How to make sure your church is unlikely to grow!


I just came across a helpful guide to preventing the growth of your church – or at least making it hard to draw in any new people. Here is the summary:

  1. Don’t have a website.
  2. If you have a website make sure it looks like a 1970s video game. Better still – don’t update it.
  3. On church answerphone messages do not put service times.
  4. Do not have a notice board by your church building.
  5. If you have a notice board make it unreadable from the road.
  6. Meet in a place different to where you normally meet without putting this on your website or church notice board.
  7. Do not have anyone greeting or welcoming at the church door before the service.
  8. In major holiday and tourism destinations, do not put information in camp grounds, motels, hotels, or tourist offices.
  9. Do not have a New Year celebration.
  10. Do not have an advertisement or presence in local newspapers or radio.
  11. A bonus to make visitors feel extra unwelcome in your club, do not explain unusual practices your church has.

You can read the whole thing here.


Singing the songs or reciting the sermon?

You may have noticed at the end of church on a Sunday morning people will tend to go out singing the songs rather than reciting the sermon.

One Sunday a few years ago, the BBC broadcast a service from the famous Keswick Convention in the English Lake District. The music was led by modern hymn-writer, Stuart Townend, and the service included several of his songs, including In Christ Alone.

Before leading the congregation in singing that, Stuart spoke for about one minute on the significance of songs in worship, highlighting their teaching function and their capacity to allow us to express our feelings and emotions to God who in turn interacts with us.

He raised a few chuckles when he suggested that people are more likely to leave church singing the songs than reciting the sermon.

You may have noticed at the end of church on a Sunday morning people will tend to go out singing the songs rather than reciting the sermon.

The point is not that sermons should be done away with (the Keswick Convention would be an odd place to suggest that); it’s an observation about the power of music.

Here are a few reflections on this – some for preachers and some for music directors and worship leaders.

For preachers:

  1. Let’s face it: he’s got a point. Have you ever heard someone reciting lines from your sermon in the car park after you have preached for 40 minutes? You may get the odd memorable line or two making an appearance on Twitter; and there may be some people leaving with a page or two of notes (what does anyone do with all those notes, by the way?)
  2. But that does not mean that we do away with sermons). However there is a challenge to us to do what we can to make our sermons more memorable.
  3. Which in turn does not mean you have to arrive in the pulpit having parachuted through the ceiling or driven up the aisle in a Formula 1 racing car; nor does it require you to replace the pulpit with a trampoline. All of these would make the occasion memorable, but possibly not for the right reasons.
  4. It may involve a judicious and creative use of some kind of visuals on the screen. If you are going to use Powerpoint or the like, try to make sure that it supports your message rather than distracting from it.
  5. It may involve the use of stories and illustrations. People who struggle to follow a detailed argument may come alive when you tell a good story. As with visuals, make sure it supports your message. (One of the dilemmas a preacher faces is when there is a great story, begging to be told, but it doesn’t quite fit the sermon.)
  6. Why not make use of a catch phrase or a tag line that accurately reflects the message of the passage you are preaching? You can repeat it several times during your message.
  7. Consider using alliteration or parallelism to outline the main sub-points of your message. For example – Preaching sometimes involves pulpits; Preaching should never include plagiarism; Preaching should always involve power.
  8. Ask the Holy Spirit to use the written word (Bible) to reveal the Incarnate Word (Jesus). Ask him to bring a word for the moment to the listeners’ lives. Ask him to open listeners’ hearts.

