Return to Index Page
Growing a Church
By Richard Gunther
You asked me for my thoughts on how to make a
fellowship grow. I submit the following as from someone who has had very little
experience, and who knows very little about the matter.
First of all I like to ask the questions “What is church for?” As I
see it there are basically only two answers:
In the world there are and always have been hundreds of different kinds
of fellowship. This is good, because it shows that God can live in the hearts of
people from all cultures. These different people have always expressed their
Christianity in their own forms of art, music and so on, and in each generation
they have managed to win a new harvest of believers – otherwise the church
would have died out long ago. Some Christian fellowships are loud, and noisy,
while others are very quiet. Some like to dress up, others dress down. Some
concentrate on worship and do a lot of singing, while others prefer prayers.
Every fellowship tends to attract people of a certain range of
personality. The old adage of ‘birds of a feather flock together’ is clearly
seen. For example the Brethren tend to attract men because Brethren services (as
far as I know tend to be objective, theological and unemotional, whereas
Pentecostal churches are usually predominantly filled with women, and the
services are correspondingly emotional. I am not suggesting that there is
anything wrong with this – it is normal and natural for like to attract like.
In the world exactly the same thing happens.
Returning to the question, I would like to look very briefly at the first
category of fellowship.
‘Christians only’ church.
at the style of the Early Church, (Acts 2:41-47) we have a simple list of the
main activities of those first Christians. They met for four reasons:
These first Christians also showed great generosity towards each other,
and became a wonderful example of a sharing, caring community. As the apostles
went about performing signs and wonders the unsaved, who saw this phenomenon,
were drawn into the Church and God’s Building increased.
‘reaching the lost’ church.
This kind of church, I think, should be completely
different in form and service to the above. It should be focused on winning the
lost. It has no time or place for ceremonies, special clothes, church building
furniture and so on. Its main aim is to communicate to the lost, and it must
strip away anything and everything which might be a stumbling block to getting
the message across – without sinning of course.
Many years ago I was part of an interesting experiment. I helped organize
a ‘Family Service’ in a dwindling fellowship. I do not want to be critical
of the fine and well-motivated people who were part of this fellowship, but it
is difficult to describe what happened without some part of what follows being
reflected back at them. I pray they will forgive me if they find the following
The building was large, and almost empty. Week by week, year by year the
same service was held. The men spoke with faith and the Word was ministered.
Many devote and sincere Christians came and went over the years. The youth group
disappeared. The Sunday school closed. Still the men spoke with conviction and
sincerity at the meetings. People came by invitation, and never returned. The
devotion and determination of the leaders was outstanding – even exemplary,
but still the numbers dwindled. Prayer meetings failed to stem the tide, and
invitations fell on deaf ears.
It was at about this time that I attended, and for more than two years
contributed to the fellowship, helping with graphics, Sunday school and various
outreaches. I spent a lot of time thinking about the situation, and suggested
various ideas, all of which were either ignored or rejected very quickly by the
Finally one of my ideas was considered. I went to the building early in
the mornings and prayed over all the seats. I designed invitations, and helped
wherever I could. At last the ‘Family Service’ was launched.
It was an amazing Sunday. Instead of the one or two
cars parked outside, there were cars bumper to bumper along both sides of the
road. People were streaming in, and soon the building was packed to the doors.
The leadership was amazed and joyful. The visitors were happy.
The service went along the lines I had suggested, which comprised a
series of items by Christians. For example, two people used glove-puppets to
tell a story, one woman held a ‘lollies for answers’ quiz, I told a
flashcard story, two people sang a duet, a man played some Classical music on
the piano, another man played a solo on his flute. It was funny and marvelous,
and everyone enjoyed the whole service, which was opened with a short prayer and
closed with the same. Then followed the meal. Some women, who had been preparing
drinks and food in the kitchen, pulled the curtains aside and the whole service
ended with a wonderful time of talking. On their way out many people asked when
the next ‘Family Service’ was going to be held.
The following Sunday the leadership reverted back to the tried and true
order of service, and the building was empty again.
A second ‘Family Service’ was held a few weeks later, with the same
results, but no further ‘Family Services’ were held.
