Ahead of her appearance at this summer’s Greenbelt Festival, Justin Brierley meets the unorthodoxly orthodox pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints
We’re all familiar with statistics that decry the declining UK Church, but many local churches are bucking the trend. Justin Brierley investigates what has made the difference for those whose churches are bursting at the seams.
Let’s be clear: there is no miracle formula for growing your church. If the magic ingredients could be bottled and sold, someone somewhere would be very rich by now. Nor is numerical growth the only mark of success. Discipleship, local engagement and longevity of commitment are also important. Megachurches in the US account for more than half of all church attendance, but critics point out that such congregations can often be a ‘mile wide and an inch deep’.
Equally, popular new churches that see ‘transfer growth’ from other local congregations (aka ‘sheep stealing’) could be accused of simply rearranging the deckchairs while the Titanic sinks. Planted in ‘hard soil’, some churches may be doing well to simply maintain their present numbers.
Even churches growing at a healthy rate have no cause to be complacent. Congregations that increase to a certain size and then 'plateau', failing to break a glass ceiling of 200 to 300 attendees, are a frequent phenomenon.
IT’S ALL ABOUT ‘OPENING NEW “FRONT DOORS” TO THE CHURCH Joel Virgo
These caveats aside, there are plenty of practical lessons to be learned from those who have seen their congregations grow. Distilled from conversations with a variety of church leaders and innovators, here are ten things you could try in order to grow your church this year:
1. MAKE SUNDAY SPECIAL
Across the board, most churches that see significant growth are doing it the tried-and-tested way by creating a Sunday morning service with broad appeal. Unsurprisingly, congregations grow because people invite their friends and relatives along. When people stop feeling inclined to do that, it is ‘game over’, according to Clement Okusi, pastor of Potter’s House Christian Church, Croydon. ‘People come to church because other people bring them,’ he says.
Tope Koleoso, senior pastor at Jubilee Church in Enfield, believes that engaging and dynamic weekly worship is a key to growth. ‘We focused on our Sunday mornings and determined to make them accessible for the unbeliever, but with a strong sense of encountering God for the believer. As our people began to feel more excited about the church, they invited more and more of their friends.’
While the quality of music and creative expression in worship is important, the sermon remains central. Since it started in 2001, Okusi’s church has grown to 500 attendees. He says that that the message he preaches sets the agenda for the congregation. ‘The key ingredient…apart from the Holy Spirit…is the senior pastor. The pulpit is the rudder of the church.’
Making the Sunday morning experience relevant to an unchurched generation led Phil Moore, pastor at Everyday Church in Wimbledon, to more challenging preaching, believing that ‘when the church is most controversial, it is most relevant’. Subjects have included sex, money and tough questions.
‘This combination of letting God be God and preaching God’s word in all its offensive glory has been behind our considerable growth,’ he says.
2.ADD AN EXTRA SERVICE (and maybe even an extra venue)
Research indicates that once 80% of the seating in a venue is in use, a congregation stops growing. The psychological impression of a worship space being ‘full’ is off-putting for new people. Some churches will move to a larger building when they outgrow the old one, but if this isn’t an option, adding an extra service may be the obvious step.
When Holy Trinity Brompton, home of the Alpha course, added a 4pm Sunday service at one of its venues (alongside the existing morning and evening services), attendance quickly filled up in the new service without any noticeable difference to the other services.
Other churches have reported similar experiences. When Potter’s House Croydon reached capacity and added a 9.30am service it alleviated congestion in the later service. However, within nine months the early service was more than half-full and the second service was back to capacity.
Some churches that find space at a premium are opting to add extra venues. Joel Virgo, senior pastor at Church of Christ the King, Brighton, says the church has strategically chosen to plant multiple sites across the city and to launch new services within each of these on a termly or annual basis. Virgo says it’s all about ‘opening new “front doors” to the church, which give more opportunities for people to meet with us’.
Moore, whose Everyday Church has grown from 250 to 750 over the last four years, says: ‘We have gone from one venue to three venues and we are planning to launch two new venues in September. We didn’t jump on the multi-venue bandwagon...Mars Hill’s implosion has demonstrated that it’s certainly not a silver bullet for success...but we felt very strongly that God was leading us into it and it has proved a very powerful strategy.’
