By Murray Robertson
Reading the annual statistics for the Baptist Churches of New Zealand in the recently released Yearbook is not a particularly inspiring experience.
For the fourth time in five years the overall worship attendance has gone down. It’s true that this year there is an increase in baptisms, but this is largely accounted for by the remarkable returns from three Hosanna churches in the North Island.
How should we respond to this? By ignoring it? Or by engaging in a bout of chest thumping and lamenting? Or what?
An overall decline is simply reflecting what is happening in individual churches. When we look at these statistics in more detail we find that during the last 5 years about 65% of our churches and fellowships have been stagnant in growth terms, or in decline. Our motto as a movement is to grow healthy churches, and my observation is that in normal circumstances healthy churches cannot help but grow. So why have so many of our churches stopped growing?
One factor for those in small rural areas is that there just isn’t scope for more growth to occur. However we are mostly a movement of urban churches and when I hear people offering this reason for non growth as an excuse I always think of Oxford in North Canterbury, a town with 1,700 people who have the equivalent of 14% of the town’s population in the Baptist church on a Sunday.
Another reason that churches stop growing is that they simply run out of room in their facilities. To move on from this point is a costly one. It means either moving to multiple services, or building larger or planting a new church, none of which are without their cost. Alas, many churches in this situation opt to maintain the status quo because the bulk of their people prefer things the way they are.
A further factor stopping growth is that churches hit a glass ceiling. As a basic rule of thumb every time a church doubles in size it needs to reinvent the way it is structured and organised otherwise it will not be able to cope with the increased numbers of people. However it’s not always easy to figure out precisely what to do and it is easier to do nothing.
A leadership transition, particularly in a larger church, will normally disrupt a healthy growth pattern too. Meredith Wheeler of Laidlaw College did his PhD research on leadership transition in large churches in the US. He thinks that in a good transition the congregation in a church like that can still lose 15% of the attenders.
Internal division in a church is of course a hugely inhibiting factor. A church wracked by division is obviously no longer a healthy one and this will show in its declining attendance. Sadly we have far too many instances of this kind of thing in New Zealand, and it could well grow worse as the consumer society with its emphasis on “having my needs met” gains an increasing hold on our national psyche.
Controlling behaviour in the life of the church is a further growth-inhibiting factor. Unfortunately there are those who see their elevation to a leadership role as a licence to control others rather than empower them into effective ministry. The negative effects are obvious.
In spite of the importance of all these factors, I cannot help but feel that the main cause of our demise might lie in the loss of a passion for evangelism, for the heartfelt desire to see other people become followers of Jesus.
At least this is my reflection of the last couple of years journeying around various parts of the country. Many people want to see churches that are contemporary and relevant, but I can’t help wondering sometimes if we are losing the cutting edge of effective evangelism.
CS Lewis has an interesting passage in The Screwtape Letters where he pictures Screwtape talking to his underlings: “We want the Church to be small not only that fewer men may know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity and the defensive self-righteousness of a secret society or a clique.”
It is very easy to get very defensive when confronted with our present reality, or simply to ignore it and hope for better times to come. If there were any truth in my reflections it would mean that the solution would lie not just in better programmes or techniques but also in changed heart attitudes. Other things would grow out of that.
Maybe the worst thing that could happen in our present situation would be the growth of the kind of “defensive self-righteousness” that Lewis talks about.