Today the building remains almost empty and the last few (wonderful,
Spirit-filled, devoted) members are trying to devise a method of keeping the
fellowship from dying altogether.
The reason why unbelievers are not attracted to church is much the same
as why most people are not attracted to attend brain-surgery conferences.
At this point one might be tempted to lay down some sort of formula for
building a church, but that would be a formula for failure, because every
fellowship has to be different. God has not created us to be identical clones,
so it is impossible to gather a group of people together and get identical
results, even if their interests are much the same. We are all unique
individuals, and praise God for that!
What I would like to do is simply suggest a formula which may or may not
work for another fellowship. It is entirely up to you what you do with it. You
may like to adapt it, or bend it into a new shape.
Reach the lost services.
The ‘reach the lost’ church service begins with the ‘image’ it
must portray to the public. If you must use a building rather than meet
in homes (as the Early Church did), then make the building ‘user friendly’.
Decorate it. Make it like a big, attractive living room. Put a jumble of
assorted chairs and seats in. Get rid of church furniture and other useless
emblems. Make people feel at home when they come in, and help them relax.
Remember, many people have a ton of prejudice on their shoulders when they enter
a church building, and some of it is probably justified.
The service itself must not be ‘worldly’ in the sense of having crude
language or casual references to God or His Son. Begin with a short prayer of
thanks, but keep the wording accessible to the unbelievers.
There is always plenty of talent in every fellowship, but quite often
this talent lies undiscovered because the ‘order of service’ ensures that
only the ‘pastor’ and a few others are allowed to speak. The Early Church,
on the other hand, was rich with contributions – take 1
Corinthians 14:26 for example:
“How is it then, brethren? when
every one of you
has a psalm, has a doctrine, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an
interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying”. Note the words “Every
one of you”. If this is so, then why do most church services seem to be a 99%
Some Christians have amazing gifts, but they rarely get to exercise them
in the fellowship because they are forced to sit and listen. Sometimes a moment
is given to members to pray, but rarely is there an opportunity to contribute
But what happens when all the members of a fellowship are expected to
contribute something? Firstly they spend the week thinking about it, and
secondly they prepare for it. They come to church fired up and excited because
they have something to give. If it is from the Word, then they have done some
independent study, which is great. If it is some other contribution then they
have been practicing it, which means they have been polishing their talents. And
what does the whole fellowship gain? A wonderful series of entertaining and
edifying items. And what do visitors gain? A totally enjoyable experience, which
they will probably want to return to again some time.
To win the lost Christians must meet them at their level. Unsaved
children do not understand theology, but they do understand jokes, sweets, food,
games, crafts, videos and so on. Unsaved adults are much the same. They
understand music, fun, puppets, pictures, songs, dances and other creative and
There are some Christians who feel that ‘church’ should not be
entertaining. To these well-meaning saints I suggest that they gather other
like-minded people about them and have their own services the way they want
them, but please don’t invite me. I think they are partly correct, but their
view probably comes from their desire to preserve the sober, serious side of
Christianity intact. (This is a good motivation but how will the unsaved be
reached if Christians form ‘holy huddles’?) They may fear that if Christians
laugh too much they may slide into worldliness and forget to follow Jesus. I
doubt it. God created laughter and gave it to Mankind as a gift. Perhaps it is
time for the Church to take back the gift and use it the right way?
Returning for a moment to the Early Church and the list of 4 things they
practiced, it is interesting to see how the ‘meal together’ has disappeared
from most mainline churches. Instead of a full fellowship, traditions have
imposed a straitjacket of rules and restrictions, reducing what should be a
vibrant and entertaining time, into a formal order of service in which very
little real fellowship can take place. It is because of this dry formalism and
lack of full fellowship that thousands of disillusioned Christians are leaving
church and meeting in homes instead.
There is nothing like a meal together to help people to unwind and
communicate, yet the one thing which Christians need when they meet has been
removed. Visitors come in, sit down, and just as they try to converse the
service begins. They wait till the end and leave politely, perhaps shaking hands
briefly with some smiling person near the door, returning to the street without
spending any quality time with anyone. What a huge difference it would make if
visitors came, were entertained, and then spent another hour talking to someone
– with a cup of tea and a biscuit? They might think that Christians were,
after all, not such a strange crowd after all.
