Reframing questions for congregational health
Dr. Rachael B. Lawrence
April 9, 2020
Many pastors know the experience of arriving at a new call and being asked “what are you going to do for church growth?” More often than not, those who pose this question are concerned with attracting and retaining “young people” into church membership. Some are ready to set goals around growth and have ideas about measuring whether goals have been met. And yet, the path forward to meeting those goals isn’t obvious. Plans are not clear. Actions and their expected benefits are not defined. How can we meet a goal if we don’t really understand what we’re trying to do as the church? This article suggests ways of reframing our questions around church growth that may support us in effectively planning for a sustainable, healthy future.
The first reframe to consider is about the church’s call. Is the end goal of the great commission (Matthew 28:19-20) membership or discipleship? How might we think differently if we are inviting people to follow Jesus rather than focusing on adding members to the roles? We might look to the model of Jesus in creating disciples. Jesus met people in their everyday lives, doing their everyday things. In these interactions, Jesus understood what people needed and he met those needs. The first disciples were coming back from a disappointing night of fishing (Luke 5: 1-11). Jesus directed them where to go cast their nets to find fish, meeting their immediate need. When 5,000 people gathered to hear Jesus and needed food, Jesus found a way to meet that need (Matthew 14:13-21). The woman at the well needed understanding and clarity, and Jesus met that need despite the immense cultural barriers that could have easily barred him from doing so (John 4). Jesus made disciples by first understanding and meeting people’s needs.
Is the end goal of the great commission (Matthew 28:19-20) membership or discipleship? How might we think differently if we are inviting people to follow Jesus rather than focusing on adding members to the roles? We might look to the model of Jesus in creating disciples. Jesus met people in their everyday lives, doing their everyday things.
The second reframe, therefore, invites us to consider how we meet people’s needs. How do we understand what those we are intending to reach for discipleship need from a church community? This can be a complicated question – after all, some people aren’t even sure what they need themselves. A helpful place to start may be by examining the resources in the community surrounding the church: are any obvious things missing? Are there issues of equity, where the affluent may have access to a good or service but the poor do not? Are the goods or services some are missing out on something that could be compatible with a ministry of the church?
Jesus focused on meeting people’s tangible, physical needs – hunger, thirst, and healing – before ever addressing spiritual matters. Sometimes people’s needs are more complex in our contemporary society. Today, people may experience a need to improve their job prospects, offer their children a chance at a better education, or to understand some aspect of social or legal services in some way. Churches often have space and people with content knowledge in these areas to help meet those needs. The simple needs remain for many, as well. How many people in our communities might identify their key needs as companionship, or even rest, in this all too busy world? How might the church rise to the challenge of meeting those needs?
When we understand what it is our community really needs from the church, we can better make plans to serve. We can start by creating a theory of action – a basic if-then statement that seeks to logically link action to outcome (See Argyris, 1997). From there, we can logically build programs, identifying the resources needed (human, physical, and fiscal), articulate how our actions are likely to meet these needs, and then evaluate how our programs are working (Cooksy, Gill, & Kelly, 2001). Through evaluating our efforts, we can see how our assumptions about meeting people’s needs (including our assumptions about what those needs are) play out in reality, allowing us to make informed decisions to shape effective programs (Lawrence, Rallis, Davis, & Harrington, 2018).
By reframing our goals away from increasing membership and toward meeting the needs of our community, we may more clearly see our mission and purpose as the church. By meeting people’s needs as Jesus did, our communities will be more likely to see the church as relevant and important to their lives, and more people will feel invited into discipleship.
Meeting people’s needs right where they are in life is the first step in making disciples, as Jesus showed us through his ministry on earth. As 1 Peter 4:10 says, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” As churches, we have been blessed with many gifts and resources we can use in the service of others. By reframing our goals away from increasing membership and toward meeting the needs of our community, we may more clearly see our mission and purpose as the church. By meeting people’s needs as Jesus did, our communities will be more likely to see the church as relevant and important to their lives, and more people will feel invited into discipleship.
Rachael B. Lawrence, PhD, is co-pastor at Second Baptist Church of Suffield, Conn., and assistant director at the Center for Education Policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is also a classical musician.
Argyris, C. (1997). Learning and teaching: A theory of action perspective. Journal of Management Education, 21(1), 9-26.
Cooksy, L. J., Gill, P., & Kelly, P. A. (2001). The program logic model as an integrative framework for a multimethod evaluation. Evaluation and program planning, 24(2), 119-128
Lawrence, R. B., Rallis, S. F., Davis, L. C., & Harrington, K. (2018). Developmental evaluation: Bridging the gaps between proposal, program, and practice. Evaluation, 24(1), 69-83.