Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Community & Relationships in Church Growth

I recently had an email from someone who wondered if the limited enthusiasm model of church growth implied that the church should give more attention to building relationships within the community, and that the church should also become a stronger community itself. These comments really made me stop and think as it raised issues I have assumed rather than looked at in depth. To address these issues let me start with quick summary of the church growth modeling work

The main claim of the limited enthusiasm model is that conversion growth is driven by a subset of the church, whom I call enthusiasts, who do not remain enthusiastic in their recruitment indefinitely. This conversion growth depends on contact between the enthusiasts and the unbelievers in the community. This loss of effectiveness can be for spiritual reasons, but more often than not it is that their enthusiasm gets more and more directed towards the church and they lose their contacts in the wider community.

The amount of growth that comes through the enthusiasts, and how long that growth lasts, depends on their effectiveness in reproducing themselves, either from new converts, or from existing Christians. However, additionally, the growth also comes from the amount of the unbelieving community they are in contact with. If either their effectiveness or their community contact is reduced, the growth will be less, and cease quicker. Because of the increased effort needed as the unbelieving pool gets smaller, growth ceases before all the unbelievers are converted.

Of course there will be church growth through the children of believers becoming believers themselves. At one time this kept the church sustainable regardless of conversions, but not these days in the UK. It meant there were times in the past where churches could be successfully large even though they had little success in mission.

Also for the local congregation there will be transfer growth as Christians move into the community, and some Christians choose to change churches. For churches on growing housing estates, and churches with growing reputations, transfers can be the main source of growth, giving success for the church as an “organisation” with little success in seeing the world converted!

Now one of the biggest mistakes a church can make is to assume it has effective contact with all the unbelievers in its community. In terms of my models it means that the people I class as “unbelievers” are merely the ones who are in contact with the enthusiasts of the church. I suspect in many cases the church only has any serious contact with a minority of its wider community. In that case conversion growth is going to be much harder. So a conclusion of the limited enthusiasm theory is that a church must work on building effective links with the community in order to make conversion growth easier to achieve.

This is hardly rocket science and I think many church leaders know this. What they may not realise is the massive difference it might make to their conversion growth if they only increase their contact with the community by a small amount. If the community they are in contact with is increased by 10% say, then that has the same effect as increasing the effectiveness of the enthusiasts by 10%. However that can have a disproportionate effect on growth. If the enthusiasts’ effectiveness is a long way from the revival growth threshold then a 10% increase would make little difference to the church’s growth. However if it were near the revival growth threshold, such a small increase could easily double church growth over the long term. This is a case of small things can make a big difference.

The same argument applies if the enthusiasts are to reproduce themselves out of existing church members. There needs to be a strong spiritual community among the church, rather than a loose collection of individuals, or church of largely non-overlapping interest groups.

Thus there is a need for a church to be an integral part of the community it is contained within, and to be a strong community itself. The former is a big challenge in modern life where people’s community is often their work place, rather than their geographical location. The latter is a big challenge where church life is driven more by personal preference, i.e. consumer demand, rather than an army under central orders.

Of course people will always say “the Holy Spirit can override all of this, all we need is revival.” True. But generally speaking people respond to the good news because they hear it from someone who is sent. That implies a contact between communities not just enthusiasm on the part of the Christian. We can be as on fire for God as it is possible to be, but if we don’t have real contact with fellow believers and unbelievers the fire of the Spirit is not passed on. Such a scenario is about as alien one can get to New Testament thinking, which is all about building quality churches and going into the world.

Likewise it is not enough to have contact with the community if there is not a real fire of the Holy Spirit in the enthusiasts of the church. They must have something worth passing on.

In the current debate between the emerging church approach and the approach of those who seek revival it is easy to be so caught up with the need of the Holy Spirit that we forget to have contact with the community. Likewise some emerging churches are so taken with the need to be incarnational, i.e. being Christ in the community, that it is easy to miss the need for the manifest supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. There has to be something worth passing on, serving others, as noble as it is, is not enough. Unbelievers can do that. Believers have to have something specific to Christianity to pass on, the power of God to change lives through faith in Christ.

So the need to build relationships within the community is essential in order to drop the threshold of revival growth. And the need to build a stronger, spiritual, church community is essential to increase the enthusiasts’ effectiveness and take the church over that revival threshold. Both are in the limited enthusiasm model. And I don’t think we need to work too hard to find both in the Bible. The question is can we find both in our churches today?

