those types of churches themselves.
In addition, we can't ignore the effect that the general perception of the Church has on the likelihood that people will accept an invitation. If the main public conversation about church is about child abuse or a lack of welcome to LGBT people, then it's important to challenge that with our actions. But being welcoming to LGBT people is unlikely to bring large numbers flooding back into church – it isn't the one thing preventing a revival.
Confidence in the gospel, a positive attitude towards growth, a welcoming environment, sustained prayer efforts, authentic relationships and much, much more will be required.
Follow Andy Walton on Twitter @waltonandy.