Programs seldom produce the spiritual dynamic necessary for growth; rather, the right spiritual climate produces programs that enhance growth.
After many years of attending pastors' conferences, I have heard my share of formulas for church growth, revival, and renewal. I have done the "pastoral drool" while listening to stories of skyrocketing attendance. I, too, have visited other churches hoping to find the key to growth. But the only church growth I had ever experienced was the plodding, gradual growth that no one writes books about.
Then it happened! We started seeing our monthly attendance rates 30 percent ahead of the previous year. Before we could get used to that, we found ourselves with more than seven hundred in worship. How did it happen?
The disconcerting thing was that we really could not put a finger on any single cause. I could not give any glorious stories of personal renewal to account for the growth—God had been good to me throughout my time here. No new programs had been introduced.
Yes, we had moved into a new building, but that was five years before. And yes, some families had transferred in from a troubled church across town, but the significant growth spurt did not start until later.
It began to dawn on me that what attracted these people, more than anything else, was our climate. Realizing how intangible that word is, I began to analyze it, and I discovered we had encouraged the components of a growth climate for several years without even realizing it.
In that reverse way, I learned an important lesson. Programs seldom produce the spiritual dynamic necessary for growth; rather, the right spiritual climate produces programs that enhance growth. That is why you can visit seven growing churches and discover seven different programming emphases. In each case, the right climate already existed and became the fuel for effective programming.
What we need, then, is a clearer understanding of the components of a healthy climate. From our experiences and those of other growing churches, I've identified six atmospheric conditions that contribute to growth. These are the elements common to growing churches regardless of their specific programs.
1. A positive atmosphere
I risk beginning with an overworked topic, but still it is true: Growing churches emphasize what God can do, not what we cannot do; what is best in people, not what is worst; how we can build each other up, not tear each other down.
This has to begin at a personal level. Every church has an ample supply of negative people. What is desperately needed to balance these are other individuals who practice a positive faith in their walk with God as well as their relationships with people.
Walking through our sanctuary one Sunday morning while the choir was rehearsing, I overheard the director say, "I refuse to have a bad performance today. We will get this right!" The choir laughed, rehearsed one more time, and did a magnificent job in the service that day. That happened partly because one person decided to expect the best. He chose to have positive expectations.
The runaway bestseller The One-Minute Manager reminded us to be eager to catch people doing something right rather than always looking for something wrong. That spirit is catching!
When individuals with that attitude relate to other individuals as well as God, a climate of expectation can begin to build. The emphasis in a church can begin to shift toward what we can do with God's help. Challenges can be dreamed and accepted.
Recently we had a special drive to raise $100,000 toward the building debt. The willingness to accept that challenge was simply the logical extension of a positive spirit that had grown in the church over several years. Had the climate not been right, the challenge could not have been accepted.
By the way, on the last day of the campaign, receipts passed $103,000.
The burden in creating a climate of trust rests on the one wanting to be trusted, not the one being asked to trust. You don't command trust; you earn it. At the risk of sounding trite, it must be said that trust exists when people are trustworthy.
There is no magic to trustworthiness. For church leaders, it means "going by the book." I am sure part of the trust I have earned has come because I have never tried to circumvent the established order for operation. That means presenting proposals to the proper boards or committees before action has begun. It also means being willing to "lose" graciously on an idea and not seek other means of implementing my plan. It means living by the budget and not seeking to get what I want by "special gifts."
Once I proposed an organizational change that involved revising the constitution. It went through the appropriate study committee and the church board before going to the congregation. At the congregational meeting it was increasingly apparent that this revision was being resisted. I could have fought. But I chose to lose gracefully on that issue, and to this day we are using the old system and making it work. We made no backdoor attempts to circumvent the congregation's wishes. And it has paid off with a level of trust among us that makes progress possible.
If I were to lock horns with our lay leadership or congregation on an issue I felt could not be compromised, I would have to openly persuade them to my position or leave. I would never resort to underhanded means of getting my way. Trust is too important to take that lightly.
Excellence in ministry is not one arbitrary line that measures all situations. If so, we could paint the perfect church and all seek to imitate it. Instead, excellence is each of us, individually and congregationally, doing our best with the unique resources and limitations we have.
Too often we've made peace with mediocrity, rationalizing our substandard efforts. People are not attracted to that. Our goal must always be our best in every part of ministry. This emphasis on excellence is nothing more than being consistent with the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). God deserves our best—whether in the way bulletins are printed or how sermons are preached—and that level of excellence is a key ingredient in a climate of growth.
For six years in a row, our church has hosted a concert by the Chicago Staff Band of the Salvation Army. This outstanding brass band is built on excellence, fine music, and clear testimony. It has been interesting to watch our crowds grow from year to year. We have not increased our advertising, but people have come to know this band will always be at its best.
