Growing up

What makes one church grow and another stagnate? Some pastors just aren’t leaders, and some governing boards impede growth.

This is a tale of two churches that sit opposite each other on a road near my home. On the south side of the road is a Lutheran congregation of maybe 300 people.

Their website has attractive photos of Arizona scenes, no photos of congregants or the pastor. Nothing is said about its mission or history, but much is said about being Lutheran. There’s one Sunday service.

Across that same road is a Baptist church of about 5,000 people that has been there 10 years. It merged last year with another church in another town 10 miles away, and became multi-site earlier with a venue 50 miles south in a growing community. They have a Saturday evening service and three more on Sunday. They don’t identify their denomination on the website.

We see this scenario often as we drive around our communities. One could just as easily exchange the church labels. Old, established congregations that stay the same, changing little. Others are young, new, vibrant churches that draw in new people. What makes the difference between them? The descriptors above may give hints, but don’t really explain why one church stays small in numbers and the other reaches many more families and fills more needs.

The other day I had the chance to spend valuable face time with Don Wilson, senior pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley in Peoria, AZ, a congregation of 17,000 and opening a third venue in Scottsdale, AZ, in August. I asked him, what makes the difference?

First, growth depends on leadership, he says, noting what John Maxwell has famously been quoted on that everything rises or falls on leadership. Wilson shares the view that about 5 percent of pastors have the leadership gift.

Another thing holding back churches is their structure, he says. Independent and charismatic churches grow, but if a church has to take everything to a vote of the congregation, it is not likely to thrive. Too often, Wilson opines, the least spiritual people in that kind of church control the church and they have the view “we’ll outlast you.”

He’s not speaking of “dictator models” for successful congregations, but of servant leadership and that churches tend to grow in direct relationship to their ability to endure pain, that is, criticism.

A church is not a democracy, some say. More often than not a growing church may have members vote on receiving a new pastor and affirming the governing board, but little else. In the church of my youth the denomination went to boards of administration and eliminated the elder body (that they came to believe was meddling too much), and the denomination has been on a downward trend ever since. I was in two different ELCA churches when the denomination was revising the bylaws, and in one we eased out the senior pastor as board chairman and gave the role to a lay person. I have wondered since whether that was the smartest move for the vitality of that congregation, though other factors were involved.

There is no one biblical form of church government, but when it comes to leadership and mission and growth, some forms work better than others. This is explained well in two books: Elders and Leaders: God’s Plan for Leading the Church, by Gene A. Getz (Moody, 2003), the founder of many of the Fellowship churches in Texas and elsewhere, and 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons, by Benjamin L. Merkle (Kregel, 2008).

The Holy Spirit may have the last word in a church’s rise or fall, but sometimes he can use a little help from the pew too.

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