Growing Reformed Churches: Doing The Simple Things

Church growth is a thorny subject. First there are the thistles of rationalism in which self-proclaimed experts offer to sell to pastors and churches a three-point program which will transform their average congregation to a super church. Back in the late 80s and early 90s one plan had congregations turning themselves into a boiler room to make a large number of telephone calls in order to invite newcomers to an opening service with the promise that, done properly, according to the “law of large numbers” 200 people would appear at that service and 50% of those would return for the second and voilà a congregation. On the right there were programs for church leadership following a business model in which the pastor becomes a CEO (which, in ecclesiastical terms, makes him a bishop) who was to systematically identity “troublemakers” and chase them off and replace them with more agreeable leaders. Once the program was underway the minister was to make a dramatic announcement to the congregation that there would be some significant changes in the coming months and that people need to get on the bus or get run over by it. Events in the Pacific Northwest in recent years have echoed some of these themes.

Then there are the weeds of religious subjectivism. Faithful pastors of small congregations are told, often by well-meaning brothers and sisters, that if only they had more faith, if only the congregation were more pious, if only the congregation prayed more, the Lord would bless the congregation revival and with that numerical growth. There are a number of problems with these approaches to ministry. Ironically, they sometimes to assume a sort of ex opere operato view of divine providence: if we do x, God must do y. Of course all believers want to be more sanctified, more conformed to Christ but the history of the church tells us that there is no direct correlation between congregational holiness and the popularity of the visible church. Further, it is not at all clear that revival is a model in which confessional Reformed Christians should be much invested. For more on this see Recovering the Reformed Confession. Even if we agree on the problems attached to the so-called Second Great Awakening, we should not assume that the so-called First Great Awakening led to sustained numerical growth and that what is supposed to have happened in the 18th century can happen again if only we will do x.

What confessional Reformed congregations must do is to make use of the divinely instituted ordinary means of grace (WCF 1.7): The preaching of God’s Word, the use of the holy sacraments, and prayer (WLC 154).1 What the Lord is pleased to do, how he is pleased to use these means is up to him. We trust his promises. We preach his Word and administer his sacraments purely. We administer discipline faithfully. The results do not belong to us.

The rationalism and subjectivism of some of the plans for church growth and/or revival have left a bad taste in the mouths of confessionalists but there are some common sense, practical steps that confessional congregations can take to reduce unnecessary barriers and to make them more accessible both to those who do not yet know Christ and to those from broad evangelical backgrounds who are investigating the Reformed faith.

Thom Rainer from Lifeway took an informal poll to find the top ten ways churches drive away first-time guests.2 Here are the results:

  1. Having a stand up and greet one another time in the worship service. This response was my greatest surprise for two reasons. First, I was surprised how much guests are really uncomfortable during this time. Second, I was really surprised that it was the most frequent response.
  2. Unfriendly church members. This response was anticipated. But the surprise was the number of respondents who included non-genuine friendliness in their answers. In other words, the guests perceived some of the church members were faking it.
  3. Unsafe and unclean children’s area. This response generated the greatest emotional reactions. If your church does not give a high priority to children, don’t expect young families to attend.
  4. No place to get information. If your church does not have a clear and obvious place to get information, you probably have lowered the chances of a return visit by half. There should also be someone to greet and assist guests at that information center as well.
  5. Bad church website. Most of the church guests went to the church website before they attended a worship service. Even if they attended the service after visiting a bad website, they attended with a prejudicial perspective. The two indispensable items guests want on a website are address and times of service. It’s just that basic.
  6. Poor signage. If you have been attending a church for a few weeks, you forget all about the signage. You don’t need it any more. But guests do. And they are frustrated when it’s not there.
  7. Insider church language. Most of the respondents were not referring to theological language as much as language that only the members know. My favorite example was: “The WMU will meet in the CLC in the room where the GAs usually meet.”
  8. Boring or bad service. My surprise was not the presence of this item. The surprise was that it was not ranked higher.
  9. Members telling guests that they were in their seat or pew. Yes, this obviously still takes place in some churches.
  10. Dirty facilities. Some of the comments: “Didn’t look like it had been cleaned in a week.” “No trash cans anywhere.” Restrooms were worse than a bad truck stop.” “Pews had more stains than a Tide commercial.”

Most of these fall under the heading of charity, i.e., showing love, being kind and gracious to strangers. I’ve visited a many congregations for more than 30 years and I can tell right away whether a congregation has given much thought to guests. We might quibble with number 8. “Boring” is a highly subjective judgment but the truth is that I have attended confessional Reformed services that were not well planned, that seemed to lack a sense of anticipation of meeting with, being met by or hearing from God—after all we confess that faithful sermons and the sacraments are God’s Word to us.

I was pastor of small congregation. I’ve helped to plant a congregation. In those cases it can be difficult to get basic things done, especially in a rented or borrowed facility. In this life one will either spend time or money. Small congregations don’t always have much money but they do have time to make sure the facility is clean. I have seen it done. Some things aren’t that difficult. It’s never been easier to make a church website. If nothing else, one person in the congregation can set up a free (or some other) site for the church with basic information (who, what, when, where, why, and how) plainly visible on the front page. It might take 60-90 minutes to set up that page. There are stores that print decent, clear, signs in about an hour. An information station might be as simple as piece of furniture (e.g., search “brochure display”) ordered online or picked up at the local office supplies box store.

Most of these points are really about an orientation. Yes, we gather first of all to meet with God. Our first hope, of course, is Paul’s: that when unbelievers walk in they will see that God is present and, as a result, fall down on their faces before God. Yes, worship is not entertainment but we are also in a congregation with other people also made in God’s image, who need to see in us the love of God and grace. Paul explicitly mentions the “newcomer” (ἰδιώτου) in 1 Corinthians 14:16. “Prophecy,” Paul wrote, is not for insiders but for “outsiders” (ἰδιῶται) with the hope that when they enter our assemblies,

he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you (1 Cor 14:24–25; ESV).

Yes, there’s no reason to be phony—guests don’t want that anyway—but they can tell when we have thought about them, when we have prepared our home, as it were, to receive them. They can tell whether we want them present or whether the congregation is just for a certain few.

It’s hard enough to be Reformed in Sister’s Aimee’s America. Let’s not make it more difficult than it needs to be, especially when people have overcome so many obstacles (e.g., fear, doubt, confusion) already to find their way to our congregations.


1. There may be a qualitative distinction between the Word and sacraments as objective means of grace and prayer as a more subjective response to God’s grace but we cannot doubt that God has attached promises to prayer. Remember too that the prayer mentioned in the WLC in this context is likely the prayers said in public worship.

2. HT: Aquila Report

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  1. Here’s a tough one I’ve mentioned in a comment on a previous post. My wife and I are longtime believers who visited a Reformed church this summer, due to my having learned of Reformed doctrine and worship and having become attracted to it. But on our visit we were greeted at the door by an elder who asked what church we were from, then explained that communion would be served that Sunday and that we could not participate in the Lord’s Supper as it was open only to members of NAPARC churches given the denomination’s fellowship with them (the bulletin’s words were “a true church”). While I really wanted my family to join that church, this immediate inquiry was a huge turnoff to my wife, and our first visit as a family (I’d been there several times on my own) turned out to be our last. It was personally very difficult for me to give that up, but we’ve moved on. I don’t contest the fencing of the table that way, but the proof is in the pudding that the way it was handled proved to be a deal-breaker for us.

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