This is long, but it has been long-brewing in my heart.
When we started Thrive, there were literally just a handful of us. Even if you included the ministry team, there were less than 10 people. Now, the 100 barrier, I believe, is in our sights, and I am pleased that we will have gotten to that place while maintaining strict loyalty to the vision God gave us for Thrive. But it will be a longer and harder road than some are ready for. Nearly every week for the past year, we have had new visitors at Thrive. Yet, our growth is steadily slow. I know that at least half of the visitors who do not return give great positive feedback about what we are trying to accomplish at Thrive, but choose another place over our size, of all things. At times, this does challenge my spirit. It is a “catch 22” – how can we grow if the people who visit do not stay? We are focusing on the right things, by the testimony of these visitors, but the choice not to be a part of Thrive comes down to numbers. But, if everyone who cited our size as an issue stayed, we would be pushing 150 at Thrive, easily.
I’ve been taught all the same gimmicks that other pastors have been taught about how to grow a church numerically, but to be frank, often these approaches get in the way of the things I believe are essential to an authentic community. They challenge my values. They focus on presentation rather than community. It is hard to commit money to mailers and fancy visitor gifts when I am often confronted by people with often extreme financial needs. It is difficult to “slicken-up” the building when I know that every dollar put in the offering is a tough sacrifice of people in a tough economy. It is difficult to collect names and addresses from people during our community events when I know that people just want to be loved and enjoy something with their families – they don’t want to be exploited for pew-fill. It is difficult to commit to salaries on the sweat of such a hardworking group of people. What is important to us? A big church or an authentic church? A big church can be authentic, but only if its goal is authenticity, not numbers. Hopefully, one day our commitment to authenticity will result in growth – and I believe it will – but it will not be at the expense of a pursuit of authentic community.
To me, authentic community is ALL about the relationships. We love God as much as we know how, and we continue to expand our knowledge of that. We love each other the best we know how, and continually challenge what we think that means. We pass on that love to as many people as is practically and “situationally” appropriate in the course of our daily lives. Without these incredible relationships, I do not believe we can actually call ourselves community. Some have criticized me for being too idealistic in my approach, urging pragmatism in order to experience an explosion in growth. Some have told me that if we are not growing fast, we are not doing something right. Sorry, but that just does not fly. I would suggest a look at the the lamp-stand churches in John’s Revelation. How many of these criticisms from God are about numbers? None. The criticisms are about authenticity.
The truth is, that now that we are moving out of the church-growth culture, and into the kingdom-growth culture, research is proving what many of us have long suspected. Smaller churches tend to be, per capita, more generous, more community minded, more relational, and more effective in life-change. In my own tribe (Church of the Nazarene) I have had passionate discourse over our measuring sticks when it comes to gauging the success of churches. Is numerical growth really a valid measure of success? Or is it really just a incidental indicator? George Whitefield is famously known for conceding to Wesley’s approach for deeper community rather than numbers – a lesson we’ve forgotten.
So, there’s the catch. We want to grow, but we want growth of community, not just our attendance spreadsheet. We want people to sign on to our mission, but we’ve not made it easy. We want people to join Thrive who are ready to sign on to a difficult mission, that often flies in the face of conventional wisdom when it comes to church “success”. We want people who are ready for genuine community, that has risks and costs associated with it. We want people who are committed to the most important things as we grow this community with the right DNA.
Angel and I have grown to be very happy to continue to pray that God will grow us as large and as fast as we are able to maintain strong relationships – no larger, no faster. When we first started to pray that way, we did not anticipate how arduous such a road would be. But, I know that God will bless us one day with full-time ministers and the ability to make massive change in our community. Until then, we will walk the hard road, staying true to what we believe are the most important things for a community of world-changing believers, even if it means that only 1 of 10 families that visit are ready for that kind of commitment. We will do the best we can with what God provides to make the most life-change that we can. We will do the best we can to make a real difference in people’s lives. We really are still on the ground-floor of this project called Thrive Church. If we remain steadfast, the result will be a strong core community that shapes and teaches newcomers how to live in the most authentic community possible: a community that loves God, loves one another, and passes it on – seriously.
UPDATE: Just in case it did not translate, I am very pleased and thankful for the where Thrive is at this point. There are of course ways we can be “better”.
In His grip!