By Derek Penwell
There’s a phrase that church people throw around all the time that works on my last nerve. I can’t even tell you.
Oh, and it’s popular. I hear it all the time on the lips of those scared that their congregations are dying, and of course on the lips of those gurus whose financial health depends on the fear of dying congregations, and the belief by those congregations that a magic program/strategy/personality-type exists to answer once and for all the problems this phrase points up.
Every pulpit committee I’ve ever worked with wants candidates to have a ready answer for the questions prompted by this stupid phrase. Rural congregations. Small town congregations. Suburban and urban congregations. They all seem unreasonably confident that there is something out there—which they haven’t happened upon yet—that will allow them to escape with their lives and their budgets still intact—if someone will just tell them how to … Grow. The. Church!
It’s usually phrased in a question or as the subject of an action item list:
“How are you going to grow the church?”
“11 Things Your Pastor Should Be Doing to Grow Your Church.”
Grow your church. What does that even mean?
If you happen to substitute something else for “church,” maybe you see what I mean.
“How are you going to grow your child?”
“11 things you should be doing to grow your lazy friends.”
See what I mean? It supposes a kind of agency that is not only presumptuous and self-defeating, it’s literally impossible. On what planet is it practicable for a human being to insert herself in the genetic driver seat, such that “growing” a living organism is a reasonable expectation?
But somebody might say, “Well, okay, fine. You can’t 'grow' a human being, but we talk about growing plants all the time.”
Ah, but see, that’s a figure of speech, isn’t it? When a farmer says, “I think I’ll grow soybeans this year,” nobody believes the farmer is going to be working the levers and pulleys on each seed, manipulating the DNA, controlling water absorption rates, optimizing photosynthesis.
When we talk about “growing plants,” we’re talking about helping to foster an environment hospitable to plant growth. Good farmers know about preparing the soil, about planting at the right times and under the right conditions, about making sure that all the factors controllable by the farmer are taken care of.
But that’s the rub, isn’t it? Not all the factors that contribute to the growth of a plant are controllable by the farmer. The farmer can’t make it rain, or stop raining. The farmer can’t heat things up if it’s unseasonably cold, or cool things off if it’s unseasonably warm. The farmer cannot, just by force of will, increase the yield.
So, to say, “I think I’ll grow wheat this year,” is a commitment to doing the work necessary to help make the environment as accommodating as possible to wheat growing.
But here’s a trick that farmers know, which is apparently unknown to people who continue to talk about “growing the church”: If you’re in the wrong environment to grow wheat, it doesn’t matter how skillful a farmer you are; you ain’t gettin’ no wheat.
Plant wheat in the desert, sow some wheat in the middle of the ocean, broadcast wheat seeds in Antarctica and you’ve just bought yourself a heaping helping of “Holy-crap-I-can’t-believe-that-didn’t-work.” You may be the best farmer in the history of farming, and you’re still not going to make that work.
Congregations face the same kind of harsh realities when thinking about “growing the church.” There are plenty of congregations that aren’t going to be “megachurches,” no matter how much pressure they apply to their pastors and lay leaders in an attempt to control their own growth. It’s not happening.
People will react with indignation: “Are you saying God can’t perform a miracle in these barren lands? Can’t God raise up another Joel Osteen in South Dakota?”
Sure. God, by definition, can do whatever God wants. You also might win the lottery, but that doesn’t seem like—given what we know about economics and probability—very sound financial planning.
And even if that were the extent of your financial planning, would you hold the liquor store cashier who sold you the ticket responsible when your Power-Ball dreams don’t materialize?
But here’s my problem: People who talk about “growing the church” actually know in some deep place they generally keep hidden from themselves that they’re employing a figure of speech. These would-be church-growers (kinda, sorta) know that nobody can “grow a church.” But they want so badly to believe that somebody out there has the magic formula, that they keep clinging to the hope that it’s possible (if we could, for the love of God already, find the right minister) to engineer their own survival. And so they keep alive the fantasy that if they look hard enough and/or make their ministers miserable enough, they’ll finally stumble across the secret they’re pretty sure somebody has been keeping from them all these years.
But it rarely ever works. It just doesn’t—at least not in the way most people are apparently programmed to think.
So, how about this?
How about we seek an immediate moratorium on the phrase, “grow our church,” and just get busy (like the farmer) working on the things we can control?
How about we quit saddling our ministers and lay leaders with unrealistic expectations, quit projecting onto them our own fears about our inadequacies?
How about we celebrate the church we are right now and the church we actually have the potential to be in the future, instead of bitterly clinging to an image of the church we’re convinced we could be if only we could find the magic formula?
How about if we just bloom where we’re planted, instead of where we wish God had planted us?