3. WORK ON YOUR WELCOME
If you’ve been attending the same church for years on end, it’s likely that you’ve grown blind to the challenges that greet a newcomer who is entering for the first time. Where do I sit? Does it matter if my child cries? Will anyone talk to me?
Mark Landreth-Smith, pastor of The Beacon Church, Camberley, believes making new attendees feel at home from the moment they drive into the car park will significantly increase the chances of them returning.
‘We’ve worked really hard to have a good and well-drilled welcome team,’ he says. ‘After newcomers have visited we’ll follow them up and get in touch: “It was great to have you on Sunday morning, is there anything else we can do for you?” That is the principle driver for growth: how you treat your first-time visitor.’ It’s not uncommon for members who know each other well to think of their church as ‘welcoming’. But, left stranded with a lukewarm cup of tea during post-service refreshments while the regulars chat to each other, some visitors may not feel the same way.
THE PULPIT IS THE RUDDER OF THE CHURCH Clement Okusi
Mark Russell, CEO of Church Army, says that when his home church switched its polystyrene cups and instant coffee for proper mugs and proper coffee machines it was an evangelistic act. It’s important for congregations to spot people who are new, says Russell, and to make them feel welcome without being overwhelming. If they leave feeling they have not been welcomed, ‘all the research shows they’ll be even more difficult to reach the next time,’ he says.
4. ENCOURAGE BELONGING AND BELIEVING
For newcomers who do make the journey across the church threshold, the next step is integration into the wider church family. Belonging will often precede believing, and forming friendships is essential.
Linda Maslen is a Church of England ordinand who helps to run Saturday Gathering, a Fresh Expressions project in Halifax that grew out of a church-run food bank. The worshipping community developed after those picking up food parcels were given the opportunity to include prayer on the shopping list.
Between 50 and 60 people now regularly meet on Saturday night and more than 20 baptisms have taken place. Those attending would likely feel uncomfortable in a traditional church setting, says Maslen: ‘They would just find it too difficult and too complex. But they do know that whenever they need us, they can turn up at the door here and they will always be welcomed in with a hug and a smile, and usually some food as well.’
Likewise, churches that create community through a robust social programme tend to grow, according to Share Jesus director Andy Frost. ‘They are looking for ways for people to become integrated into church life. It’s about belonging, believing and behaving. That’s a continual process of doing all three at the same time.’
WHENEVER THEY NEED US, THEY CAN TURN UP AT THE DOOR AND THEY WILL ALWAYS BE WELCOMED IN WITH A HUG Linda Maslen
5. INVEST IN YOUNG PEOPLE
According to Phoebe Thompson, editor of Premier Youthwork, more than 80% of Christians make a commitment to Christ before they reach the age of 18. With that in mind, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that churches should be invested in reaching and keeping young people. Yet, on average, only a tiny percentage of annual church budgets is allocated to youth and children’s work.
Landreth-Smith believes that a strong children’s ministry has been indispensable at The Beacon. ‘We’ve worked hard at making sure we have excellent children’s ministry.
I find it heartening and annoying that when I ask people why they have decided to become part of the church, they mostly say, “Because of the children’s work”. I don’t think anyone has said, “Because of you, Mark!”’
Ten years ago, Lee Kricher, author of For a New Generation (Xulon Press), took over a dying congregation in Pittsburgh, US. Amplify Church now has more than 1,600 regular members and Kricher maintains that putting youth at the forefront has made a massive difference.
‘I believe that young people need to be purposefully placed into visible leadership roles and provided the mentoring to be successful in those roles,’ he says. ‘We have a “75% rule”, which is that 75% of all of the people in visible leadership during any given weekend service must be the average of, or younger than, the community we serve.
Since that age is 35 for our church’s community, that takes a lot of intentional mentoring!’
6. ENGAGE YOUR COMMUNITY
Life Church, Newton Aycliffe, is another Fresh Expression that grew out of local Christians banding together to provide advice and help for people struggling with financial debt. As needs were met, the organisers were increasingly asked about their faith. Susan Sadler, lead evangelist at Christians Against Poverty, describes the challenges of leading a community that grew to over 100 within a year.
