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God is a church growth principle

Depending on where you're coming from this might be blindingly obvious or something you've never thought about before. But here's what I want to say: one of the strongest predictors of whether a church will grow or not is simply whether that church believes and acts like God is real.

God is a church growth principle. This is something liberals don't seem to get. Liberals look at growing Evangelical charismatic churches and they say, “those churches grow because they have modern music” or “those churches grow because they're telling people they will go to hell if they don't join” or “those churches grow because they give people simple answers”. There might be some truth in all those ideas, but we often miss out the most important one – those churches grow because they believe in God.

What got me thinking about this was research into what matters to people when they become Christians. The book Finding Faith Today (1992) by John Finney researched 500 people who had become Christians. What was surprising about this research (and perhaps disturbing to Evangelicals) is that very few of them said becoming a Christian had anything to do with feeling guilty or having a sense of sin and salvation. More recent (but smaller scale) research by Emma Nash has revealed something similar. When new Christians were asked what was important to them in the Christian faith, what appealed to them, they said things like:

“I suppose it's just that having someone there all the time. You're never alone, you're never without someone who cares about you.”


“I can remember this particular day an overwhelming sense that God was there and he was listening, and I kind of didn't have to worry – whatever happened, it was going to be OK.”


“I think to me it's been more of a... sort of growing experience about God's love, it's sort of built up.” 

For Evangelicals this kind of thing is challenging because it suggests the message “feel guilty because of all you've done wrong and find forgiveness by turning to Jesus and asking for repentance” actually doesn't work, and isn't really something that's very important to anyone any more.

For liberals this kind of thing is challenging because to a greater or lesser extent liberals have stopped acting like God is real. Liberal churches do not see their primary purpose as inviting people to experience a personal relationship with God. They concentrate on social justice, on inclusiveness, on reason, but they are very weak on theocentric spirituality.

Of course some forms of liberal Christianity have become explicitly atheistic, and I have a lot of respect for that because at least it's honest and truthful. But many other forms of liberalism are just faintly embarrassed to speak of God in anything but vague and intellectual terms and do not act like God is a real presence, a real person in the room.

So here's my point again: I think the causes of growth and decline might be simpler than we think. I don't think Evangelical charismatic churches grow because they have modern music, or simplistic faith, or because of guilt and fear. I think bigger than all of these things is that they invite people into a personal relationship with the divine.

Equally I don't think liberal churches are in decline because they are too old-fashioned in style, or too progressive on social issues, or because they recognise nuance and complexity. I think bigger than all of these things is that they do not invite people into a personal relationship with the divine.

The most important difference between growing Evangelical churches and declining liberal churches is the Evangelical emphasis on a personal living relationship with the divine.

Yes, there are always counter-examples, and of course there are all kinds of complexities around this. And to “prove” this point I'd have to do a lot more research. But again, my main point around this is that I think a personal relationship with God is a much bigger factor for church growth than things like electric guitars vs organs. And we miss that point at our peril.

And I guess my main point is that if a church were liberal, queer welcoming, progressive, justice-orientated, rational, and also deeply deeply centred on the invitation to enter into a personal relationship with a God of love – then I think such a church would grow.

(The article that got me thinking about this was: Nash, E. (2014) “Redefining sin” in The Pioneer Gift: Explorations in Mission edited by Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross (Norwich: Canterbury Press))


Anonymous said…
Fri 20 dec19

The reality or otherwise of God is a vital topic I agree, as well as what God is actually like. I've had a couple of thoughts:

First, which aspect is more important, God or reality? I say this because I'm following both Christian (well, Unitarian-Universalist at least) and non-Christian circles (such as eastern spirituality and 'pagan' groups). We can just as well say that Buddhism is popular because they want to believe that enlightenment is real, they are on a journey which will yield real results. Would it still have the same appeal if all that meditation and mindfulness practice was in the hope of a mythological enlightenment? Similarly, would yoga be so popular if the benefits were symbolic? Reiki or crystal energy, auras, astral projection and a whole host of New Age practices are popular for people who believe they are in some sense 'real'. But of course this conflicts with a scientific-rationalist paradigm which brings me to ...

Second, I'm currently working through a series of youtube videos by Phil Drysdale on Spiral Dynamics, have you heard of it? It's a bit like an expanded version of Maslow's Pyramid. Phil is a Christian and his approach is from that perspective. It helps to explain in a structured way why people are at different levels of understanding, eg stage blue needs the spiritual reality aspect, steeped in scripture, and stage orange values science, rationality, pragmatism, etc. If you have time, just the Introduction to Spiral Dynamics is well worth a view. It has made me more mellow and empathetic towards people with a different outlook from mine. According to Phil, Western Europe & the USA are mainly at stage blue (especially religious people) & orange (often post-religious and non-religious) which explains this complex relationship. It takes another two stages of development before we can properly understand and work with each other.


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