Church Growth

There are about six organist positions open in my area.  Each of the churches are desirous for their music program to be revitalized but don’t know how to do it.  Some of them are dividing up the positions because either they can’t find one person who can do it all or, they don’t know how to find that person or they’re stuck in the past.

A good music program does not exist in a vacuum.    Many calcified churches try to build a program where one can’t be supported because if the base congregation is not necessarily healthy and vibrant, then the music program will not be able to grow.  The health of a church is like those giant sand piles the DOT stockpiles for the winter.  The height and strength of the whole is only as great as the base.  In order to build a bigger and stronger pile, you must enlarge and stabilize the base, then you can add to the mass.  The base of any church program is the life of the whole parish.  A local well endowed church thought they could grow a vibrant music program by hiring the best music director and then hire professional singers to sing in the choir.  They do have great music on Sunday but, the choir often outnumbers the congregation.  The people of that church usually leave talking about the music and not the Gospel.   

It is good that a parish have many diverse programs but, those programs will only promote growth if they are sinuously networked within the whole parish and community crossing lines of age, diversity, income, education, gender and taste.  In order for growth to occur, there must also be a cross-pollination of everything, everyone and all their ideas.  If one component is missing, a church will only grow so far, as large as its base, then it will settle, ceasing to grow.

Any time that a church finds that it has nice services, can care for its own members, pay its bills and has a favorable place in the community and is saving money, it runs the risk of losing momentum and can be lulled into a peaceful slumber of religious passivity.  A symptom of this is any program within the church who may find they are not growing, doing the same thing each year or their membership is not excited about what it is doing and not growing.

The story of Joshua is a perfect example where the Israelites conquered enough land and stopped fighting.  They became passive and failed to occupy the whole Promised Land and soon neighboring armies overran the country.  In Joshua 13, God said to Joshua that there was much more land to be possessed but the Israelites settled down short of fulfilling their destiny.  It takes more power to break inertia than it takes to continue momentum so, instead of daring imagination and challenging its leadership to break inert habits, the church often continues on a path of cautious stagnation or finds itself resting on its laurels.  Although not immediately deadly, this is a symptom whose problem must be discovered.

Diversification and comprehensive programming is a sign of a healthy parish.  God’s solution to Joshua’s failure was to diversify the tribe so that a broader base of lay leaders could be established.  This divided the task among the common people.  Church leaders need to diversify in the same way however strong and creative leadership is still needed and a good leader must first be a commander rather than a controller.  When a church divides its assembly and each group does their own thing without cross-pollination, they run the strong risk of stunted growth.  Everyone loves babies and may wish that their child could stay cute and small forever but, if a mom senses that her child is not growing, she would panic and rush him to the doctor.  We should panic when our churches are not growing for that is a symptom of a greater problem. 

Leadership from only the top will stifle growth and extinguish life no matter how good the leadership is at what they do.  The reason church leadership is unwilling to open the door to unbridled creativity may be that they are afraid to do something new, don’t wish to include other people or do not wish to upset their own power balance or be challenged.  It is in giving that we receive and it is in delegation and cross-pollination that we grow.

Ask anyone in the peripheral community if they’ve heard of your church and they will most likely give you the physical location rather than the deeds and service to the community from the church membership, another symptom.  I once offered weekly organ recitals for a whole year and someone  asked me which church I belonged to and when I told them, they said, “Is that the church with the weekly organ recitals with the buses parked out front every Tuesday?”  They identified the church by an activity or service to the community rather than the address.  Nursing homes, parole shelters, homeless people, business owners, retirees, pastors from other churches and their choir members and choir directors were among those in attendance.  Churches should not be museums but movements.  They should not be part of the community but circuitously networked within the whole community.  If the church is merely an address or a building, they are not a growing body, they are a location and most likely a social club for the existing elite membership.

The whole congregation should be on the offensive, not just a few committees and leaders.  If a visitor came to your church, would they be greeted by several people or just a few?  I lost a choir member to one such church.  While visiting this church on a Sunday morning to witness an adult friend’s baptism, she was greeted in the parking lot, she was greeted at the door, she was greeted at the pew and she was greeted at the coffee hour.  She was impressed that the choir was a family choir and didn’t consist of just adults or just kids.  She was impressed at the variety of music, how personal the homily was and how it pertained to people in the pews and events in the community and was not just some philosophical or academic rambling by a learned cleric (*I* think this can only happen if a pastor gets out and meets his people during the week.  After all, Jesus didn’t keep office hours).

A church needs to make a list of priorities, what they want to change in the church and community, where their talents can be put to use, and then they need to train and commission the people of the congregation to go out and do it.  The church needs to live in the future.  As long as the task is undone, there is something to do and room for growth. 

