by Nathan Brown
Why churches grow is one of the mysterious quests of pastors, evangelists, church administrators and many concerned church members. The allure and elusiveness of a key, catch-all ingredient is evidenced by the multiplicity of books and seminars claiming to offer the answer. Many of these are well intentioned but limited in their credibility and applicability, and of course as with any marketing opportunity to ardent customers a variety of snake-oil salesmen are always ready to promote their products and programs.
So it is refreshing to find a carefully researched and Adventist-specific study of this question. Monte Sahlin, director of research and special projects for the Ohio Conference, has spent most of the past decade asking the questions about why churches grow, primarily focused in urban and suburban areas. As part of this, he has surveyed all 647 Adventist churches in the north-eastern United States mega-metropolitan area, stretching from Boston to Washington, DC. Sahlin’s research has previously been blogged about by Ryan Bell and Marcel Schwantes of course has now been published as Mission in Metropolis: The Adventist Movement in an Urban World (Centre for Creative Ministry).
Without wanting to dismiss or discourage traditional evangelism, Sahlin concluded that “there is no correlation between the number of Bible seminars [conducted by local churches] and soul-winning.” This does not mean public evangelism is necessarily ineffective, but that such programs are run as regularly by churches that do not grow as by churches that do.
By contrast, Sahlin’s research found that the strongest correlation with church growth was engaging with the community in active service. And, sadly, Sahlin concludes, “very few Adventist churches are involved in the types of programs that have the strongest correlation with church growth.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the significance of community involvement for church growth is not a new suggestion. In the book he edited to mark the centenary of Seventh-day Adventists in New Zealand, sociologist Peter H Ballis comments on the significance of involvement in real social and political issues in the founding and early dramatic growth of the church in New Zealand. He notes how “Adventists found themselves joining committees, speaking before audiences that under different circumstances would have been inaccessible to them, and, at times, co-operating with clergy of other denominations. All this has the effect of creating a favourable image of the Church. . . . Such interaction with the public served to acquaint Adventists with large numbers in the community” (“Seventh-day Adventists and New Zealand Politics, 1886-1918” in Ballis (ed), In and out of the world : Seventh-day Adventists in New Zealand).
Ballis cites membership figures that show a doubling in church membership in New Zealand during this period (1911-21). “It is tempting to conclude that it was the Church’s involvement in New Zealand’s social issues that brought about this unprecedented growth rate,” he reflects.
Of course, churches grow for more than one reason. But it seems community service works in at least two ways—attracting those benefited by the church’s community service and those considering joining a faith community that is making a difference.
Sahlin argues that community involvement is key to gaining credibility within the community to which the church ministers. “A church that is invisible and largely absent from the public arena will not be taken seriously by educated citizens who care about their communities,” he urges.
But such activism is also vital for those within the church. In her survey of growing mainline Protestant churches—Christianity for the Rest of Us—Diana Butler Bass quotes one of her interviewees: “People are looking for a place that will enable and encourage meaningful service in the community, a way to live out the faith they hope to espouse.”
And that is the challenge for all levels of the church. In one sense, engaging with the community is simple: whenever one walks out the front door or out the church driveway, we are involved in the community. But for this to be both meaningful and useful is not always so straightforward. Church leaders—from local church ministry leaders to the most senior administrators—must create and encourage opportunities for real community involvement and service.
And this begins with learning to listen to our communities. Sahlin points out that “there is little evidence that the community service activities carried on in most cases have anything to do with the need of the community as viewed by local residents and civic leaders.”
As a church, we need to work together to find creative, authentic, practical and ongoing ways to serve our communities. As Peter urged the early church, “Live an exemplary life among the natives so that your actions will refute their prejudices. Then they’ll be won over to God’s side and be there to join in the celebration when he arrives.” (1 Peter 2:12, The Message).