I just got back from a teaching schedule in a variety of contexts which has been fascinating. Not least because in each case the churches I taught at were growing churches that seemed to be connecting well at every level.
I was fortunate in being able to spend time with the leaders of each of these churches and was keen to pick their brains about what factors were catalysts to the growth they were experiencing. A number of factors came to the fore which I considered to be worthy of writing about, not least because all of them would potentially lie within the grasp of every congregation.
1. A concern for those who are not Christians seemed to be a factor. This meant being confident (not over confident!) about the Good News we have to share and intentional about seeking to engage our imagination about how this might be done. These churches used a plethora of groups to create church communities with several access level entry points. Groups as diverse as Atheists Anonymous or a Badminton Club offered the kind of diversity of experience in which the local church could press on to the second of the factors I shall describe. These churches understand from the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin that effort is required to seek for that which is lost.
2. Such churches understand that the creation of authentic relationships is key both within and beyond the church. A unified local church is a church that shows the world that it is by this that all shall know that you are my disciples; if you have love one for another. But, creating relationships outside the local church is important. Religious literacy amongst the general population in the UK is at a low ebb. People are much more likely to accept new ideas from people that we know rather than strangers. Many Christians confess they have no friends beyond their church. As they say, if thats your situation, Get out more!
3. The churches I visited all want their worship services to be as good as they could be. Real time and effort is invested in making sure that detail is attended to and, if necessary material is adequately rehearsed. They have the idea that excellence honours God and inspires people. They understand that many people arrive in church from a culture which is over stimulated by high quality media - TV and film. Of course we dont have the financial resources to compete with such quality, but we can make things as good as they could be church coffee makers please note! The reverse of this argument is that most people are put off by shoddy amateurism. As I was frequently reminded on my school report, we could do better!
4. They are aware that we dont just have a mission (things to do) but we also have a message (things to say). They confront the communication challenge with imagination and a greater use of the new technology. Above all they are clear about the message they want to communicate. This means that they work hard at effective communication to make disciples and to reach those of no faith. For what its worth I think we have to take this seriously. I still think that preaching is really important.
5. They broadly know the people they are seeking to reach. They know their likes, their aspirations, what is helpful and what is not helpful. Most suburban churches, though not all, exist in a smorgasbord of sub cultures. Some go the problem of collecting data which informs their understanding and therefore their planning. They get that Facts are friends.
In a book about Starbucks coffee shops there is a chapter entitled Everything Matters. This means in their eyes that everything you do in your organisation communicates something. We communicate as much when were not thinking as when we are. Churches which proudly proclaim their friendliness, but then leave visitors standing awkwardly on their own over (often not very nice!) coffee, really dont stack up.
Its clear to me that if we are to connect with each other and the world around us, these things may be important.