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Growing a Church

By Richard Gunther

Dear Steve,

                      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:

  1. Church is for believers. When believers meet they all understand the ‘special’ words they use, such as redemption and propitiation, and when they celebrate communion they know the symbolical nature of the emblems. Their meetings are eclectic and specific, and the common understanding they have makes them as exclusive as a brain-surgeon’s conference.
  1. Church is for reaching into the community and winning the lost to Christ. The main reason Christians exist is firstly to become like Jesus, and secondly to draw other people to Jesus. This means that they should lay aside all their theological terms and meet the unsaved in their own limited understanding. No strange words, no peculiar costumes, and as many familiar things as possible, without sinning of course. For example Jesus met people in their own homes, and talked to them over the meal.

   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.

The ‘Christians only’ church.

Looking 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:

  1. Doctrine. They listened to and studied the teaching of the apostles
  2. Fellowship. This means people with a common interest met to share their common interest with each other.
  3. Meals. “breaking of bread’ can mean either communion or simply a meal.
  4. Prayers. For each other and for the people outside the Church.

   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.


The ‘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 offensive.

   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 leadership.

   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 you come together, 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% spectator sport?

   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 much more.

   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 entertaining things.

   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 God’s Family.

   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 Christians.

   Which is why I think we have to make some radical changes and focus on winning the lost to Jesus, rather than filling pews.

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