Over the past three decades, one untested yet habitually echoed axiom has garnered an almost biblical standing in our evangelical easy-speak: healthy churches continuously grow.
It seems that despite both the evidence of church history and the overwhelming weight of self-sacrificial Kingdom themes within Scripture – it all really comes down to this singular all-important metric: do we have more sitting in our pews this year than last?
For the majority of Southern Baptists, this new dogma is not an emboldening creed.
According to the Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health, of the more than 42,000 Southern Baptist churches in North America, fewer than 13,000 of them are growing. In other words, 70 percent of Southern Baptist churches are plateaued or declining.*
With 70 percent of our churches failing to embody ‘health’ as described by the school of church growth, we are faced with one of two deductions. Either the local church was not intended to eternally produce quarter after quarter of positive returns or our ecclesiological assumptions are plausible—just not universally well executed.
The former seems to better answer our questions.
For many it is an astonishing notion to consider that every local church has a life cycle. To many it may seem cold to think of a church this way. But without exception, every church has had a beginning and it will have an end.
The Kingdom advancement that emanates from a local church has an eternal effect—but the fact remains, no one can visit Paul’s most impressive Philippi church plant. Its life cycle is long completed. Its impact remains. Every church has a life cycle designed for eternal impact.
It is also noteworthy to contemplate that churches, like other natural organisms, are designed to grow the fastest at the earliest stages of life.
A juvenile plant is called a ‘shoot’ for a reason. This natural order found in plants, puppies and people also seems to sync with a casual observation of the normative growth patterns of churches.
The fastest growth is usually reserved for the front end of the life cycle. Zero to 75 percent of trajectory usually happens quickly and efficiently. The final 25 percent requires enormous energy and resources.**
Also, (and quite instructive), like other natural organisms, churches are designed to begin reproducing both soon and often.
Our recent Western norm of beginning families very late in a parent’s reproductive cycle is an aberration to the experience of nature and history.
Normally, reproduction happens early and continues through the majority of life.
Wherever we see the Kingdom of God rapidly gaining ground, we always find disciples reproducing disciples and churches reproducing churches.
With this, the natural end of the life cycle of a particular local church is not quietly marked as a dooming failure but unashamedly celebrated because of an eternal Kingdom impact.
- Every local church has a life cycle.
- Churches are designed to grow the fastest at the earliest stages of life.
- Churches are designed to begin reproducing both soon and often.
- Churches are not intended to continuously grow forever
Finally, like other organisms, churches are not intended to continuously grow forever.
They grow fastest in the earliest stages, reproduce frequently during their maturing years and hopefully assist as wise, generous and loving grandparents during their final years.
John Worcester said it’s tragic “that most churches do just the opposite to what they are intended to do. When they start to plateau, rather than to ramp up reproduction, they turn inward and concentrate on their own growth. Churches choose birth control and the exponential advance of the Kingdom ceases.”***
Which leads us back to our problem. With 70 percent of our churches in a state of plateau or decline, what are the options?
Celebrate well. Remember all the ways God has used this church to expand His Kingdom. Recall the faces and families that have been unmistakably impacted by the faithfulness of this church. Perhaps remembering the past will serve as a re-tracking for the future. Revelation 2:5 instructs us to remember and repeat the earlier things.
Remember Kingdom. No cold cup of water offered humbly in Jesus’ name is without eternal impact. Think of how King Jesus might use the resources and wisdom that He has blessed you with for increased Kingdom impact.
The lore of church growth tells us that we are corporate failures if we are unable to produce winning numbers. The King of the Kingdom tells us that true Kingdom fruit is found in an openhanded posture of selflessness.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24
Think Multiplication. How might you bear much fruit? Certainly not by going down grasping clenched-fisted as a deadend link on the Great Commission chain. We never bear fruit by ‘saving ourselves.’ It emerges simply through the spiritual abandonment of ‘losing ourselves.’ What about your legacy of multiplication? It is the assignment to which God has called his church.
Do healthy churches continually grow? The evidence for our first 2000 years would lead us to an unequivocal ‘No.’
Does ‘plateaued or declining’ mean little Kingdom impact? It all depends on Whose church it is.
*If interested in obtaining a copy of the Leavell study - contact Bill Day at the Leavell Center by phone at (504) 282-4455, ext. 3320, or by email at email@example.com
** Anomalies to the normative pattern can be observed when exceptional leadership is introduced to an established life cycle. This is to be joyfully celebrated but not seen as universally prescriptive.
*** I am grateful for my friendship with John Worcester who has thought and written much on the life cycle of a church.