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

A Word I Never Use

In life all people have words they never use, usually things like swear words which are deemed culturally offensive. However in church circles different types of churches have words they never use, or hardly ever.

For example some churches never use the word "convert", either as a noun or a verb. I guess the word carries with it the idea of a sudden change. As people we fear change, especially instant and dramatic ones. Perhaps such churches are afraid if they use the word "convert" they will put people off, or perhaps they fear they will not find the evidence of such a change in their own lives.

I am not really sure why they shy away from the word "convert", but I do know the word captures the essence of what happens when a person becomes a Christian: an immediate change in their status before God (justified); and a change in the disposition of their heart (new birth). If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come. It needs a word like convert to do justice to that.

This is one of the reasons I use the word in my models, despite the inevitable objections each time I present my work, it reminds people that to be a Christian there must be a conversion. I should point out its use in the limited enthusiasm model simply means that people who were not classed as Christians are now classed as them. This could be because they start attending church, or because they have become a member of a church. There is no spiritual connotation implied in the model. But it is a good reminder to anyone looking at the modelling work that becoming a Christian is fundamentally supernatural, immediate and of enormous proportions. Oh that the word "convert" may be used more.

So what about the word I never use? I never use the word "journey". Often in church circles we hear someone say, "A Christian is someone who is on a journey", or "we are all on a journey together". At face value what is wrong with that? There is always a sense of progress in the Christian life, holy behaviour, knowledge of the scriptures and of God, responsibility in His service. This all sounds like a journey.

My problem is that it appears to fudge the region around the point a person becomes a Christian and thus undermine the idea of conversion. Now many Christians are not sure of the day they became a Christian, or the week, or even the month. Many appear to come into the kingdom gradually. However there was a point, a single point where they came in, and there then comes a point where they know they are in. That is they are convinced beyond doubt they are in a right relationship with God; they are sure they are saved. (Oops - another word many Christians do not like to use!).

Assurance is the birthright of the Christian, the most wonderful consequence of the gospel. We are no longer uncertain over where we stand, we know we are child of God. And we know it because salvation is given by God as a gift, not as something progressively attained on a journey. Once we are sure we have received this gift there is no fear of God, no fear of condemnation, an absolute certainty that He has converted us. This is black and white. Either we are right with God, or we are not. Either we are born again, or we are not. Either we have the Spirit, or we have not. Whatever our experience around the point that God converts us, and our uncertainty of WHEN it occurs, we can at some point be certain it HAS occurred.

So the word "convert" often appears in my models, but the word "journey" will not. Church growth models do not just reflect the social situation of church growth, but the underlying spiritual and ultimately more real growth of Christ's kingdom. The words are chosen to emphasise this.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Types of Church

For some months I have been helping to facilitate a church growth modelling workshop in Cardiff. The Church Growth Cafe has been set up though CICC, the Cymru Institute for Contemporary Christianity, and aims to produce a church growth model or models that will help inform growth strategies for churches in Wales. The real eye-opener for me has been the wide ranging views of what is meant by church! Even church leaders cannot agree on what a church is, let alone what constitutes growth.

This led me to try and identify the types of churches that they are talking about. Not wanting to generalise, I think I can get it down to three: those that want to change the individual outside church to bring them in, those that want to change the church itself to include those outside, and those that can sustain themselves without any new people outside of their own families. I have named them, conversionist, contextual and generationally sustainable respectively. Of course real churches are a mixture of all three and each raises other issues. But it is a start.

A conversionist church is one that sees the world and the church as clearly distinguished: unbelievers and believers, unsaved and saved, going to hell, or going to heaven. It will generally have a clear way of identifying itself, such as a main Sunday meeting that is a reasonable representation of who belongs to the church. It will also have additional activities that will clarify who are the committed and more spiritually mature members of the church. Conversion is mainly through an initial contact, maybe something like the Alpha Course, with subsequent stages to deepen the faith towards maturity.

The conversionist church's strategy is to see individuals outside the church converted. I.e. it works to change individuals to fit the church norm.


A contextual church is one that seeks to draw people in from a surrounding community through a sequence of phases, each of which could be an end in itself. These act as bridges between the context of society and the context of church. The idea for this came out of a route suggested to me that went from mums and toddlers to messy church, then to family service, then to full Sunday attendance, and finally Eucharist. However it could also represent situations common in emerging church where the definitions of what is meant by church is blurred as even the central core of church changes its context to fit society. For example the church in a pub or in a night club.

