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The Challenge of Growing the Church

Posted: December 28, 2011 by Rob Voyle

Just about every church I consult with says: "We want to grow our church." When the church is in a search mode this is what is expressed overtly but the underlying message is: "we want our next pastor to grow the church."

Despite having growth as a goal most churches don't grow.

All sorts of reasons can be conjectured about why the church doesn't grow, most of which are judgments and blame of the people, which does very little to empower them for mission. From my perspective I think the reason churches don't grow is because they don't know how, and that we need to be in the business of teaching people "how" not blaming them for failure.

Two core assumptions of Appreciative Inquiry are:
* People grow toward their images of their future.
* The language we use creates our reality.

When I ask people what the church is I follow-up with a question: What was the first image that briefly flashed across your mind?

Most clergy report "seeing" something about people gathered. Most parishioners report "seeing" a building.

So the language of "church" creates conflict because we are not talking about the same thing. There is another problem in the language of growing and churches.

Buildings don't grow. At least not in any organic sense of life-giving growth.

So the idea of growing the church makes no sense in the intuitive world that is just beyond consciousness if we are "seeing" buildings. Because it makes no sense, it will not empower people for action.

There is another problem with "growing the church." When I inquire about why people want to grow they invariably say: "We need more people... because we need more money to keep the church going." Here the image in consciousness is often the infrastructure to maintain the institution and buildings.

This reeks of self-interest that is the antithesis of Christianity. Its also poor business, Who do you know who would want to join your church to share in your debt?

As I was pondering "growing the church" I realized there was another problem:

I don't think we are called to grow the church I think we are called to make disciples.

Ask your church board: What are we doing to grow the church? What are we doing to grow disciples?

Ask people to pay attention to the images that these questions evoke, because they conjure up very different pictures in consciousness which will lead to very different actions and plans. From my experience growing the church is internally oriented and self-interest based whereas growing disciples evokes images of people in the world engaged in mission.

So the next time I hear someone say: "We need to get more people in the church." I will say: No we just need to empower the people in the church to get out into the world for Jesus sake!

And my Christmas resolution for the coming year is to give up trying to grow the church and simply pay attention to growing disciples.

With Christmas Blessings
Rob Voyle

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About the Author

Rob Voyle

Rob Voyle

The Rev. Dr. Rob Voyle is a leader in the development and use of appreciative inquiry in church and coaching settings.

Rob's Approach to Training

  • Helpful: Training must provide practical, sustainable solutions for today's challenges.
  • Humorous: Creativity and humor go together as people enjoy new insights.
  • Healing: I create opportunities for people to experience transformational insights that lead to new ways of living, working, and being in the world.

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