For worship leaders and song writers:

  1. Realise the powerful influence you have! Music sticks with people. How many times do you go through a day with a tune buzzing around your head?
  2. Since music is so powerful, make sure you get people to sing songs that are actually worth remembering. It works two ways. Silly, superficial words, set to a catchy tune, stick. Sometimes your dilemma will be that you have to ditch a song whose melody you really like, because its lyrics are not good enough. If some things are worth remembering, others are not.
  3. On the same lines, if you are a song writer, don’t waste your time writing nonsense! Give us things that we need to remember; give us things that will give wings to our spiritual lives.
  4. Remember the difference between songs that work really well at a rock concert, but don’t cut it in corporate worship. Corporate worship means the people sing, not listen.
  5. Writers – you need to write tunes that ordinary, not-terribly-musical people can sing and will remember. Don’t forget that while you can probably pick up a new melody after you have heard it once, some people will need to hear it, be taught it and practice it multiple times before it sticks with them.
  6. Consider working with the preacher to choose songs that will support the theme of what is preached. Even if it doesn’t work for every song in the service, work hard to make sure that the final song will reinforce what has just been preached. For example, if the preaching has focussed the grace and love of the father in the story of the Prodigal Son, why not finish with something like How deep the Father’s Love for us?
  7. If you are a writer, why not set yourself the challenge of writing new material to reflect a series that is being preached in your church. It will stretch your writing skills and it will provide a great resource to your church (and possibly the church wider afield).

(A version of this was originally posted in July 2012.)

When Ego Leads the Church

I’ve been teaching through John’s letters over the past couple of months – one of a couple of evening classes at Belfast Bible College. As we wrapped up the course yesterday evening we were in 3 John, where we met Diotrephes.

In the background of both 2 and 3 John are some travelling preachers – some false and some true. The church is to help the former but not the latter.

Gaius, the addressee of 3 John has done a great job of helping those preachers who have gone out on mission for the sake of the name of the Lord Jesus; in contrast to him is Diotrephes.

Scholars have attempted to reconstruct the reasons for his conflict with ‘the elder’ (presumably St John, the Apostle), but the simple facts are that Diotrephes refuses to acknowledge John, he is spreading gossip about him, he refuses to welcome the missionaries and excommunicates anyone who goes against his policy.

And he ‘likes to put himself first’.

Ego leading the church.

A week ago, a prominent evangelical pastor in America resigned from his post. His elders have written on the church website, detailing some of the patterns of sinful behaviour which have led to this situation: they include ‘manipulation and lying’; ‘domineering over those in his charge’ and ‘a history of building his identity through ministry and media platforms’.

These are their words and not mine. They tell a story, like 3 John, of ego leading the church.

Perhaps you think of the old dictum that said that power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. It’s naive to think that Christian leadership is exempt from this.

Which calls for some urgent reflection on the nature and practice of Christian leadership. What is the nature of a leader’s authority? Should that be leaders’ (plural) authority? How can a leader recognise when ego is settling into the driving seat? When is it appropriate for a leader to exercise authority (as John appears to do in 3 John)?

And how is the concept of authority coloured by Jesus’ teaching that his followers are to relate in ways that are different from the leaders of the secular world?

Do we need to see more leaders taking up the towel and washing people’s feet?

If your church is not serving cake, you may be making a big mistake!

This time of the year often seems to throw up some fascinating studies relating to church ministry. I’ve written about a couple of them here and here. This week’s edition of The Irish Journal for Practical Theology and Church Leadership has turned up a fascinating report on some of Belfast’s fastest growing churches and what they have in common.

The title of the article is somewhat prosaic – ‘Factors in Church Growth in some Belfast Churches’ – but it’s worth a read. The research was carried out by Professor Pat Mason from Limerick Institute of Practical Theology and Dr Siegfried Schmidt from Hannover University.

They began by attempting to identify the 10 fastest growing churches in the greater Belfast area. They found that these straddled denominational backgrounds and included several newer, non-denominational churches. They conducted a series of interviews and focus groups among leaders and regular attenders at these churches to explore the factors behind these churches’ growth.

Some of the factors were particular to individual congregations. In one, it’s a popular preaching ministry; another is noted for its music; a slightly more offbeat attraction in one of the (Presbyterian) churches was the use of a smoke machine at the monthly family services.

But the one thing all ten had in common was the fact that they all serve some kind of cake either before or after the service (one Church of Ireland Church serves it both before and after). In most cases it was muffins or donuts, but one or two served freshly made scones: cake washed down, it should be said, by freshly brewed coffee (not instant).

