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How to Grow Your Church
Church in decline? Don't know where to turn? The bookshelf is a good start.

Evangelism. For decades there was no need to do it. Everyone we knew already had a church affiliation. For a few more decades we were embarrassed to evangelize. Experiences of harsh street-preachers who shouted "turn or burn" caused most of us to become silent Christians. "Talk about Jesus? Share my faith? No way!"

Get yourself educated. There are many courses available.

But now we have to. Our congregations are aging. Attendance is dropping. Amalgamations and closings are happening everywhere. So church leaders are investigating ways to reverse the trend. In the space of five days, a Conference president and a Presbytery chair talked with me about finding solutions for declining congregations they cared for.

Where to start? Get yourself educated. There are many courses available. But the best place to begin is to read. I've been inspired and educated by a long list: Tom Bandy, Bill Easum, Lyle Schaller, Robert Schuller and more. So what are the best books out there? I have two favourites.

I'd begin close to home, with a United Methodist. Professor George Hunter things carefully, researches thoroughly, and writes clearly. His book Church for the Unchurched (Abingdom, 1996) is based on hard data and real-life examples. This book will tell you what is really happening in the so-called seeker-sensitive churches.

Hunter begins with a description and analysis of secularism and postmodernism, and then explains why the churches that will meet this new situation will be "apostolic churches."

He calls them apostolic for several reasons. Like the experience of the New Testament apostles, they believe they are "called and sent" by God to reach an unchurched pre-Christian population. Secondly, their theology and message centre upon the Gospel of early apostolic Christianity. Thirdly, like the New Testament church, these churches adapt to the language and culture of their target population. Hunter says, "The 'apostolic congregation' … has [throughout history] been a fairly perennial form of the Church—especially in mission fields, like ours."

One of the congregations that Hunter studied is Willow Creek community church outside Chicago, the best-attended church in the U.S. Rediscovering Church (Zondervan, 1995) is the candid story of its phenomenal growth, from 100 members in a rented movie theatre, to its present weekend attendance of 20,000.

This is a surprisingly balanced, healthy church. Co-author Lynne Hybels gives an astonishingly vulnerable and honest account of their entire community's journey together.

Particularly helpful is the section on how Bill Hybels and other leaders struggled with the emotional and spiritual fatigue that was hidden under their surface success. Lynne writes that in the late '80s, "Bill didn't like the haunting juxtaposition of our growing church and his shrinking heart."

The book is written with an eye on how to transfer similar steps of church renewal into your own community. Bill's description of the development of their vision, values and strategy will benefit all church leaders.

Ultimately, of course, survival is not our primary purpose. Jesus came to save people, not religious organizations.

Orville James serves a United Church in Burlington, ON that offers traditional and contemporary worship each week. He can be reached at

Originally published in The United Church Observer, January 2001




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