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Church Growth Makes Absolutely no Sense

Posted: January 29, 2016 by Rob Voyle

The language of Church Growth has dominated the religious culture for all of my
ordained ministry. And during that time, with a few exceptions, I have witnessed
decline not growth.

Many people have written books and theorized on why we haven't grown and we
still haven't grown. So here is my theory why it hasn't worked: The language of
Church Growth makes no sense in the light of the Gospel.

We have been called to make disciples and followers of Jesus and not to grow

Take a moment and think what comes to mind when you contemplate making followers
of Jesus...

Now think of what comes to mind when you contemplate growing churches...

The language we use has a powerful impact on the images and ideas that come into
consciousness. For me the words "following Jesus" evokes images of relationship,
friendship, journey, engagement with the world, which in turn inspires possible

The words "church growth" evokes a picture of the white clapboard church I
attended as a child. Following that image with "growth" makes no rational
sense. It is an intellectualization that does not inspire action. As long as we
talk about and pursue "Church Growth" we will little action and continue to

One of the core assumptions of the Appreciative Way is that language not only
describes reality but is the way we create reality. The person who has taught me
the most about understanding the power of language, how to understand and use
metaphors is Andy Austin, and I am delighted to be co-sponsoring Andy's
Metaphors of Movement Training in Boulder.

Andy's work is important for both the Chiefs in our congregations and for the
Shaman and Spiritual Directors in our communities of faith.

Example 1 for Chiefs: Aligning Our Language and Core Metaphors

In the last newsletter I looked at the core charism of a denomination. The same
approach can be used of an individual congregation.

What is the core charism of your congregation?

Often that core charism will be represented as a metaphor. I think of one
congregation that has the metaphor of a "shade tree" and another that has the
metaphor of a "ship".

Now imagine you are the leader of each of these congregations and are about to
begin a new ministry.

Telling the "shade tree" community that you are ready to embark on a new
ministry and launch an opportunity for parishioners to discover new horizons of
faith, will make no sense at all, whereas it will make a lot of sense to those
in the "ship" congregation.

Or telling the "ship" congregation it is time for them to prune back some of
their work so that they can branch out and offer shade to the oppressed and
weary will make no sense whereas it will make sense to the "ship" congregation.

Or we could confuse everyone by really mixing the metaphors and talk of pruning
back one ministry so that we can launch a new ministry that will really help us
take the road less traveled to where we can truly soar and grow deeper in our

Whenever the metaphors are incongruent with perceived reality the metaphors will
be experienced as an abstraction and not a call to action and literally nothing
will be done.

As leaders we need to align calls to action with our core metaphors.

Example 2: For Shaman and Spiritual Directors

Imagine you are offering pastoral care to two different parishioners who are
dying and as part of your conversation you ask the person what they imagine
death to be like and one says it is "like going to sleep" and the other it is
"like passing over."

Before reading on you might like to consider what you think death is like... Or
all the other euphemisms that people may use for dying.

Now consider how to respond to the two people.

The first is getting ready for the "Rest of their Life." The sleep metaphor also
suggests that pastoral care may involve telling bed time stories. And I
personally recall sitting and peacefully reading the psalms to someone as they
were dying.

"Passing over" suggests that death is perceived as a journey and I recall
telling a long story about packing, saying good bye, and taking a trip, to
another parishioner who died quite peacefully several hours later. (Because it
had been so powerful I tried using it with another parishioner and it failed
miserably. If I had only known of Andy's work back then...)

In the Metaphors of Movement Training training Andy will teach you how to listen for and elicit a person's metaphors as they describe their life predicament.

You will then learn how to respond to the specific metaphors.

You will also discover not all metaphors are created equally, in fact there is a
significant taxonomy to the types of metaphors.

For example people describing themselves as "being boxed in" are using a
container metaphor which requires a very different response than someone using
an immersion metaphor such as "floating in the ocean".

I have posted an article by Andy that outlines some of the types of metaphors
at: Metaphors of Movement Article

With gratitude to Andy for teaching me about the use of metaphors in my work and daily living.


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