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Tim Suttle

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How to Shrink Your Church

Posted: 11/21/2011 9:00 am

Pastors and churches spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year attending conferences, buying books, hiring consultants, advertisers and marketers, all to try and accomplish one thing: to increase attendance -- to be a bigger church.

I'm absolutely convinced this is the wrong tack.

Success is a slippery subject when it comes to the Church. That our ultimate picture of success is a crucified Messiah means any conversation about success will be incompatible with a "bigger is better" mentality. Yet, bigger and better is exactly what most churches seem to be pursuing these days: a pursuit which typically comes in the form of sentimentality and pragmatism.

Sentimentality and pragmatism are the one-two punch which has the American Church on the ropes, while a generation of church leaders acquiesces to the demands of our consumer culture. The demands are simple: tell me something that will make me feel better (sentimentality for the churchgoer), and tell me something that will work (pragmatism for the church leader). Yet it is not clear how either one of those are part of what it means to be the church.

Sentimentality is mother's milk to the church which has ceased to believe our faith should really make a difference in the way we live our lives. Instead of proclaiming resurrection, the sentimental church will devote their entire Sunday worship service to Mother's/Father's Day -- or worse yet, Valentine's Day. Not that we don't appreciate our parents and sweethearts, but the yielding of precious worship time to the celebration of greeting card companies signals a much deeper problem: we have lost track of the story of God. Yet, for a church to grow bigger, losing track of the story is precisely what is required.

Instead of pursuing faithfulness the sentimental church must provide a place where people can come to hear a comforting message from an effusive pastor spouting fervent one-liners which are intended only to make us feel good about the decisions we've already made with our lives. If our beliefs aren't actually, really true then at least we can have a Hallmark moment, right? Above all the sentimental church must never teach us that in the kingdom of God, up is down, in is out, and nothing short of dying to ourselves and each other can help us truly live.

Perhaps more than sentimentality, pragmatism is ravaging the church. Pragmatism has led to a fairly new niche industry I call the Church Leadership Culture. Taking their cues from business, church leadership manuals are more than willing to instruct the interested pastor in how to gain market share. I once heard church consultant and leadership guru Don Cousins say that you can grow a church without God if you have good preaching, great music, killer children's ministry, and an engaging youth minister. Cousins should know. He helped build Willow Creek Community Church and the church leadership culture. In the pragmatic church, there is only one question that matters, "What will work to grow my church?"

The fundamental problem with the one-two punch of sentimentality and pragmatism is, of course, the church's job is not to affirm people's lives, but to allow the gospel to continually call our lives into question. The church's job is not to grow -- not even to survive. The church's job is to die -- continually -- on behalf of the world, believing that with every death there is a resurrection. God's part is to grow whatever God wishes to grow. Growing a church isn't hard ... being faithful as the church, that's a different story.

I'm the pastor of a church called Redemption Church in Olathe, KS. Our church was planted in 2003 and founded upon church leadership principles that worked like a charm. We grew from 2 families to around 200 families in the first three years. We planted another church in a nearby town and continued to grow. But, when we decided to reject sentimentality and pragmatism and chase faithfulness instead we really began to grow ... smaller that is. I don't know for sure because we no longer count, but my best guess is that we have decreased by more than half. If pressed about my church's growth strategy, I usually say it is to get smaller and die; to continually decrease the amount of time, resources and energy we spend trying to have the ultimate church experience, and to spend more time actually being faithful. Nowadays, faithfulness -- not success -- is our only metric. Success is about "doing." Faithfulness is about "being," and it's really hard to measure.

Convincing the church she does not exist for the benefit of her members, but for the life of the world is a bad church growth strategy. It's also exactly what the church must do. It's a tough sell because crucifixion seems like a losing strategy unless you believe in the resurrection. Faithfulness seems like a losing strategy unless you believe that the power of the gospel trumps our ability to come up with all the right answers to all the right questions.

So, God save us from the successful church. Give us churches who shun sentimentality and pragmatism and aren't afraid to face the inevitable shrinkage which comes as a result of following Jesus. God save us from church leadership strategies. After all, it takes zero faith to follow a strategy, but incredible faith to pursue the kingdom of God and leave the rest in God's hands. If I've learned anything as a pastor, it is this: faithfulness flies in the face of sentimentality and pragmatism, and if you pursue it you have to expect small numbers.


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