Every church I am in conversation with has seen a setback in their in-person weekend attendance this past year. Typically, I’m hearing between 20% to 50% of pre-COVID attendance. Currently, here at Nativity, we are consistently seeing 35% of our previous attendance at our reduced weekend Mass schedule (three Masses down from five).
In case you’re wondering, we have no intention of restoring those Masses as long as we have so much open capacity. It would be a big waste of money and effort to needlessly duplicate Masses (something we have been guilty of in the past). But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to climb back to our previous attendance and, in fact, use it as a platform for future growth. In fact, I believe despite the difficulties and doubts we labor under these days, the season ahead can be, and indeed must be, a time of robust growth. Why?
Well, there are a few obvious reasons of course, but I can sum it up simply: we are called to be a growing church.
There are some pastors and church leaders who criticize growing churches as “sell-outs” (our critics have called us “Catholic Lite”) and point to their own lack of growth as proof of their faithfulness, Orthodoxy, or whatever it is they’re hiding behind.
We are unapologetically growth-oriented and everyone on our team, from our senior leadership to the newest member-minister, understands that. We didn’t come up with that mindset, it was given to us by Jesus (Matthew 28:19-20). Here are a few principles of understanding growth in churches I have partly adapted to our Catholic context from my friend Pastor Carey Nieuwhof:
1) Healthy Churches Grow
Healthy churches grow, though it is true that not all growing churches are healthy. There are plenty of churches growing along with their growing local communities. It’s automatic growth and it is not necessarily a sign of health. There are churches growing as they carve out a niche ministry, offer some specific style of music or liturgy, or boast a popular pastor. All potentially good things for sure but not necessarily signs of health.
One definition of a healthy church comes from Pastor Rick Warren. He says that churches are healthy when they are fulfilling each of the five purposes of a church in a balanced way. If they get out of balance, a church becomes unhealthy and will not grow. For example, a church that values worship but doesn’t invest in discipleship might only impact people at a surface level.
Healthy churches grow but growth cannot be merely or even principally measured in terms of numbers in the pews.
2) Healthy Churches Grow Through Evangelization and Discipleship
Healthy churches grow, and growth can be measured in different ways, in different seasons. We like to call it deep and wide. We want to grow in terms of numbers (i.e. wide) and we want to see those numbers grow in terms of engagement and commitment (i.e. deep). Another way to talk about it is evangelization and discipleship.
Disciples grow as disciples when they understand that the Church exists to evangelize. Evangelization efforts are most successful when they’re undertaken by committed disciples.
Healthy church growth cannot be merely measured in terms of numbers in the pews. BUT, healthy churches will eventually increase the numbers in the pews.
3) Healthy Churches Grow Through Healthy Leaders
The several seasons of robust growth that eventually led us to build a new sanctuary and triple our seating capacity happened for a number of reasons. We like to talk about music, message, and ministers all working together to create an “irresistible” environment. That was a factor.
But if the full story were to be told, another factor would be my own health … emotional health. Over time, I had grown to greater confidence in what I was doing, learned to trust the excellent team we had built up and found encouragement from our growing corps of member-ministers. I also got better at dealing with criticism (a lot of criticism) in a healthy way.
Healthy churches grow through healthy leaders which eventually, inevitably leads to greater numbers in the pews.
For a more complete look at this topic please see:
“5 Hard Truths About Healthy Church Growth” at cnieuwhof.com
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As a Catholic, there is a fourth point that needs to be made:
Catholic churches need to take Latin Novus Ordo into the 21st Century.
Nativity has done that well. It’s why it’s the most thriving church in the Archdiocese. But if you go to other churches in the area, you see that most people there are well above retirement age. There’s the bad 1970s church music that sounds like it was composed by wannabe Elton Johns and Billy Joels. The homily occurs in a vacuum and probably has little if anything to do with the readings.