Church growth is the topic of conversation in many denominations and congregations across the nation. Attendance in many local churches is declining, many are struggling financially and they often feel a loss of purpose and hope.
In response to this crisis, many churches are searching for ways to grow their congregation. Contrary to the traditional understanding of church growth as an increase in members, I believe the purpose of church growth is an increase in spiritual energy that deepens people’s connection with God and helps them develop relationships with the people in their community.
Spiritual energy enlivens a congregation and the ministry they do together. Spiritual energy can be felt and its presence can be seen in a faith community. 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.
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 people connect with their neighbors and find ways to meet their neighbors’ needs, the church becomes relevant in the community 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.
There are many ways to assess the spiritual energy in a congregation. I suggest finding opportunities for one-on-one conversations and observing the congregation in action.
It is beneficial to find time to have individual conversations with many different people in the congregation. Talk with the lay leaders who do much of the ministry work. Take a couple of the behind-the-scenes people to lunch and question if they feel needed and appreciated. Visit the families who have busy lives and still make time to be part of the ministry of the church. Spend time with the youth; ask if they feel connected to the congregation and what outreach ministry do they want to be part of in the wider community. Invite regular visitors for coffee or tea and ask them to share why they attend this particular church.
Spend time observing the congregation. Pay particular attention to the worship services. Is the worship service a time for honoring and rejoicing in God’s grace and mercy? Does the congregation laugh and cry together? Do they pray for and with one another? Are there times in the worship service for both deepening a relationship with God and sending them out to serve God’s people? If the worship service is spirit-filled, positive energy is created and nurtured.
In addition, notice how the congregation celebrates its rituals and events. Is there a spirit of reverence and inclusion during the sacrament of communion? Does the congregation make time to laugh and have fun together? Do they enjoy eating together? Do congregants support and show up for community outreach events? How often do they open their doors to the community and provide space for outside groups?
Take time to rejoice in the places your congregation’s spiritual energy is high. Note the places where your spiritual energy is low. Let God’s Holy Spirit guide you in trying new ideas and reaching into the community in ways that will increase your spiritual energy. And remember to enjoy the journey.
Monica Ouellette is the pastor at St. John’s United Church of Christ in Boalsburg.