By The Rev. Cn. Dr. Rob Droste
Canon for Congregational Development and Mission
Vitality. Growth. Your Church.
Part 1 of a series of articles on personal and congregational growth leading to the Jan. 6 launch of Way of St. Paul, Season 4, the Diocese of NJ’s comprehensive support program for growing churches by helping grow disciples. Click here to stay informed.
Want to Grow? Five Words To Know
When you think about growing your church, things can get complicated very quickly. Maybe your congregation feels an urgent need to do something (or anything!). Maybe they’re just plain worn out from years of trying so many things, so many times. COVID losses have disheartened many. When you look at your options, the sheer number can be overwhelming. Many are expensive. So where do you start?
The answer lies in one of the great axioms of church vitality:
Personal growth precedes congregational growth.
Let that sink in for a minute: Personal growth precedes congregational growth. Five words.
Personal growth precedes congregational growth
I was first introduced to this idea by Bob Logan, adjunct professor at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California. Bob, a great friend of the Diocese of New Jersey, is a pastor, teacher, and author with wide expertise in church growth, discipleship, and church planting. These five words, with their simplicity and clarity, come out of his experience.
I hope you’ll take some time to consider why this principle is so important, and why it can help you so much in your church vitality efforts. I’ve found at least three reasons that congregational growth starts with personal growth, our own development as disciples of Jesus Christ:
First, personal growth, experienced, recognized and celebrated, generates energy and motivation. (And we need those to do our growth work.) This is true for learning new ideas and skills in every area of life, of course. But how much more so when the growth is spiritual in nature—and the energy increases exponentially when it’s flowing from the power of Jesus Christ, God and the Holy Spirit!
We don’t have to look far for examples. Paul’s enthusiasm and energy burn brightly in his writings, from Romans 12:11 (“Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord”) to Colossians 3:23 (“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord”).
The history of the church is full of people, from the first disciples through Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero or Martin Luther King, who were able to sustain world-changing work based on their growth in Christ over decades. Their work for justice arose from their discipleship. When John Newton wrote, “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,” he practically shouts his gratitude. The energy is really there.
If you think about your church, who wouldn’t like to have more motivated people? Who couldn’t use some more energy? If personal growth, recognized, named, and celebrated can give those gifts, focusing on it will be very helpful indeed.
Second, personal growth, especially spiritual growth, gives wisdom and perspective for all of our church growth work. It’s easy to see how the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control) will strengthen our decision-making.
We can see that Jesus’ influence in our lives, personally and in community, can and does shape our thinking and actions. We might smile at WWJD bracelets, but wondering what Jesus would do in a given situation is an important way to let him guide the decisions we make. As we grow in holiness over a lifetime, as we grow ever more in the likeness of Jesus, we are given an ever-stronger foundation in the truth of his life and message. And with Jesus comes the weight and reality of the cross—there to anchor all of it in truth.
Third, personal growth, especially spiritual growth, gives us the authenticity crucial to church growth. To start, authenticity is key to countering one of the most damaging perceptions of the church (held especially by those who have left it): that members aren’t “real.” Some point to what they perceive as hypocrisy; others look at the difficulty of forming honest relationships in church beyond the surface. The more we can nurture a deep and transformative experience of God over time, the more authentic we’ll be in conversation, interaction and just simple kind, listening and caring presence.
If we want a good example of how important authenticity is to growth, take Millennials. Every congregation I work with—and I mean every—longs to attract Millennials. I’ve spoken with many, many Millennials over the years (and I have three nieces in that group) and to a person they tell me that a lack of authenticity is the number one reason they avoid church. Number one. They can smell inauthenticity from a mile away. Studies also show that spiritual growth is their top priority—and they want to see that in us. In other words, we won’t get them if we aren’t having authentic spiritual experiences ourselves!
We won’t get them if we aren’t having authentic spiritual experiences ourselves!
One other point is important here. If we all agree (and I think we do) that our purpose is to help people experience personal spiritual growth, we cannot help others have an experience that we have not had ourselves. That help—that gift—requires an experience that we can articulate, that gives us energy and hope, and leads to positive change. An old truth puts it this way: you can’t give away something you don’t have.
By now, I hope that it’s clear why the principle that “personal growth precedes congregational growth” is so important. When we are unaware of it, or don’t make it central, we deny ourselves essential resources for successfully growing our churches. We don’t get the focus that we could, and we can waste a lot of energy engaged in activities that don’t get us what we want. Putting this concept at the center of our lives together can make a huge difference.