Doing church work today is no easy task. The Western world is in a time of chaotic flux. Talk of burning platforms, exponential rates of change, and societal stress make many people nervous about where our world and our churches are headed. Doom and gloom seem to be our lot in this age of upheaval.
Let’s step back for a second. Things are rarely as bad as they seem. Reports of our demise are greatly exaggerated, to say the least. By contrast though, predicting success in any church venture is impossible. There simply is no surefire recipe for growth.
This fact shouldn’t trouble us. Most of the important things in life are actually unpredictable. Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman argues this very principle (among other things) in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman talks about the “planning fallacy” as a common ailment of Americans. People tend to overestimate the potential benefits while underestimating the costs of a venture. Although people think of themselves as rational beings who control their destinies and shape their futures, the reality is that folks are driven by emotions and memories that have little connection with actual experiences. In other words, humans are not rational, robotic beings that can be predictably programmed. And as a result, most folks are often way off when forecasting what’s to come.
This brings me to my point. Church growth is not predictable—and certainly not controllable. If you’re reading a book or following a lecture about how to grow your church, please stop listening. Their “recipe” for success will almost certainly frustrate you because it will not work.
There’s nothing wrong with hearing someone’s success story. It can be encouraging to know it’s possible. More often than not, however, another church’s story of “miraculous growth” can be demoralizing. You will wrongly assume that their results are repeatable and that something is wrong with you if you can’t replicate it. Stop fooling yourself. Church growth is not predictable.
In the 1960s, Churches of Christ were among the fastest growing denominations in North America. Why? Was it great strategy? Amazing leaders? Overflowing PR budgets? I’m sure there were plenty of good things to report about the who and the how of that era. But there was no shortage of bad leadership, poor strategy and underwhelming coffers. Simply put, it was good fortune. Our churches happened to be in the right places with the right message for that exact time. You can’t script it. And you sure can’t copy something that was unpredictable and unrepeatable.
Andy Stanley planted a great church called North Point Community Church north of Atlanta. In his book Deep and Wide, he describes the journey of his very successful church plant. While he cautions against reading his story as a blueprint, it’s hard not to read it that way. What’s hopefully not lost on the reader is the unpredictable and unrepeatable series of events that led to his church’s amazing growth. First, Andy was the son of the well-known and widely-respected Baptist preacher Charles Stanley whose church in downtown Atlanta was the legacy church in the region. Second, a number of challenges at his father’s church coincided with his launch. Third, he was able to start the new church with 1,200 of his “closest” friends. Other factors figure into the mix, but the key takeaway should be that there were so many unpredictable things that came together. No one could possibly choreograph all those to coalesce without a big dose of good fortune, impeccable timing and graceful skill to act upon it.
My point is that we never know when good fortune, impeccable timing, and graceful skill will come together to create church growth. If we believe that God is the sovereign Lord, then we should acknowledge that the world does not hold our measuring stick. Faithfulness to God is not the same thing as church growth. When we are faithful and ready, however, then who knows when old wineskins might burst open with new wine?
We plant. We water. It’s the Lord who gives the increase. Church growth is not predictable. Doom and gloom may indeed be on the horizon. Many of our churches may be like burning platforms that one day cease to exist.
But don’t be alarmed. God is faithful and just. God’s good purposes will continue with or without us. To assume failure, however, is to rely on our own forecasting power—and that should not be trusted. But we also shouldn’t rule church growth into or out of the equation. If we labor faithfully and walk in humility, we never know when church growth might break out.