Growing Can Feel Like Dying: Old First Epistle 10.10.14

Growing Can Feel Like Dying: Old First Epistle 10.10.14

A friend shared a blog post with me this past week. It was about how congregations looking for a pastor often mistakenly believe they need to find a leader who can grow the church.

With some passion, almost defensively, the author, J. Barrett Lee, a Presbyterian minister in Kalamazoo, MI stated, rightly “No, she will not (grow the church). No amount of pastoral eloquence, organization, insightfulness, amicability, or charisma will…” Why? Because only God can grow the church.

I’ve always liked best an explanation I first heard from Rick Warren. He pointed out that God wants to grow the church. And God can grow the church.

So, if it isn’t growing, perhaps we need to ask, ‘what are we doing to prevent the community from growing and welcoming more people?”

Pastors can get in the way, but it’s probably too easy, even reflexive, to just blame the minister. More likely, it takes a whole congregation to be able to block God’s purposes.

Are there ways that we prevent Old First from growing and serving more people?

But what I really wanted to share was the blog post’s description of what church growth looks like. It made me smile, because I think the author accurately captures something very important that we often don’t sufficiently acknowledge. Even growth involves loss. The author points out with a dramatic flourish “a growing church will feel like a dying church.”

‘What will growth look like? Will all those old, inactive members suddenly return? Will the pews be packed again? Will you need to start a second service and buy the lot next door in order to expand the parking lot? No.

You might see a few new faces in the crowd. There won’t be many of them. Some might stick around, but most won’t.

Those who stay won’t fit in with the old guard. They won’t know about how you’ve always done things. They’ll want to make changes of their own. Their new ideas will make you uncomfortable. Your church won’t look or feel like it used to. You’ll feel like you’re losing control of this place that you’ve worked so hard to preserve. It will feel like your church is dying.

And that’s just the thing. A growing church is a dying church. It has to be. It cannot be otherwise. The way to Easter Sunday goes through Good Friday. The way to the empty tomb goes through Golgotha. The way to resurrection goes through crucifixion. When Jesus told you to take up your cross and follow, did you expect it to lead anywhere else? What Jesus told us about himself is also true of churches: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it bears no fruit.”

At Old First, we’ve welcomed a lot of people in. It’s not that unusual to look around these days and realize that most of the people in the room arrived after I did. And we’ve had surprisingly few growing pains. It’s a gracious, flexible community made up of the same.

But as we get ready to grow even more, as we ask bigger questions about how we can welcome more people in out worshipping community and serve people better in outreach ministires, expect some discomfort. Maybe even some jitters that it feels more like death than progress.

I imagine there must have been some tears when our forebears tore down buildings or moved away from their sacred ground. That just might be what’s in the future for us, if not literally, than figuratively.

See you in church,
Michael