At its core, a church is a collection of individuals brought into common worship and fellowship. A church’s impact is largely determined by the cumulative actions and witness of its members between Sundays. The church naturally disperses when they leave the building.
With that in mind, does the number of churches and how scattered they are really matter? Is it worth considering whether migration from smaller to large churches (the direction America is headed) will occupy as much ground as a labyrinth of small churches? In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at two very different church landscapes and see the importance of “the Church dispersed” as well as other factors that influence church growth and Kingdom advancement.
The Church in China versus the U.S.
It’s interesting to contrast the Church in China where Christianity is proliferating at a rapid rate and the U.S. where the percentage of regular churchgoers is dropping:
China – The Church under persecution is spreading out, forming a maze of small, underground churches.
U.S. – The Church in freedom is consolidating into larger institutions while most small churches are struggling for survival.
China – Few lukewarm Christians in an environment where the cost of discipleship is very high.
U.S. – Large percentage of casual attenders are free to come and go as they please without experiencing life change. Small groups have come to replace more intensive discipleship methods – and studies show that under 35% attend those.
China – Little focus on building an institution. Members are clearly the definition of “church” because that’s all there is.
U.S. – Tolerant environment allows for organized religion. Pastors, staff and buildings have become the definition of church while less is asked and expected of members.
China – Few dollars and resources required to run a church. No amenities available to attract people from other churches.
U.S. – Significant funding and volunteers needed to operate a large church. Ability to offer programs and facilities that smaller churches simply can’t match.
China – No liberty or staff to run public events. Relegated to quietly building personal relationships.
U.S. – Churches moving increasingly toward event-driven outreach and local missions in hopes of building name recognition. However, as we’ve discussed church events often do more harm than good.
6. Growth Model
China – Pastors don’t subscribe to or advocate a particular strategy or approach to growing their church. Growth occurs organically as disciples share the gospel and bring others to faith.
U.S. – Pastors of large churches tout Invite, Involve and Invest – the rallying cry of the internally-focused church – in books, articles and at conferences; and export it to other countries.
China – Churchgoers won’t risk their lives or freedom for anything less than life-saving truth, and pastors ask a great deal of them in the face of clear and present danger.
U.S. – Leaders are cautious about holding members and attenders accountable or challenging them to step too far out of their comfort zones.
Key Takeaways and Considerations
- Was the first century church more like the church in China or the U.S.? Yes, it was heavily persecuted, forced to disperse, fiercely discipleship-driven, highly evangelistic – and consequently grew at a torrid pace.
- Persecution impacts the growth of the Church in the short term because it scares off those not fully committed, but it does not kill the church – and actually results in more rapid growth over the longer term. Persecution against Christ’s church eventually backfires.
- It’s better to have a few disciples than a slew of casual church attenders.
- Love is localized, not institutionalized – the best growth strategy for a church is always love pouring out into the streets through the lives of its individual members. Jesus modeled demonstrating His compassion and power through serving others before telling them who He is.
- Companies can get too organized as well and forget about their intended customer – they must either refocus their energies externally or go bankrupt.
- The most successful organizations of any kind decentralize and empower leaders to extend their reach. Centralizing power, knowledge and responsibility always results in contraction.
- Some say, “A church dispersed is the only church that works”, but I believe it’s more about what kind of disciples that church produces, regardless of its size.
- Churches can disperse by turning their small groups into Neighborhood Groups, forming Mission-Shaped Communities and planting new compassion ministries (not just new campuses).
- Launching a new campus or plant only effectively disperses the church if leadership isn’t trying to build a bigger institution but to build and release more disciples.
- Fully leveraging the capabilities of your members requires aggressively challenging them to live up to their full potential for Christ.
- Never forget why your church was planted in that community. The Lord put you there to reach your “customer” – the hurting and hopeless all around you.
- Planting more churches who wind up largely ignoring their Biblical “customer” will only further accelerate the Church’s decline – actually shrinking the Church’s footprint.