‘It’s great to reach gang leaders and children expelled from school, of course, but it brings its own problems and I have been criticised for that. I’ve been told, “You encourage these people, Susan.” My critics are quite right. I do encourage these people and I will always encourage them!’
Frost believes churches need to place community engagement alongside evangelism. ‘Whether it be the pub quiz or a community barbecue, experiencing some of what the kingdom is all about is an important step before you preach the gospel,’ he says. ‘It shows the Church isn’t some alien, wacky group; it’s ordinary people who have discovered something of the power of God.’
7. MARKET YOURSELF
This relates to point 6, because the best marketing is the kind that comes from positive interactions with the local community. Giving people a reason to enter the church is half the battle. So make the most of Christmas, Easter and any other holidays or events that give you an excuse to invite people in.
Over the last few years, Woking United Reformed Church has run a series of community events during half-term. These have included an indoor synthetic ice rink and a mobile petting farm. Once a month, church members hand out free tea and coffee to early morning commuters as they make their way to the train station. The church has seen steady growth as it has become recognised in the local community.
THE FIRST KEY WAS A RENEWED EMPHASIS ON PRAYER Tope Koleoso
And don’t forget your website. Many churches spend more on their external signage than they do on their online presence. Yet the website is the first thing most people will see (and judge you on) before they ever set foot inside your building. A tired-looking website containing outdated information will immediately raise questions about whether a church is worth visiting.
8.DON’T SPREAD YOURSELF TOO THIN
Sociologists estimate that the widest circle of friends the average person can sustain is about 150. That may explain why many churches fail to grow beyond this number when they adopt the view that the pastor must be accessible to everybody in the congregation. Churches that grow have been able to develop pastoral support networks that allow everyone in the church to be ministered to without the pastor having to do it all. Crucially, this gives the church leader space to develop the church’s vision and direction.
YOUNG PEOPLE NEED TO BE PURPOSEFULLY PLACED INTO VISIBLE LEADERSHIP ROLES Lee Kricher
‘When church leaders proliferate meetings it wears out the faithful,’ warns Moore. ‘When I started leading Everyday Church four years ago, I deliberately culled many of the meetings. As a result of this freedom to breathe, the church grew much stronger.’
9. RUN AN EVANGELISTIC COURSE (AND CHURCH)
Remember that many of the other factors for church growth need to be in place before an introductory course such as Alpha or Christianity Explored can have maximal effect.
Chris Sinkinson helps to lead Alderholt Chapel in Dorset, where the congregation has trebled in size over the past decade. He says the Christianity Explored course has been the single most effective activity through which people have come to faith in Christ, but that its success depends on the evangelistic energy of the whole church.
‘If it weren’t for men’s groups, parents’ and toddlers’ groups, and good friendships, there would be no one feeding into Christianity Explored. Strategically, the church needs to be missionary-minded so that every member knows they have a role in sharing their faith, inviting friends and ensuring that visitors feel at home.’
Wherever you see a church growing, you can be sure there is a solid foundation of prayer behind the strategies and programmes. In 1 Corinthians 3:6, Paul says: ‘I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.’ In our efforts to see church growth, we need to acknowledge how little we can achieve without God’s blessing, which brings forth the fruit.
Jubilee Church has seen a period of rapid growth to more than 1,000 in attendance at the multiplex cinema it takes over on Sunday mornings. But Koleoso says the growth was preceded by years of prayer.
‘The first key in our transition to growth was a renewed emphasis on prayer,’ he says. ‘A few of us began to meet weekly and really cry out to God for his presence and for him to cause us to grow. As that prayer meeting grew, our passion for God grew and our concern for the lost grew too.’
Praying for growth also means that expectations rise. When churches become inward-looking they forget the power of the gospel and forget what it feels like to grow. However, all the leaders I have spoken to have had faith that God will grow the UK Church if we surrender our personal ambitions to him.
As 2015 begins, I hope that these suggestions may spark a fresh vision for what God can do in your church when you plant a seed, water it and allow him to make it grow.