Originally published on Aug 2014
How Should We Look At Our Local Church?
The nature of the church (ecclesiology) is the proper starting point for any study of the growth of the church. Church leadership needs to ask the question: how should we evaluate our local church? Theologically, it was Christ who said ‘I will build my church’. Particularly in Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians there is a very important place given to the church (See especially Ephesians 1:22, 23, 3:21, Colossians 1:18, 24-29). In practice this means that there is no place in Scripture for the solo Christian and we should think very carefully before substituting para-church for church. The local church is where Christ’s body is manifested.
It is also true that the church has a missiological constitution. ‘The church itself is an eschatological phenomenon, constituted by the Holy Spirit. It is part of the new order which began at the resurrection of Jesus Christ.’ (Oscar Cullman). Its purpose is to proclaim the gospel. If the church is not so proclaiming then it is not the church. Notice also that: ‘The sharing of the good news must be because it is good news, and out of compassion for those who do not have it, and in obedience to Christ, but not as an answer to dwindling congregations.’ (Peter Cotterell)
Church and Kingdom
Despite its central role in God’s purposes, the church is not the same thing as the kingdom. It is rather, the sign of the kingdom. It announces by word and presence that ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’. While we cannot by-pass the church, the centre of a theology of mission is Christ rather than the church. The gospel is the good news about the kingdom and the centre of the kingdom is Christ, who is establishing his reign not just in the church. There is more to mission than church planting and making churches grow. ‘God’s redemptive mission has to do with the transformation of all life in Christ Jesus. It is concerned with the church because the church anticipates in her life and worships the fulfilment of God’s redemptive purpose in Christ Jesus. Yet its ultimate objective is not the church but the transformation of all life’ (Orlando Costas).
Understanding Church Membership
In order to answer the question on why our church is growing or not growing, we need to know as much as possible about the church membership. Here are some headings we might use:
Without attention to specificity, it is difficult for churches to evaluate the effectiveness and appropriateness of church ministries and programmes. Are the church’s worship service, discipleship classes, home groups addressing the specific needs and challenges of the local membership? What kind of discipleship culture could be best developed for young people, families or the elderly? In my discussion with local church leadership, it is not uncommon to find that church leadership could not answer with precision as to what the church’s demography is because they have never conducted a simple “church survey”. Or, the last survey was conducted more than ten years ago, and the church has not given serious attention to the changed environment or membership. Why do you think that many Asian churches have a culture of resistance toward church audit? How can you overcome this resistance to better understand the composition of your local church, in order to facilitate healthy conversations about the lack of growth in your local church?
For example, do church leaders know with specificity whether growth in the last ten years was due to: biological growth, transfer growth, restoration growth, conversion growth, or non-growth due to reversion (no longer active members of church)? What is the trend of church membership in the last five years, or last ten years? What are the reasons for church growth and what are the reasons for its lack of growth?
Church Audit: Symptoms of Health and Sickness
Many church leaders have an aversion towards church surveys partly because they are influenced by management theories of church growth, where the focus is on quantitative growth. It is important that evaluation of church growth reflects on qualitative factors rather than merely the statistics of church growth. Sometimes church surveys may be wrongly used for political reasons or to attack some church leaders. Therefore, we propose that church surveys need to be carefully conducted with a proper process of evaluation to avoid a misuse of the data. The following is a simple survey for church leaders to evaluate some symptoms of health and sickness within the local church which may impact the quality of church life.
Facing FACTS in the Wider Community
Whenever the local church attempts to organise her activities for the benefit of her members rather than the wider community, it will eventually decline in witness.
Therefore, it is vital that church leaders also understand clearly the local non-Christian community within the neighbourhood. Answers to the following questions – perhaps plotted on a map – will be helpful:
Conclusion: A Practical Tool for Kingdom Growth
God’s plan for his church is to grow his people into a witnessing as well as a worshipping community (Acts 4:42- 47). Church growth should not be an end in itself. Rather, the focus should be on the extension of the kingdom of God among the nations. Church surveys and audits, when properly administered, can facilitate conversations that bring new vision for growth. Imagine the momentum that will be generated in your church when it has an accurate understanding of itself as church, as well as a biblical vision of the kingdom of God. Ultimately, we are called to be “kingdom people”. Not “church people”:
Kingdom people seek first the Kingdom of God and its justice; church people often put church work above concerns of justice, mercy and truth. Church people think about how to get people into the church; Kingdom people think about how to get the church into the world. Church people worry that the world might change the church; Kingdom people work to see the church change the world. (Howard Synder, Liberating the Church. Downers Grove: IVP, 1983:378).
DR. TAN KANG SAN
DMin. (Missiology), Trinity International University, USA. Dr Tan Kang San is Executive Director for Asia CMS, a training network of Asian mission movements. He is also Consultant for the World Evangelical Alliance on Interfaith Issues, and Senior Advisor for the Lausanne Movement on Buddhism. Formerly, Dr Tan was Head of Mission Studies at Redcliffe College, UK and Director for Mission Research with OMF International (1990-2010).