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Growing a Church from the Inside Out

July 9, 2008

I have always contended that church growth is an inside-out venture.  You begin to invite outsiders into the inner sanctuary by making changes to that sanctuary first.  To state it in negative terms, you can invite all the new people to church you want but if the worship is boring and there’s no spirit there, it ain’t gonna do no good.  They won’t want to come back.  To state it in more positive terms, the worship service must be vital and alive, passionate, spirit-filled and warm if you expect visitors to want to return.

My concept of my job description in worship is as follows: to facilitate an encounter with the living God who invites the congregation to live in an alternate reality we call the Kingdom of God.  There’s a lot to unpack there theologically, but I think you probably get the gist of what I’m saying.

A couple of posts from the Methodist Blogosphere have me thinking this week.  Andy Bryan writes about the futility of growing for growths’ sake, and how focusing primarily on the numbers is a big ol’ waste of time.  I couldn’t agree more.  (I recommend reading the whole post.  It’s great.)

Yes, the numbers are a problem.  But let me explain a little about my approach to that problem.

Problems and solutions are not necessarily related. This saying comes from Scott Miller, a psychotherapist of the Solution-Focused Brief Therapy stripe.  And I agree.  The traditional problem-solving method involves identifying and naming the specific problem and formulating a plan of attack in order to directly address the problem.  A frequent obstacle in the traditional problem-solving method is one of nomenclature.  Therapists waste an awful lot of time in fine-tuning the diagnosis (which is unfortunately necessary for billing purposes).  And we as pastors fall into the same trap.  We obsess about naming the current reality and formulate strategies based upon that named reality (or more precisely, upon that reality’s name).

So we start by asking the question, “how can we get more butts in pews?”  And we answer with things like film clips during the sermon, powerpoint and mediashout presentations, contemporary music, and being “culturally relevant” (whatever that means).  We start thinking in terms of target demographics and results-oriented approaches.

And it has nothing to do with Jesus or the Holy Spirit.  It’s about “butts in pews.”  And I don’t know much about your concept of the Kingdom of God, but mine isn’t focused on butts in pews.

The solution-focused approach does not begin with the problem.  It begins with a clear vision of a preferred future and dreams of moves from here to there.

When I attended a Solution-Focused Brief Therapy workshop I learned a great technique called “the miracle question.”  The miracle question is a way of envisioning a preferred future.  Here’s the question (paraphrased – I’m not sure I ever asked it exactly the same way twice): Let’s say a miracle happens tonight while you’re asleep that solves all your problems.  You wake up tomorrow morning with no idea the miracle happened because it happened while you were asleep.  What might be the first small signs to you that something has changed?

Small signs.

I was reminded of the miracle question for the church by Jeremy Smith at Hacking Christianity when he posted the following:

For our last section on this series, let’s apply this directly to the problem of leadership in churches. Jeremy Pryor, at From Eden to Zion, offers this scenario:

Perhaps pastors should imagine that they are going to have three more years in their parish as pastor—and that there will be no replacement for them when they leave.*blink* whoa. Powerful scenario.”

Catch the parallel?  It begins with a vision of a preferred reality – that of a lay-driven church – and asks for specifics of what that preferred reality looks like in light of each pastor’s (and church’s) current reality.  Answering that question involves creatively formulating small steps toward that goal.

So folks in my congregations can expect to hear that question reformulated for the church’s point of view rather than the pastor.  “Imagine the District Superintendent told you that I have only three years left as your pastor and that there will be no replacement for me.  However, he expects that this will continue as a thriving and growing congregation for many years to come.  What preparations would we need to start making now in order for that to happen?”

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