It's the Holy Grail of church life. Most pastors and most congregations would love to see more people coming through the door, and more of them staying. They'd love to see people converted, too – coming to know Jesus for themselves for the first time.
The reasons why some churches grow and some don't are hugely complex. They range from how good the sermon is to how easy it is to park. But there's one thing that works against church growth: and that's obsessing about church growth.
There's a whole church growth industry, and while many practitioners are motivated by the right reasons, the thinking of others leaves a lot to be desired. It's as though they've imported their growth models from the business world. Growth becomes an end in itself. It's assumed that a full church is better than a half-empty one, and that if a church is small it must be failing. Some churches go so far as to set targets for the number of baptisms and new members they'll see in a year.
The inevitable result of this concentration on numbers is that people are seen as targets rather than as precious souls with their own individuality and relationship with God.
It takes real thought, care and spiritual discernment to combine a focus on numbers with a focus on what makes a church worth being part of in the first place: God-centredness, deep pastoral sensitivity and strong community.
And churches go wrong when they start in the wrong place: not with a desire to be attractive and Christ-like, but to grow in numbers.
Church growth can't be planned. Targets are inappropriate: God brings who he brings. But there things we can do to allow it to happen, and they aren't rocket science. Here are five of them.
1. Be outward-looking. The more occasions for church folk to meet non-church the better. There's no point in hiding within the church's walls expecting people to come in. Invite them – or even better, go out.
2. Be useful. A church is part of a community – so what's it doing for the community? It may not be preaching, but ministry is witness.
3. Get the basics right. If everyone feels cared for, no one feels excluded and church life is reasonably well organised, incomers can soon feel at home.
4. Connect faith and life. The three questions of a text – What does it say, what does it mean and what does it mean to me? – are excellent for preachers to keep in mind, especially the last one. Church on Sunday should fit us for life on Monday.
5. Be God-centred. A church is different from the world, or there's no point in it being a church at all. By all means be accessible – but be different. Pray. Think. Offer people a different way of looking at life, and a different drum to march by.