John Ervine, an elder at one of the two Presbyterian churches in the survey described how he and the other elders had been sceptical when their minister suggested they try muffins and coffee after the morning service. They assumed it was ‘another American idea’ but agreed to allow him to try it for a month. ‘The results were amazing. We have tried modern music, we’ve even given out balloons to the children, but nothing worked like this: our numbers doubled in a month!’

The pastor of one of the Baptist churches in the survey (who wanted to remain anonymous) described how they had also encountered a bit of resistance at first, but after a couple of church business meetings they were able to get a 2/3 majority to agree to try muffins and coffee on the first Sunday morning of the month. They have not looked back.

‘We saw how popular all these coffee shops are with people nowadays,’ said Lucy Morris, part of the leadership team at a Church of Ireland church plant. ‘People are after the kind of experience that you only really get around a muffin and a decent cup of coffee. Why can we not give them that at church? The church should be leading the way in this kind of thing.’

A few people expressed concern about the sugar content of the donuts and muffins, and thought the Church should be setting a good example in proper eating. And there were a few other naysayers (‘they didn’t need gimmicks like that when WP Nicholson was preaching’). But it’s hard, say Mason and Schmidt, to argue with the figures. If it can all help make church the most fun time of the week, is that not what it’s all about?

If you would like to read the whole article, here is the link.


The experience economy comes to church

Once upon a time, when our ancestors wanted to eat cake to celebrate a family birthday, they took themselves to the local grocer who was happy to sell them some milk, flour and eggs. From there, it was DIY and, hey presto, a cake! Until one day the grocer told our ancestors’ descendants that he knew a baker who baked a very fine birthday cake: it even had chocolate flavouring. Why go to the trouble of gathering ingredients, mixing them together and fretting nervously, lest the cake fail to be perfectly puffed, when someone else could make it for you? Which all worked nicely until someone thought the pre-baked chocolate cake could be improved by adding superheroes and cartoon characters and someone else decided that they could pop an entire birthday package in the post, complete with balloons and novelty bags. But even that could be bettered. They could send it all round in a van, to be delivered by a clown who would not only hand over the aforementioned goodies, but would spend the afternoon creating a memorable birthday experience!

Well, it’s not quite Economics 101, but hopefully you see the point. We’ve gone from an economy based on providing a commodity, to an economy that provides goods, then a service, and eventually an experience.

The other day I spotted this – on the website of a Belfast Coffee Shop:

We are not just a coffee shop, we are an experience!

For the record, it’s Cafe Smart in East Belfast but I suspect they’re not the only coffee joint that likes to offer an experience and not just a cup of coffee. Which, you probably don’t need me to tell you, has been turned into an art form in recent years. I had coffee in a friend’s house a couple of years ago: watching him prepare the brew was like being transported back to chemistry class.

Nor are the purveyors of coffee alone in providing an experience for their customers. Ever been in an Apple Store?

But what does it have to do with church?

I have a sneaking suspicion – and I would really like to hear what you think – that this might be one of those areas where as things go with the culture, so they go with the church. I wonder if the church has moved into the business of attempting to provide an experience and if many of those who attend church judge their attendance on the basis of what kind of experience they had.

I need to express one or two caveats here.

For one thing, Christianity is meant to be experienced. I am aware of the debates regarding the extent to which Acts is meant to be normative, but it’s hard to read that particular NT book and conclude that Christianity is a purely intellectual exercise. If the fruit of the Spirit is joy, is that not something to be experienced? Frankly, I think a lot of us could do with a more experiential expression of church at times: more of a clear sense of the presence of God. Is he not meant to be among us when we gather to worship?

For another – and to be clear – this is not a post about not serving coffee in church! Preferably not instant coffee, though: in that case, mine’s a black tea! And if you want to add donuts or muffins, go for it. In fact, why not have the occasional Sunday where you have a meal together?! In fact, do what you can to make sure that the folk who attend your church feel welcomed and valued. And sing songs that are memorable. And preach in a way that is interesting.

