Church growth is a topic of conversation in many denominations and congregations across the nation, as suggested by the many books written on the subject. I believe that church growth needs to connect spiritual growth and community outreach growth.
Spiritual growth happens when a congregation engages in spiritual practices that help them deepen their faith. Community outreach growth happens when a congregation reaches out to the people in their community to discover their needs, provide ways to serve the people in the community and to begin building relationships.
Spiritual practices provide the foundation and motivation for community outreach growth. Community outreach growth provides the impetus to engage in spiritual practices. Together they raise the level of spiritual energy in a congregation so that the church becomes a relevant and caring part of the community.
Traditional understandings of church growth focus primarily on increasing the number of members. I propose another way to look at church growth, focusing on an increase in spiritual energy that deepens the congregation’s connection with God and responds to the needs of the people in its community. I define the goal of church growth as an increase in spiritual energy in the church that enlivens the congregation and the ministry they do together.
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Spiritual energy is the movement of God’s spirit that is obvious in the lives of individuals and in the congregation. When members experience spiritual energy in their church, they care about both the people in the congregation and the people in the wider community. The members of the faith community are excited about how they are growing as disciples and serving their neighbors. They are eager to share their faith stories and to invite people to be a part of what they are doing. They are living their faith in their daily lives and seeking ways to be the hands, feet and heart of Jesus Christ in their community.
Spiritual energy can be felt and its presence can be seen in a faith community. When it is present, the church seeks ways to engage in spiritual and discipleship practices, and cares about both the people in the congregation and those out in the community. They are excited about how they are growing as disciples and how they are serving the physical and spiritual needs of their neighbors. The people are eager to share their faith stories and to invite people to be a part of what they are doing.
Increasing spiritual energy may result in numerical growth in a congregation, but that is not its purpose. As people deepen their relationship with God, they are more likely to share their faith with other people. As congregants connect with their neighbors, nurture partnerships and find ways to meet people’s needs, the church becomes relevant in the neighborhood and people will begin to notice. These things may encourage people to come to worship and get involved in the ministry the congregation is doing. This may result in more people participating in God’s redeeming work in the community and in the world, which is the ultimate purpose of the church.
The spiritual energy of a congregation can be felt in its community. You know your congregation is spiritually filled when the name of the church is mentioned and someone in the community responds, “Oh, you are the church that: … serves a hot meal once a month … collects socks for the homeless … has the grief support group … runs a day care program … hosts the summer concerts … plants the community garden … runs the cool vacation Bible school program … you are really helping people in this neighborhood.”
A congregation will know they are connecting with the people in their community when people begin to ask, “When are you collecting school supplies ... planting the garden … selling tickets to the benefit concert … filling cleaning buckets again ... I want to help.”
Monica Ouellette is the pastor at St. John’s United Church of Christ in Boalsburg.