For a church or a program to grow, all boredom must be eliminated.  There must be a sense of expectancy, excitement and challenge.  If a choir, for instance, performs the same anthems year after year, the same hymn arrangements or sings at the same annual programs, they will become stale and stale is not attractive to new members for there is no challenge.  There are new ways to do old programs and every group within a church must be heated to the boiling point for, energy begets energy.  This is where a good leader comes into play, not just a person with a good resumé or a proven record of status quo.

Ultimately, the problem with most churches is they are too far removed from original apostolic Christianity.   The true apostle is willing to put their pot over the flame and see what happens.  The word apostle comes from the roots apó which means “from” and stéllo, which means “I send.”  A church choir, regardless how well they may sing on Sunday morning, if they are not “sent out,” to do something the other six days of the week, they run the risk of growing complacent or worse – worshipers of music.  A church may hire the a music director with the best resumé or the most skilled director but if that person doesn’t know how to inspire people to “go out,” nothing will return.  Most likely, the people they attract will be there for the wrong reasons.  A CEO friend of mine told me once that when business is good, that is when you save.  When business is poor, that is when you spend and pull out all the stops (partially because your competition won’t be).

Many programs, especially music programs, which are more concerned with performance values than with true service can do more to hide Christ from the church than any irreverent action.  A failed event can be forgiven and learned from, but a long term quality program of inertia can cause atrophy which will insidiously trickle down over time because it is only a symptom of a greater problem.  A problem most churches will only replace with the same problem when hiring new people. 

When the Israelites marched around Jericho blowing their horns, the battle was already won because they gave off an image of winning.  Success and growth always comes from those who are unorthodox and are dreamers who dare to break with tradition and trust in God’s unique ways of cross pollination and comprehensiveness.   The question should not be “How can we make our church grow?” but, “What is holding us back from growing?”

When the Israelites came upon the city of Kadesh.  They sent spies into the city who then reported back that the city could not be taken because there were giants living there.  So, the Israelites did not have the courage to take Kadesh.  A generation later, the Israelites forgot about the giants and took the city with no difficulty because the giants turned out be peaceful farmers and were easily defeated.   A church that recoils at challenges or fails to hire the right people will retreat into the wilderness of comfort, safety and ultimately stagnation.  They will then wander aimlessly until or unless they are replaced by another generation of people who don’t know what they can’t do or, hires someone who possess the vision to do something different. 

The task of the church is to worship God and teach doctrine, not be a performance venue or social club.  If someone in the back of the church yells out “Praise the Lord!” and everyone turns around to see who said it, your church has failed.  In many of our churches, applause has become the norm because it is safe from people turning around to see who is doing it.  It is sad when we are more comfortable clapping our hands rather than shouting “AMEN.”

So once again, how does a church become creative to the point of producing growth and boiling over?  They need to take two or more unconnected ideas and put them together to create something new.   They need to create an atmosphere of creative combustion.  This comes from marshaling people who have unique, different, daring and creative insights and giving them permission to dream.  I’ve witnessed many organist search committees who commission their most academic musicians in the choir to conduct the search for a new music director.  The problem is those people look for other academic musicians who will promote what they like or are like them rather than find someone with vision.  A cantor friend is on one such committee and finding someone who will promote the current cantor ministry is more important to her than finding someone with vision.

Many people are capable of genius but are never allowed to explore their creativity.  Instead, churches operate through groups and committees where great ideas are often stifled, shot down, altered and dumbed down by crowd consciousness or fear.  Everyone is limited to their own experience and vision, especially groups.  This is because we don’t know what we don’t know.  When coupled with other creative and daring thinkers, a group can do unimaginable tasks.  Many of our greatest achievements in medicine and science were the result of accidents or in the search for something else.  We must embrace those mistakes and cross pollinate them with other mistakes to create something new which may work wonders.

A great example of this is Frank Abagnale, the world’s most notorious check forger and imposter.  He was able to assume the identity of a doctor, lawyer and airline pilot.  Today, after serving time, he is a highly sought after consultant and is regularly hired by the Federal Government.  His life inspired the movie “Catch Me If You Can.”

When the disciples were fishing all day and were not catching anything, Jesus said, “Cast your nets on the other side.”  That is the problem with the church, they are stuck doing the same thing and are either afraid to change and risk growth or they lack creativity and daring to try new things.  This is often because of uninspired and non-creative leadership which we replace with uninspired, non-creative leadership.

How and why we do what we do makes a difference, too.  If a church musician stands before their congregations and thinks, “You are here, let me sing to you.” rather than, “You are here, how may I minister to you?” prepare for a slow downward spiral.  In thinking about the theater model, the choir are not the performers, the clergy are not the prompters and the congregation is not the audience.  In reality, the choir and clergy are the prompters, the congregation are the actors and God is the audience.  It may behoove us to redefine our roles. 


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