Building Vs Growing A Church

Why do pastors so often treat congregations with the impatience and violence of developers building a shopping mall instead of the patient devotion of a farmer cultivating a field? The shopping mall will be abandoned in disrepair in fifty years; the field will be healthy and productive for another thousand if its mysteries are respected by a skilled farmer

– Eugene Peterson

A number of years ago, when theStory was at a crossroads, our board chair offered an analogy that has helped us ever since.

He said there seemed to have been two different methods of leading our church.  The first way, was the way that our church started.  It was built.  We had leaders who laid out a blueprint.  They found the right people.  They found the right materials.  They built a foundation and then they started to assemble everything in order to accomplish the tasks of making the church look like the blueprint.  We bought a building, set a budget, had some staff, ran programs – all things that were part of our blueprint of how to start a church.  There was a very clear vision and then we executed to accomplish that vision.

After six or seven years, this way of leading no longer seemed to resonate with theStory.  The conversations surrounding designing new blueprints grew tiresome.  Outside blueprints imposed on us were even worse.  We stopped needing builders and construction workers and rather started needing gardeners and botanists.  So instead we looked to grow the church.  We want to grow a garden, not build a house.  There is a large difference between growing and building a church.  Buildings need an end goal, a plan, and takes a lot of management.  Growing on the other hand is about creating the right conditions and takes a lot of cultivating and nurturing.  Managing and cultivating, building and gardening are two different ways of leading.

Growing a church means that we are creating an environment where the community can thrive.  We don’t have an end goal.  We don’t know if we are going to plant more churches, grow in numbers or buy a new building.  Rather, we’ve spent time better understanding and participating in practices.  Eucharist, potlucks, prayer, camping, singing and sticking to the church calendar.  We’ve encouraged people to do the things they feel called to do.  We prune some branches, we add some water and we let the sun do it’s work.

Building was essential for us to get off the ground and take on the identity of what we are today.  Growing is essential for where we are now.

I’ve always been a grower.  I’ve never been good at following plans and doing things right.  Instead, I like to let things go and have a life of their own and just make sure that it stays healthy and continues to strengthen in whatever way it evolves.

It’s a very different approach to church.  Most pastors are trained in school to come in and set a mission, vision and values and to continually repeat the phrase that “without vision the people will perish.”  It’s difficult for building pastors and people to be part of or stick around very long in growing churches.  It feels like something is wrong.  It feels like no one cares.  Like we have no vision.  Some take it personally, like they aren’t needed or welcome.  I don’t think it’s any of that.  I think it’s just different.  In the same way that it was a struggle for me to be part of a building church, it will be difficult for someone to be part of a growing church.

So for the last three years or so, my efforts have gone to helping theStory grow, rather than building theStory into something and lead us towards a specific goal.  I think this is where we are at and this is a good place for us right now.  We are a community who is growing deeper roots and maturing in our faith.  We are learning to love each other better and be vulnerable with one another.  We are seeing needs and reaching out to take care of one another.  We are looking into our city and reaching out where we see need.  We are learning and immersing ourselves in the church disciplines and better understanding our unique place geographically and historically.

We might not be building anything intelligible to a blueprint but we are growing into something that none of us can quite picture yet that I am sure will not disappoint.

2 Comments

  • Marx said that we cannot know what the revolution will look like; it totally transcends our historical horizon. In the same way, I think we are unable to know *exactly* what the kingdom of God will look like when it takes root in our context. As such, the perspective of the church must remain open in ways you’ve described here. Maybe this is why Jesus said “Receive” and “Enter” the kingdom, not “Build” or “Open” it.

    A few other thoughts come to mind.

    First, growing requires different phases and the deepening of roots for nourishment is essential. Sometimes it may not look like any growth above the soil, but below there is much happening. Yet, this deepening of roots is meant to eventually bring fruit above the soil. So there is much more of a both/and dynamic than an either/or one happening. Wouldn’t you say?

    On that note, I think there’s a difference between having an END and having a GOAL. It is not possible to have zero goals. Even growth requires a goal. Nobody plants a garden by scattering unknown seeds and saying, “Can’t wait to see what I get!” Growth is itself a goal and one must have stated goals as they relate to growth. I think this is where your practices and environment-cultivation comes in. So I wonder if it is the END of the phrase “We have no end goal” that you emphasize more than the goal. Would that be correct?

    The other thought I had in mind was the imagery of building and planting. Jeremiah spoke of plucking up and tearing down only to then finally build and plant again. I wonder if part of God’s vision for the church is to navigate this exact process: building and then planting (growing). I have found myself thinking also about the phase as dwelling (in what one has built). After all, the point of a house is not to stand around and admire the blueprints and the final building, but rather to dwell in it and make a home (in exile).

    I’m interested in exploring more what it means to let go of blueprints and END goals without also letting go of goals.

  • Ideas about narrative theology & narrative ethics may be a little past the peak of their popularity. But perhaps still helpful even as their novelty has worn off a little.

    Folks who think about these things propose practices should be given value — judged as good or bad — based upon a practice’s congruence with an individual or group’s memories and expectations. If a practice lines up with a group’s history and future hopes, great. If not, they should figure out what does. Or change the narrative.

    A definite plus with this style of ethics, is that churches are able to sidestep some of the blunders of the Church Growth movement. Yet at the same time a church can hold a vision of the future that meaningfully informs church life and practice.

    I’d suspect narrative thinkers would say a church without a vision of the future cannot grow. Such a church can only change. Without a vision of the future, there is no means to judge the value of practices, and the changes (or growth) they nurture.

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