The difference between this type of church and the conversionist is that the phases are ends in themselves; they do not necessarily need to lead to the next stage. They could all be viewed as an expression of church in some way. Additionally it may not be clear to the participants that the church may be using one phase as a bridge to the next.

Seeker friendly churches may also come under this category, as do some of the attempts in Victorian times to "lure" people to church through gentle and more secular entertainment style meetings outside of church. A popular strategy even today - the barn dance as a way of bringing people to church!

The contextual church's strategy is to change church to fit the societal context with the intention that individuals are included immediately and will then gradually change.

A generationally sustainable church is one that can sustain itself over long periods purely through the physical offspring of the church members. This is more like church would have been in previous generations when there was less social mobility and may also reflect situations in some non-western cultures. If the birth rate is not less than the death rate and people do not leave then it must survive. Some groups such as Jews and Catholics could lose people and still grow because there were times when the birth rate exceeded the death rate by some way. Indeed this is the main way most subcultures last many generations.

A generationally sustainable church has no strategy other than to survive. It does not seek converts, or to change society, or change itself to include others.

That is where I have got to today. We will see what happens after tonight's meeting! Must post now - typos and all.

John

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Church Planting

Last Saturday I was at the Cardiff Men’s Convention, a day for Christian men. Great day, excellent talks, good worship etc. There were also some interesting round table sessions, where we got to speak with people running churches and missions. The one that intrigued me was the radical church planters. One of those threw out the provocative claim to challenge our thinking: “More church growth comes through church planting than any other form of mission”.

Now no evidence was offered to back this statement up. That is the point of a provocative claim! It is there to make us think of the evidence for or against. I can think of anecdotal evidence.
  • My friends in Uganda plant churches in un-churched areas. In a 3-week mission they saw about 1000 people become Christians of who at least 500 have stuck the course in 3 new church plants.
  • A missionary to the Congo once told me that when he returned to an area where there had previously been very few Christians, they found around 100,000 new Christians spread between many churches, all desperate for Bibles, training for pastors, and teaching.
  • Then there are all the churches that have been planted along the Amazon River, which the Vineyard church documented during the 1990’s.

Clearly church planting can give large scale growth in the Christian church. How does it compare with other forms of growth?

A year ago a student of mine attempted a model of church planting using the limited enthusiasm principle, inspired by a prior visit to Uganda where we saw first hand church planting in action. The resulting patterns of growth gave significant support to the provocative claim. This is a follow-on from the result that revival like growth happens when the reproduction potential of the enthusiasts exceeds a threshold. That threshold is lower if the proportion of susceptibles is higher.

Firstly, a church plant will contain the most enthusiastic members of a church, including people gifted in evangelism. Thus the average reproduction potential is higher and thus growth in the church more likely.

Secondly, there is a higher proportion of enthusiasts in a church plant. This is because such a church is not easy to manage and thus not a good home for those who want to free-ride. If the number of enthusiasts is high enough then a critical mass is achieved which encourages renewal in the church and can bring rapid growth.

Thirdly, as new churches are planted, the susceptible pool keeps widening and thus periodically keeps dropping the revival growth threshold. This again sustains revival growth over a longer period.

Fourthly, if churches keep being planted then they keep themselves fresh and free from institutionalism. According to the congregational lifecycle model, this means there is a longer period of growth before the maintenance plateau kicks in.

One result of church planting is that although, like revival growth, the pattern of growth can be fast, it differs in that the growth is more steady and sustained for longer. Revival growth will burn out quicker, and have less long-term effect. Clearly I have to do further work on this but I think that the provocative claim may be true and more church growth comes from church planting than any other form of mission.

When dealing with the issue of church decline it is so tempting to say “all we need is revival – people on fire for God”. But the work of the Spirit does not exclude strategy. Instead we should say that we need revival AND church planting to save the church (and the nation!). This is the lesson of the Methodist revival. Wesley had the Holy Spirit. There was revival growth and revival was experienced. But they also planted churches, through that generation and later generations. It is the combination of the Spirit and strategy that saw the nation changed and I suspect must be the way forward again.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Mexican Wave

There is nothing like a conference to inspire your thinking and I have just come back from a great one in London, the annual gathering of the UK System Dynamics society. System Dynamics is the main methodology I use in my church growth models as it attempts to understand how change happens by looking at how different bits of a system relate to each other. It is all about cause and effect. The theme of this conference was climate change, how the human system and the earth’s climate interconnect.

One of the analogies of a system used in the conference was the Mexican wave that often occurs in a sport’s crowd, e.g. at a cricket match. At first it is tempting to describe it in terms of a simple rule: If the person next to you stands up then you stand up. If each person obeys this rule then a Mexican wave is generated.

However this does not explain why a Mexican wave builds up and stops, in fact it does not explain much at all. Why do people stand up? After all the person next to you may have stood to go and buy a drink, or just to stretch. That alone does not make you stand up.

The Mexican wave cannot be understood unless it is thought of as an interrelated system. Thus the following are also important.

Context

You do not just look at the person next to you but at the whole crowd, particularly those opposite you. It is this that tells you a Mexican wave is happening, it changes the context from an “ordinary” crowd to a “Mexican wave” crowd. This change gives you permission to stand up in a regular fashion when those on one side do; something you would not do ordinarily.

Anticipation

You observe the wave getting closer so you are now anticipating the action you must take. Indeed you would now be so focused on the approaching wave, the sport’s match is ignored. Of course the first few waves have more sense of anticipation than the later ones. We quickly get bored with it.

Coercion

There are people in the crowd who do not want to participate, you may be one of them, but you feel you must stand up not to be seen to be the one who spoils the fun. But on repeats of the wave you are now looking for the first signs of dissension. There is always someone brave enough to buck the trend. Then others see it and eventually you feel it is “safe” not to participate. Once there are sufficient dissenters a tipping point is reached and the wave then quickly comes to the end.

The Mexican wave is a complex system of individuals with different attributes reacting to a number of elements of the system.

In some ways revivals behave like Mexican waves. Outside of times of revival enthusiast in the church are often repressed, they do not feel they have permission to stand out, enthusing about the faith, seeking conversions and expressing spiritual experiences publicly. But when the Spirit moves in some of them so that they break the mould, then it gives permission for other latent enthusiasts to come out and exercise their enthusiasm. The context changes.

As the revival spreads there is a tremendous sense of anticipation, thus more hidden enthusiasts emerge in addition to all those converted and renewed by the move.

Once the revival is widespread there may become an element of “coercion”, not deliberate, but people who are less enthusiastic for the stricter parts of the revival but do not want to be the odd ones out. They join in, but hoping that it can in time be moderated. The effect of this is to dilute the enthusiasts with people who do not really want the revival to continue. Once the some of the more diluted enthusiast start scaling down their activity it gives permission for others to follow, leaving the hard-core enthusiasts once again in minority. The revival ends, true spirituality is stifled again.

This is only a theory but there is some evidence for it. The move of God known as the charismatic movement started in the 1950’s and has spread through traditional denominations and spawned new churches ever since. It had some notable peaks in the 60’s, the 70’s and especially the 80’s. But since the Toronto Blessing of 1994, charismatic renewal has become mainstream and lost much of its original cutting edge. It has become diluted to the point that the original enthusiasts would look extreme, and few would now emulate them. Arthur Wallis described it in his book The Radical Christian:

“In the early days people talked about ‘the charismatic movement’. It then became ‘the charismatic renewal’. Now people seem content with calling it “the renewal”. Along the way we seem to have lost the two words ‘charismatic’ and ‘movement’, the two words we had at the start. Just coincidence? A mere change of terminology? Or something more significant?” (p.7)

Wallis then goes on to show how the dilution of the original movement took place and he gave a plea for it to be reversed. The “Mexican wave” of the movement was dying as the dissenters were watering it down. Wallis quotes an example about how someone received a blessing in the Spirit:

“He received the Spirit so quietly, without any emotion, …. Just as it should be” (p.66)

But Wallis takes issue with this, because that is not how it was at the beginning of the movement, and, he argues, not as it should be at all. The central doctrine of the movement had been toned down to be acceptable to a wider audience. They had reduced the “Mexican wave” of renewal to a whimper.

Now there appears to be a new move of God taking place, wild and challenging to the wider church, will it turn to a revival? Will the enthusiasts be powerful enough to produce that “Mexican wave” of blessing? It will be interesting to watch. But like a sport’s crowd we are also part of a system, and by watching it we become part of it and respond to it. What will be that response?

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Revival with a Smile

There have been numerous candidates for the phenomena of revival in the last hundred years or so; the 1904 Welsh revival and the 1949 Hebridean revival are accepted by most Christians as the genuine article. More recently there has been the Toronto Blessing, Pensacola, and charismatic renewal itself, all of which have caused controversy. But revival is always controversial at the time it happens, revival not only leads to growth and an influx of new life, but also challenges the world and the church.

