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?