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If you ask most evangelical churches what their goal is, they’d likely say, “Reach people for Christ and make disciples.” What distinguishes each of these individual churches is how they go about reaching that goal. Some churches will be more effective in their context than if they were transplanted into another context, and that’s good. But in general, in order for churches to reach the goal I stated above, should they focus primarily on trying to get as many people in church as possible or should they focus primarily on building a close-knit community?
Let me start with this. I’m very concerned about the American loneliness epidemic. Depending on which study you look at, approximately half to three-fourths of Americans experience significant loneliness. And the effects of loneliness are far-reaching: from impairing cognitive function, to increased risk of Alzheimer’s, to weakened immune systems, to depression, to increased risk of substance abuse[i]. This is a major health issue that isn’t being addressed to the degree it demands. And the church, frankly, isn’t doing nearly as much as it could be to help. If there’s a social issue in the world, the church should be stepping up to rectify it.
Back to our question. From the rhetoric I’ve heard from pulpits, church leaders tend to be more concerned about growing than the closeness of their church community. As a result, aspiring church leaders think that’s the norm, so that’s what they focus on when they come into ministry. The prevailing rhetoric is, “Let’s reach as many people for Christ as we can!”
There are some potential pros for focusing on growth. It might reach more people than a smaller church. I’m sure there are people who would never set foot in a church unless it was impersonal and/or it resembled a rock concert. The church might be able to fund projects that a smaller church couldn’t. The church might also be able to lend space to the community, more so than a smaller church. People might be able to make more connections.
What are the pros of focusing on building close-knit community? Most people in the church would know each other, and it would be much easier to get to know those we don’t know. New people wouldn’t have to work nearly as hard to find a group they connect to. It would be much easier to do regular church activities and outreach together, which are activities that tend to foster feelings of connectedness. It would be much easier for the church leaders to know everyone in the congregation, and there would be better communication between the members and the leaders. It would also be easier for the pastor(s) to engage with people that know their struggles (this is important since pastors dealing with isolation and mental health issues is an increasing problem). If people feel closer to each other and they see each other more than once a week, they are more likely to disciple each other (and that doesn’t have to be “formal” discipleship). Church would feel more like family.
A growth-focused church would bring more people into church service where they could hear the gospel. But the larger a church becomes, the harder it is to get plugged in and connect with people. So growth-focused churches sacrifice vibrant discipleship for “reach.” And one has to wonder if the vibrant, attractive discipleship-focused community would organically pull more outsiders in anyway (this assumes these smaller churches plant more churches, which is much more feasible than big churches trying to plant growth-focused churches).
Perhaps we need a few big, growth-focused churches for the people who just wouldn’t attend church otherwise. However, most church leaders I’ve been around seem to think growth-focused is the only model, and just looking around a typical American city will show how many big churches exist. Frankly, we don’t need any more of them. What we need is smaller, community-focused congregations that multiply.
Nowadays, to attend church or to be part of a church means simply to walk in a building once a week. That’s not church. It never was and it never will be. Our Western definition of church has to change. It’s ineffective and it’s not reaching communities the way it should.
According to a 2015 Barna study,
Despite believing their church emphasizes spiritual growth, engagement with the practices associated with discipleship leave much to be desired. For example, only 20 percent of Christian adults are involved in some sort of discipleship activity—and this includes a wide range of activities such as attending Sunday school or fellowship group, meeting with a spiritual mentor, studying the Bible with a group, or reading and discussing a Christian book with a group…Among Christians who say spiritual growth is important, more than one-third say they prefer to pursue spiritual growth on their own (37%). Similarly, two in five of all Christian adults consider their spiritual life to be “entirely private” (41%)[ii].
A growth-focused church naturally is thrilled when attendance increases. But naturally, since their focus is on getting more people into the church service and all that entails, they have less time and resources to get people plugged into smaller, discipleship-focused groups. Growth-focused churches can’t facilitate discipleship as effectively as smaller, community-focused churches. So the result of all of our big, growth-focused churches is less-than-ideal discipleship. And a result of that is more isolated people whose discipleship options are limited to mostly individual activities (hence more than a third of Christians in the Barna study say “they prefer to pursue spiritual growth on their own…[and] two in five of all Christian adults consider their spiritual life to be ‘entirely private’”). Somewhere around 40% of Christians saying spiritual growth is a private matter is the antithesis of biblical discipleship.
We have to start considering other ways of doing church. Big, growth-focused churches have some benefits, but there needs to be more options for small, community-focused, discipleship-focused churches. The American church can fix the lack of discipleship, and it can fix the concerning amount of loneliness. It just won’t be done doing the same thing we’ve been doing.
[i] “Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Loneliness.” Cigna. March 2019, https://www.cigna.com/individuals-families/health-wellness/chronic-loneliness. Accessed 31 October 2019.
[ii] “New Research on the State of Discipleship.” Barna. 1 December 2015, https://www.barna.com/research/new-research-on-the-state-of-discipleship/. Accessed 3 November 2019.