I am always on the lookout for new candidates for revival, be they large movements or a small group in one location. There is the whole emerging church, of which fresh expressions is a denominational equivalent. I must write more on this sometime as I feel this does not have the hallmark of revival. So when I heard of Emerge Wales, I thought, “just another emerging church, pragmatic, artistic, into community transformation rather than revival”. However I was wrong. What I discovered was a largely underground and wild charismatic movement something along the lines of the Toronto Blessing, but less churchy.

I also found that it was not just in my native Wales, but also in pockets over England, Scotland and the USA. It has a flagship meeting called “Sloshfest”, a name guaranteed to raise the hackles of many in the Christian church; a meeting that draws people from around the UK although largely unnoticed by the wider church. More than that it was on this week in my part of South Wales for 3 days. And so I went to the evening meeting last night (Friday).

This is a movement difficult to pigeonhole. For the sake of having a name I have called them the “New Mystics”, the name of one of their groups, although “New Charismatics” might be better name, as that is their lineage. The original Charismatic renewal spread by word-of-mouth. The Toronto Blessing in 1994 had its spread accelerated through the then infant, but growing, Internet. The Emerging Church has added the phenomena of the blog to assist its spread. However the “New Mystics” use YouTube as the main vehicle of spread. This way their wildness and enthusiasm can be seen by all!

Now wildness is not new to the Christian Church. Not that long ago Matt Redman was singing “I will dance, I will sing, I’ll be mad for my King – and I will be, even more undignified than this”. I am not sure that generation of Christians ever achieved it. They managed to sing it without losing their reputation. But the New Mystics have achieved it with style; as one speaker said last night “once you have lost your reputation, you have nothing left to lose!” These people are determined to be mad for their King.

The meeting. The first surprise was how many had gathered, and that the bulk of them were young. This had all the appearance of something in its early stages that is growing – new and vibrant. The next surprise is that many were dressed as pirates – for worship! I guessed it must have been a theme of the conference. One thing was clear; they were determined to have fun! Before the meeting started some were dancing, some being prayed for, some were struggling to stand (remember the name? Sloshfest?). However all were smiling!

When the worship started everyone rushed to the front, to the dance floor. The songs were “in your face”, not the flowery poetry of contemporary Christian worship. Lots of repetitive hook lines and hook words “round, round, round, round …”. When we sang “Can’t go back to boring meetings, can’t go back to pop chart singing”, I knew this was something different. And I could see where they were coming from. And everyone was smiling; perhaps that is why they were singing these words, as the average Christian service is not known for its smiles.

Prayer time was more like a mosh pit, the prophecies were lost in the hysterical laughter of the speaker, and the person in charge for the night gave endless stories from his home life and shopping experiences, drawing out their spiritual significance for the gathered people. There was even water being thrown around. Critics of charismatic behaviour, revival and the Christian church could have a field day. But you had to smile.

The main speaker, John Scotland, struggled to control himself, or perhaps he wasn’t trying to! He read a Bible passage and successfully explained it, but frequently dropped into Beatles’ songs (he was from Liverpool), using them for prophetic effect. “Help I need somebody” took on a new meaning. He quickly ran out of steam so worship happened again. But we still smiled.

There was still some hint of normal church that the normal Christian would recognise. There was the offering and we were encouraged, over-encouraged at length, to give generously. I guess some things in church never change. There was less smiling at this point.

The leader of the meeting summarised the movement succinctly when he said he was after revival, but revival with a smile. They certainly got the smiles, but is it revival?

These New Mystics do not just meet in Sloshfest and the like, they go out on the streets and deliver the gospel with the same wildness, enthusiasm and smiles. And people are converted. Now that is the essence of the enthusiasts in my church growth models. Not just human enthusiasm, but passing on the faith to unbelievers, reproducing new Christian enthusiasts. On the evidence so far the New Mystics are doing this and I would expect to see revival-like growth.

I will leave it open for now as to whether it is spiritual revival. I am sure others will reach a negative conclusion, and much faster. But if they grow, and retain their current level of wildness, then one thing is for sure; they will shake the wider church, especially the contemporary charismatic and evangelical church to the core. It will no longer have the luxury of falling asleep and taking its time.

What about me? Noise, party dress, moshing is not my idea of church. But 24 hours on I am still smiling, and thinking a lot about Jesus.

Blogs

One things is clear - I have not got the hang of blogs yet! Keep thinking I have to write a full article, rather than brief thoughts. I never could be brief as a glance at any of my published papers will reveal. Thought i should add this apology for those who delve into the blog from the church growth modelling website and wondered if I had stopped. However another post is coming very soon