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Growing congregations reach outside themselves-and prosper

SUMMARY: Dr. Lovett Weems, Wesley Theological Seminary, states it simply: We need more people. Growth should be the natural outcome of doing and being what the church is supposed to do and be.

United Methodist congregations have a basic mission: making disciples for Christ for the transformation of the world. If churches do that, they will grow. Making disciples includes evangelism. Natural church development is based on this.

General Conference established four denominational focus areas, including congregational development and new church starts. This represents one of the most important initiatives for United Methodism’s future. The term “congregational development” encompasses many areas such as bringing new vitality to existing churches and church growth.

Facts of growth
The Hartford Institute for Religious Research, which surveys U.S. congregations periodically, recently released “FACTS on Growth.”This research found that congregations with the following characteristics were likely to report growth:

  • Initiated a change in worship formats or style. More than half of the churches experiencing growth had made significant changes in worship formats in the past five years, primarily switching to or adding contemporary services.

  • Are located in new suburbs or downtown metro areas.

  • Avoided major internal conflict.

  • Started or maintained a Web site in the past year. This indicates the church looks outward and is willing to change using nontraditional means.

  • Are multiracial.

  • Have clarity about mission and purpose. They know why they exist and are clear about what they do.

  • Involve children actively in worship. This helps the church to attract young adults and families.

  • Are intentional about growth. “Congregations that developed plans to recruit members in the past year were more likely to grow than congregations that had not. Particularly helpful in achieving growth are sponsorship of a program or event to attract non-members or the existence of support groups.”

These findings show how growth is correlated to these factors, but correlation does not equate to causality. Just because some growing churches do certain things, it does not follow that others who do the same thing will have the same results. Many factors influence the outcome.

Leadership, leadership, leadership
The factor most recognized to result in growth is leadership. Some equate leadership to the real-estate truism “location, location, location.” With congregational development, it’s “leadership, leadership, leadership.” Interestingly, leadership also is one of the four areas of focus emphasized at General Conference. Ideally, leadership development brings life, vitality and growth to the local church.

Spiritual development
The lifeblood of vital, growing churches is the Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit to be activated, the congregation must elevate its faith dimension, especially among leaders. This can take many forms, including the development of Disciple Bible Study groups. It is a critical component, not a quick fix.

Intentional prayer ministry
Increasing the congregation’s spiritual dimension also can involve a meaningful prayer ministry, such as a prayer meeting that focuses on a ministry, mission, evangelism or the congregation’s spiritual vitality. Congregations that engage intentionally in prayer often are surprised at how God works in their midst and throughout their ministries.

‘Missional’ church
Congregational spiritual development also comes when a local church becomes more “missional.” An elusive term, this means the church cares deeply for those outside of the congregation, rather than focusing on internal church life. God does not call us to develop a country-club mentality where the mission is all about us. When congregations develop a missional outlook, they own and appropriate a sense of mission and vision. This leads to reaching others and making disciples of those not in their midst.

--This article is a summary from the May 2008 Background Data for Mission newsletter, published by the Office of Research, General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM), and written by the Rev. John H. Southwick, director of research, GBGM.We thank GBGM and Dr. Southwick for allowing us to include this information.The Background Data for Mission newsletter is available as a downloadable Adobe Acrobat PDF at: