The Advanced Church Leadership Class at the Methodist Theological Seminary in Ohio (MTSO) had as its primary assignment the completion of a project to explore church growth strategies and to develop a theology and process for contextual and meaningful church growth based, in part, on what the class participants recognized as “best practices” in current literature. In addition, the class evaluated some of these strategies with regard to the range of theological and denominational perspectives represented in the group. This paper is the result of their efforts, and it may best be described as a guide to developing dialogue within small groups, churches, judicatories and denominations about what constitutes “church,” “church growth” and “success,” modeled to a large degree on the process the class pursued to reach its own consensus definitions.
The group members represented many denominations, theological viewpoints, and cultural backgrounds. Trinitarian and Unitarian Universalist viewpoints were included. Some believe the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth is central and essential to religious faith, and others do not. Even among the Trinitarians, some agree with Richard Rohr’s observation that “the most clever way to avoid the message is to worship the messenger.” Some would seek a universal understanding of church to include non-Christian faith perspectives in the belief that all pathways to the divine ultimately reach the same goal. But disclosing these differences does not reveal the breadth and depth of spiritual attitudes, emotions, and ideas among the group’s members.
Rather than taking these differences as a challenge, the class chose to view them as an opportunity: if such a diverse group could reach a level of agreement on an alternative approach to meaningful church growth, then the process would be applicable to a multitude of environments, denominations, and situations.
The plethora of church growth programs available implies the existence of an underlying problem for mainline denominations. Solutions generally do not develop in the absence of a predicament. Overwhelmingly, church growth plans revolve around the issue of numbers: total attendance and membership numbers in churches are dwindling. This information was gathered through scientific surveys performed by Barna Research, the Gallup Institute and the originators of church growth plans themselves.
A general anxiety exists within denominational structures that, unless numbers are turned around, their future existence may be in question. The class also found a growing denominational assumption that unless churches are of some minimum size and show numeric growth, they are considered ineffective or “unsuccessful.” Mainline denominations seem to be in the midst of an identity crisis, causing them to question their own significance. In response, these institutions grasp at definitions and solutions for the problem that are easy to understand – numbers and statistics all pointing to a problem that business style marketing might fix.
Rather than join the fray and deal with the numeric issue alone, the class decided on a question to guide its exploration:
How can the church grow in relevance and impact on people’s daily lives and society as a whole while, in the process, finding again its own significance?
In forming this question, the class redefines church growth from one of numbers to one of meaning-making in the lives of people. This paper explores, first, the infatuation with numbers and the problems inherent in that approach. It next enters into a discussion of the meaning of “church” by briefly exploring the history of Christianity, its resulting theologies and their relevance to church growth movements. A discussion of what the class concluded as the appropriate definitions of church and church growth follows, and leads into a possible process for implementing this approach. Lastly the paper looks at what the impact of this approach could be. A selected bibliography of works referenced for this project as well as additional resources for further readings are located in the appendix.
The Advanced Church Leadership Class at MTSO invites you, the reader, to take the journey we took in our quest for clarity, and search for a process by which the church can come to terms with a re-visioned role in the world. The group believed that dealing with the larger issue of relevance would ultimately make the problem of numbers less distracting, possibly even moot.
Return to Table of Contents
 Richard Rohr, quotation from a private electronic mail correspondence, 22 May 2003.