A couple of years ago the Salvation Army asked Christian Research to undertake a wide-ranging survey on why churches grow. We went to four thousand churches that had either significantly grown or significantly declined in the past ten years. Both groups were asked the same series of questions and the answers were compared to pinpoint any significant differences. We also asked the ministers of each congregation to complete a series of questions that indicated the gifts he or she brought to his or her leadership role.
As you may imagine, it proved to be a fascinating survey. Some items were specifically associated with decline, such as if a minister worked by himself or herself and had no colleagues with whom to form a team. It was also noteworthy that the reverse of some items (in this case, having a leadership team was not a significant factor for growth) was not necessarily associated with growth.
The same was true for certain styles of worship. Churches that only used their organ were more associated with decline than those which used a variety of instruments. While a range of musical styles may well encourage growth, it does not, by itself, necessarily mean growth will take place.
Preaching is important for attracting people to a church, especially larger churches. Does the style of preaching matter? For instance, is an expository style more favourable to growth than a preacher who follows the lexicon or seeks to be topical? The survey indicated that a particular type of preaching was not associated with growth, though it was important that the preaching was seen to be relevant to the hearers. Explaining what the Bible meant in a manner which people understood was vital in getting people to come to a church; however, other factors were essential if they were going to stay.
Misconceptions on Factors Relating to Church Growth
The survey showed that some characteristics were definitely not associated with growth, even though many would expect them to be. For instance:
• Was a church in an area where there were few if any other churches likely to grow? No.
• Was a church which had the majority of congregants living close by more likely to grow? No.
• Was a church which had a connection with a school (like many Anglican and Catholic churches have) more likely to grow because of its accessibility to young people? No, not for that reason.
• Was a more wealthy church likely to grow? No. Money was not a significant factor.
• Was a church in a suburban area, where there were potentially more people in its neighbourhood, more likely to grow than a more rural or urban-centred church? No. A church’s environment was not significantly associated with growth.
• Was a church with a particularly attractive building likely to grow? No. The building was seen as unimportant.
• Was a church which followed certain types of evangelism (e.g. regularly holding Alpha courses) more likely to grow? No, although the Alpha course is undoubtedly successful in seeing many people come to faith. However, the course itself was not found to be directly correlated with growth.
• Was a church with an above-average proportion of intelligent people (e.g. with graduate or post-graduate qualifications) more likely to grow? No. In fact, the management guru Meredith Belbin used to say that a team made up of only doctorate holders was an unsuccessful team.
• Was a church with many activities, especially youth activities, more likely to grow? No, although this does not mean that parents with young children will not come and join the groups for a certain amount of time. Growing your fringe, while critically important, does not guarantee growth.
• Was a church with convenient parking, easy bus-stop access, clean toilets or with other similar advantages more likely to grow? No. These are useful extras, though!
Factors Associated with Growth
What then, you may be asking, were the factors which can be unambiguously identified with growth? The answer from the survey was very specific—a clear vision and strong leadership.
The church needed to know where it was going, and how it was going to get there. Its activities were not undertaken as “good things to do,” but with a motivation that would find fulfilment in the church’s key purposes. For instance, a Mums’ and Toddlers’ Group would be held not just because the local community welcomed it, but because it was a way of reaching out to people who could later be invited to, say, an Alpha course.
How does a leader get his or her vision? Sometimes from talking with other people, sometimes from the Holy Spirit’s leading through prayer and meditation, sometimes as he or she sees the needs in the community, sometimes by answering questions such as Why does this church exist?, What will it have become in ten years’ time? or What is the most important thing to change this year? Where there is no vision, “the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). In fact, where there is no vision, the church perishes, the leaders perish and the nation perishes. Vision is thus not an option; it is the key factor without which churches are unlikely to grow.
What kinds of leaders are most likely to implement their vision? The research showed that there was only one type, out of eight giftings, that was associated with growing churches. Twice as many fast-growing churches have ministers who are “Shapers” (to use a Belbin description) than declining ones. Shapers frequently compel something to happen by the sheer force of their personality. These leaders can see why certain actions are important, and will do everything necessary to ensure they happen. People are much more likely to join a church that has a clear vision and has leaders who know how to see its fulfilment. That is how churches grow, under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.
Readers who are interested in obtaining the free booklet Leadership, Vision and Growing Churches, which offers a summary of this survey’s results, are welcome to write:
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Brierley may also be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.