Monday, January 21, 2013

Congregations: Why One Size Does not Fit All

“What do you think of Natural Church Development?”  This is a question that I have heard often in the last few years.  Not long ago the question would have been “What do you think about The Purpose Driven Church?”
The programmatic approaches to congregations or what I like to call the “One Approach Fits All” methodologies are all developed with the belief that these will fit most any congregation.  I have seen such approaches (even tried some) for many years now.  In this blog, I want to share what I think is right about them and where I see their limitations.
First let me start with a list of some of these:
                The Purpose Driven Church
                Natural Church Development
                Small Groups: Evangelistic, Pastoral, Instructional, etc.
                Fuller Church Growth Institute – The Church Growth Pastor 

This week I learned from one of our Oklahoma Rectors that the Diocese of Chicago has developed a program based on Bill Hybel’s work at his Willow Creek Church, but of course “adapted” to an Episcopal setting. 

Two of these, Natural Church Development and the new Chicago one, use a survey of members to determine a church’s strengths and weaknesses and then recommends a course of action.  The others use a model for the church (or in the Fuller approach, for the pastor) that can be imposed upon the current congregation.  Many of you may remember Carl George’s evangelistic small group strategy which argued for building churches on small groups.  “Grow larger by growing smaller” was a slogan for this movement.  Dale Galloway took a similar approach using pastoral small groups in his church in Oregon and then published a whole curriculum around it.   

Now let me make myself clear.  I am not universally discrediting such approaches.  All of these do work and all have strong advocates of their methodology.  I often point out that given most Episcopal congregations operate on simply repeating what they have always done.  This means that any approach that gets church leaders to think systematically about their church will generally improve things.  Further, the survey and application approach bases the plan on analysis of the present situation in a church.  This is never a bad idea.  These approaches do have limitations and they are not my preferred way of developing congregations.  What really astonishes me is when I hear of some Episcopal Diocese that has decided to make one of them their general approach to all congregations. One thing that I have done which such dioceses have not is to analyze congregations where these approaches have not worked.  

The Limitations
So here are some of the limitations I have found with these approaches: 

1.        Some programs assume that growth of churches is “natural” and follows a straight upward line as long as certain issues are attended to.  Natural Church Development and The Purpose Driven Church both follow the evangelical assumptions of the Fuller Church Growth Institute.  I would summarize these as “Real Churches are evangelistic churches and these churches will grow naturally unless something non-Gospel oriented or artificial interferes with this growth.”  

Often these approaches do not fit well with historic, sacramental churches.  Episcopal congregations that use these approaches often have to adapt the language to fit our context.  Further, is growth a constant and straight line affair?  Congregational research reveals that long-term growth is almost always a series of growth periods followed by plateaus.  In development understanding, plateaus follow a time of growth as the “system” adapts to the changes that the growth has produced.  Just observe any teenager to see how this works.   

2.        Such approaches often work best with larger congregations.  When I was rector of St. Luke’s in Seattle, we introduced a pastoral small group model for the congregation.  Within six months, the congregation was the largest it had ever been with ASA running between 450 and 500.  However, we introduced this into an already programmatic size, multi-staffed congregation by training new leaders over a three month period.  Second, we allowed many of the present members to opt out of this new approach and applied it most directly to new members.  I have found that the Purpose Driven Approach has seemed to work best when introduced to transitional and program size churches.  

Why is this so, because the obstacles and resistances to growth in smaller size churches are rooted solidly in the complex social relationships among current members.  This is enhanced often with a small church mentality, “We like our small church because we know everyone here.”   

By the way, one of my successors believed that lay people should not meet in small groups unless the pastor was present.  Today that congregation’s ASA is around 25.  This is not the only reason for the church’s decline, but it was a significant one.  

3.       Such approaches often work best in newer congregations.  Most church plants that become larger congregations tend to start with a systematic approach for reaching new members such as small group discipleship classes.  Every new church without buildings, Rose Windows, and an altar guild to sustain it, needs a methodology to hold it together.  I always ask a new church planter what is your vision for this church, what are the core values, and what is the proven methodology that you will use to attract and assimilate new members.  

4.       Such approaches often work when there is a dynamic and directive clergy person who believes in the methodology and persists in it. Of course, I’ve seen many situations where the methodology failed and the pastor either left or was removed.  However, if you discover one of these approaches and believe with your whole heart it is Jesus’ way for the church, than by all means find a congregation that will follow it or start a new one.   

The Alternative
For me the alternative is Congregational Development.  This approach is more complex, more nuanced, and often takes more patience.  It is the way of working with congregations that I first learned from Lyle Schaller.  It is based on anthropology, psychology, organizational development, and a good dose of historical and ecclesiastical experience.  When we start with this perspective, we assume the following: 

1.       Congregations are complex communities made up of unique leaders and members.  Obviously, one size cannot fit all. 

2.       The size and history of a congregation often determines which steps can best work and which ones will not take. 

3.       All congregations have developmental areas. The local leaders are the best people to determine which areas need their attention. 

4.       Not all congregations have growth potential. 

5.       Some congregations will decline, and death is part of life.  

6.       There is no idea, no matter how great, championed by a judicatory that cannot be easily sabotaged by people on the local level. 

7.       Health is a better goal for congregations than continuing growth. 

8.       Growth is often a bi-product of other activities. 

9.       Aiming exclusively at growth can create unhealthy and anxious congregations. 

10.   Not all growth is good.  Cancer is a growth. 

11.   Dysfunctional behavior is a fact of life. 

12.   If there was a pill or a program that would fix all churches, there would not be a list of different programs.  All these would have long ago been abandoned for the one that works! 

In my next blog, I intend to start a series that builds on what I learned from Lyle Schaller about working with congregations.    




  1. I've used Natural Church Development which I find most useful as a diagnostic tool. Other than the concept that the response must address the critical factor (ie, the weakest area), I don't find the package all that prescriptive.

    I like your point 7. In fact, what attracted me to NCD was the idea that it was a church growth program that didn't actually talk about church growth, but church health.

  2. I love #6 as it is so true! As a Deacon, however, I continue to "champion" what Dr. Loren Mead proposed in his book, "The Once and Future Church." His thesis was the church needed to supply what the community needed, not another asset based, single use building. His narrative was punctuated by examples of dying churches who identified with their community and supplying needs were a springboard to a growth that built relationships throughout the community. I think that works in rural areas where the need is a vet/doctor/dentist, or a kitchen for Meals on Wheels, or a Youth Group.
    Suburban and Urban churches still can use the "thesis" but have to ferret the community as a part of their overall plan to remain viable. In Tulsa, churches that died usually imploded because they only served their small, yet "comfortable" number. As dysfunctional as change can be, it seems that change is necessary to remain viable in suburban and urban area.
    Great insights to think on today!

  3. Malcolm,
    May mainline churches (TEC for example) come out with the lowest being "Spiritual Passion" and a common question I get is "Now What?" I point to the questions that are definite aimed at "Evangelical passion" not necessarily Anglo-catholic" or other styles. What has been your experience