That can happen to an entire church. If people know we will be at our best in ministry, methods, and facilities, they respond.
4. Oriented to Outreach
Ingrown never equals growing. Many churches establish an antigrowth climate without even realizing it by allowing their predominant focus to become the needs of those already in the church. This, I'll admit, is the easiest path to follow, but it will not produce growth.
The mentality of a growing church is continually one of reaching out to others. Even the personal development of current members will be seen in light of increasing their ability to genuinely care about others and minister to them. The minute we start to plan for others rather than for ourselves we create a climate where we develop and the church will grow.
This, of course, is easier said than done. Every step we take to facilitate ministry to those outside our congregation causes us to struggle past our own comfort. Once we went to two worship services and two Sunday school sessions to make it possible to handle more people in our present facilities. Though there is nothing unique about this plan, we had to rethink our commitment to outreach. As long as our growth demanded no change from us, it was comfortable. But the minute we had to attend at different hours, divide classes, get used to new teachers, and face the recruitment of additional lay staff, the "cost" of outreach became apparent. Because of their commitment to outreach, however, our people made the changes.
The same outreach mentality has spawned new ministries—ministries that attempt to say we care about others, such as support groups for the divorced and for parents of wayward children. When the church climate is one of genuine concern for those outside the church, growth can happen.
The willingness to experiment, to innovate, and even to fail is part of flexibility. You cannot program this spirit, nor can you command it, but a few people placed in key positions can model it. By their own flexibility as well as their ability to allow (even encourage) such flexibility in others, the attitude can spread.
Perhaps a strategic time for instilling this spirit is after someone has taken initiative and flubbed.
I felt we started to see this spirit when a holiday outreach activity ended up going very poorly. I'm not proud of that failure, but I was pleased we could fail without its becoming an all-consuming issue. Rather, our attitude was one of appreciation for the willingness of those who planned the program—at least they were doing their best to reach out. We learned some things about outreach events, and more important, we demonstrated love in spite of failure. That encourages true flexibility.
Another element is the ability to adapt. Almost no program is so good that it never needs to be changed. We once tried to identify whether various evangelistic programs are "sowing, cultivating, or reaping" events. That means we must try to understand the people we are trying to reach and plan events to reach them where they are. Ten-year-old programs probably will not work because people have changed in those ten years.
When the climate is right, when risks are allowed and even traditional events can be adapted, it helps develop sensitivity to the changing culture around us, which is essential to effective ministry and church growth.
6. A Serving Spirit
In a sense, the serving spirit is a summary of a growth climate. Where people truly want to serve and minister, they will be positive, trustworthy, devoted to excellence, oriented to outreach, and flexible.
Just about everything in our society, however, militates against this spirit. It takes a conscious effort to serve rather than be served. We are encouraged today to look out for ourselves or be "fulfilled" (whatever that means). Every opportunity ends up being viewed in light of what we can get out of it.
This attitude easily turns our relationship to God around 180 degrees. Instead of asking what we can do for God, we find ourselves wondering what God can do for us. Christians raised on a pop faith that suggests God is little more than a handy twenty-four-hour heavenly banking service find it hard to relate to a word like service or, worse yet, sacrifice.
Thus in church we catch ourselves asking if people want to serve. Put that way, of course, many choose not to, and so dies the growth climate. A better way is to start with the assumption that God's people will serve. That is a given. The question is not if people will serve, but where and how they will serve. That assumption and commitment to service make up the necessary mind-set for growth.
Again, these components of a growth climate cannot be programmed. Rather, they can only be practiced and modeled. They will begin not with action but with attitudes. They will not be limited to certain settings but will be applicable to all situations. Whatever style church growth may take, underneath will be an atmosphere that is positive, trusting and trustworthy, devoted to excellence, oriented to outreach, flexible, and committed to service.
The beauty is that a growth climate does not have to wait for action by the official board. One individual can begin to model the components of this climate and have an incredible influence. Obviously, when church leaders are the models, growth can happen more quickly. But any person can be the first line of influence.
I recall sitting in a restaurant one Christmas Day. I went in expecting the atmosphere to be grim. After all, who wants to work on Christmas? Much to my surprise, it was almost like walking in on a party. One waitress had obviously decided that if she was going to have to work, she would make the best of it. She had bells tied on her shoes and was joking with customers. She was having a great time, and thanks to her, so was everyone else in the restaurant!
Perhaps that is what it takes in each of our churches—one or two people determined to influence the climate of the church. We may not be able to change weather conditions, but when it comes to the church atmosphere, we can not only survive the elements but adjust them to help the harvest.
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