Nearly 20 church-health consultants were both challenged and encouraged when they met to discuss church growth and health in a seminar last month organised by New Zealand Christian network, visionnetwork, and national church consultants Nigel Hanscamp (Methodist) and Lindsay Jones (Baptist).
The two main speakers were Murray Robertson, former Senior Pastor at Spreydon Baptist Church, now heading the Leadership Network, and John Daniel, the National Mission Enabler for the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Describing some of the challenges, Murray Robertson said there is a glass-ceiling phenomenon in New Zealand, where churches have a tendency to grow and then plateau, with barriers at 200–250 members and then again at around 800. He said that no one knows why this happens, but it appears that as churches double in size they need to reinvent themselves and leadership roles need to change.
Murray suggested that congregations have life cycles over three to four decades of birth, rebirth, growth, maturity, decline and death, and that currently large numbers of congregations need to be reborn.
There have been also what he called tides of the Holy Spirit, for example, the Billy Graham crusades in the late 1950s, and the charismatic renewal of the late 1960s and 1970s. We now appear to be in a downturn.
Among other issues he touched on were power and control; poor leadership transitions; the policy in some denominations of moving ministers at regular intervals; a satisfaction mentality and accompanying objection to change; a loss of evangelistic passion; and a feeling that we’re not here to “coerce” people.
“Increasingly people coming in to church will be broken and aware of need. But churches are not structured to deal with this,” he said.
Responding to Murray, participants observed other factors, such as the drift in some churches towards lopsided or extreme theology at both the “liberal/social gospel” end and the “conservative/evangelism only” ends of the spectrum; slowness to incorporate other cultures; the difficulty for Europeans to successfully run a true multicultural church; lack of succession planning; lack of strategic planning; and the need for good mentoring/discipleship.
Suggesting ways forward, John Daniel said there was a need to move away from a competitive spirit, to support rather than knock down “heroes,” and to overcome fears of both closeness and distance.
He put forward a call to understanding context, conviction, contemporary mission, growth in community and companionship. The latter requiring vision, passion, and dissatisfaction with things as way they are.
“The solution must be good news,” he said. “What is the picture of heaven in this place, for this situation?
“We don’t have enough resources? We’re the best resourced church in the world.”