I think Christians ought to sit down and take a hard look at what their
‘church’ is doing, and then compare it with the general principles in the
Word. Instead of accepting what the ‘pastor’, or ‘tradition’ says, why
not check out the Scriptures and see if there might be an alternative?
If you really want to reach the lost, why not make as many changes as
possible in order to do that, rather than expect the lost to politely conform to
your traditional methods?
Someone challenged me many years ago on this point, by asking “What is
your main motivation in getting someone saved? Is it so that you can add another
person to your Sunday service?”
I hate to say it but I think that may be one of the reasons why some
churches try to reach the lost. They want to swell the ranks in the pews. How
dreadful! The traditional church, centred in a building, with its furniture and
robes and books and paraphernalia is all Manmade. It has some of the essence of
the Early Church, but it is largely an artificial growth which has been built
out of the original outline found in the Scriptures. Most of it could be wiped
out without even scratching the actual true Church underneath. The main aim of
Christianity should not be to increase church attendance, but to add children to
Try this thought-experiment. Imagine going to your long-standing
traditional church building just down the street, and suggest to the minister
that he paint the building white with flowers and butterflies all over the
outside walls, and then place a big sign over the door: “Kid’s Church, open
Saturdays from 1p.m. to 3p.m.” Can you guess his reaction? (I may be wrong but
I think) he would probably prefer to keep things just the way they are than set
out on a radical new path in order to reach the lost children in his community.
It is because of the ‘we’ve-always-done-things-this-way’ attitude
that many churches are dying. The traditions, and habits, and security of
repetition, are strong impediments to change, and perhaps many services are so
unchallenging and comforting that they lull those who attend into a sleep of
acceptance. As one brought up in the Presbyterian church, where the minister
always ordered the service and all I ever did was sing hymns and watch the time,
I know the sense of futility and boredom which comes on those who seem to be
merely spectators. The only bright moment I remember was my chance to read
something to the other children at Sunday school, but then, looking at the Word,
there is no warrant for separating the children from the adults. If the church
is a Family, then the Family should fellowship together – but that is exactly
the problem. The Family of God has been taken hostage by tradition and
formalism, and robbed of its common meal together.
No wonder people are leaving it in droves.
There is a fear, and it is quite justified, among some Christians that if
the church entertains people too much, it might forget its Great Commission and
slip into aimless worldliness. However, my view is that entertainment is a gift
from God, and it is the world which has twisted and abused it.
Take humour for example. While there is no specific verse which tells us
to laugh, there are many which imply that “a merry heart does good like a
medicine” (Prov.15:13, 15:15, 17:22, Ecc.9:7). It is the same with other
gifts, such as music, dance and the whole gamut of the Arts. God intended these
gifts to be used properly, morally and for our pleasure, but sinful people have
abused them and used them for evil.
Christians, above all people in the world, really should be
(collectively) the most creative and entertaining people! We (the Church) should
be able to redeem all the gifts of God and present them in a sanctified and
lively way – but instead our fellowships are so often reduced to a narrow band
of singing and sometimes musical performance. Where, in the church, are the
actors, poets, painters and dancers? Where are the humourists? Where are the
craftsmen and craftswomen? Where are all the wonderful gifts which should be
present at the meetings?
As I said at the beginning of this article, the question comes back to
two lines of thought: are we trying to build a ‘Christians only’ fellowship,
or do we want to become a ‘reach the lost’ fellowship? How we answer the
question will determine the sort of fellowship we will be. And it is no good
trying to combine the two, because that creates a service too ’worldly’ for
Christians, and too ‘Christian’ for the unsaved. It has to be one or the
other, not both at the same time.
To grow a church we have to put the unsaved first, and all our theology
has to come second. We have to meet the unsaved at their level before we can
pull them up to ours. Jesus demonstrated this by walking the streets and eating
with publicans and sinners. He didn’t try to lure people into the synagogues
because all that would have done was produce synagogue-attendees. In the same
way, it is far better for people to become Christians and never attend
‘church’ than for them to regularly attend ‘church’ and never become
Which is why I think we have to make some radical changes and focus on winning the lost to Jesus, rather than filling pews.
Back to Index Page