There is nothing necessarily wrong the idea of church as a positive experience. I doubt that the person who leaves a church service feeling bored is necessarily more spiritual than the people who leave with a smile on their face.

But I wonder…

Is it possible for leaders – and worship leaders – to become susceptible to a shift where they start to act as though the key to church growth and prosperity lies in how well they create and market an experience?

And it is possible for church attenders to start to judge the value of a gathering based on how it felt to be there and if there is a bigger buzz on offer at the church round the corner, they’ll go there?

And on the other hand, to what extent should churches take account of the cultural climate in order to be relevant?

What do you think?

At last: the secret of church growth!

It’s probably more than 30 years ago that I heard George Verwer saying something to the effect that you can tell more about the health of the church by reading the ads in Christian magazines than by reading the articles. I’m reminded of that by this recent ad that appears to hold the key to doubling your congregation!


We’ll leave aside the question of whether it’s always a good idea to double the size of your congregation (might two congregations of 250 each be more effective than one of 500?), and reflect on what appears to be an amazing promise – certainly if the blurb is taken at face value.

According to the eChurchGiving website, what’s on offer is ‘an innovative, cloud-based solution designed to increase generosity across your ministry.’ Once you get the Pushpay app, your people can give in 10 seconds ‘wherever, whenever they like – ensuring the moment is never missed.’

To be clear, good organisation is important for the growth of a church. If you doubt that, read Acts 6. And no doubt the right app can help with good organisation. Imagine  what Stephen, Philip and their friends could have done with an app to organise the food distribution. And churches need people to give.

But let’s catch ourselves on (as they say in Northern Ireland).

Are we to believe that if you give your members a way to donate in 10 seconds your church is going to double in size?

How did the early church grow so rapidly and the gospel spread so effectively when the apostles didn’t have computers? Might even more people have been added to the church daily if Peter had had an iPad? Are we really to believe that Barnabas and Paul would have been more effective in Antioch if they had had iPhones? And in terms of giving, would it have been a lot easier for Barnabas to bring the proceeds from the sale of his field to the apostles if he had had access to PushPay? Funny, Acts 4 does not seem to say that.

What the early church had was the power of the gospel, the work of the Spirit and the hand of the Lord with them. The church grew and the gospel spread.

I guess there is something about us that is drawn to the quick fix (and the advertisers know it). The silver bullet. The long awaited solution.

By all means get an app to make it easier for people to give. But please don’t even try to hint that the secret of doubling the church is an app.

What was it Jesus said about vines and branches…?



Thoughts on grace and older brothers…

Ray Ortlund leads a church in Nashville where they use the following wording as a call to worship:

To all who are weary and need rest;
to all who mourn and long for comfort;
to all who feel worthless and wonder if God cares;
to all who fail and desire strength;
to all who sin and need a Savior;
to all who hunger and thirst for righteousness;
and to whoever will come—this church opens wide her doors and offers her welcome in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

It’s a grace invitation. And Ray is big on grace, the grace of the gospel. He says that ‘If you have gospel doctrine on paper but you don’t have gospel culture in relationships, you don’t really have gospel doctrine.’

So it’s a bit of a problem when evangelical churches (who believe in the grace of the gospel and preach it) produce (or at least count in their ranks) people who sometimes appear to demonstrate so little grace.

I’ve talked a lot over the past few years about the older brother in Jesus’ Tale of Two Sons (better known, but less accurately, in my view, as the story of the Prodigal Son). I’ve thought about some of the warning signs that betray a failure to really ‘get’ grace (or be fully ‘got’ by grace).

Here are some thoughts on older brothers, like the one in the story:

  1. ‘But he was angry…’ verse 28. Older brothers find it hard to forgive, hard to extend grace to others. As CS Lewis reminded us, we might think forgiveness is a wonderful idea – until we have something we need to forgive.
  2. ‘…these many years I have served you… yet you never gave me a young goat…’ verse 29. Older brothers live out a transactional type of spirituality that lacks the warmth of a relationship with a Heavenly Father.
  3. ‘…I never disobeyed your command…’ verse 29. Older brothers are very aware of their own rightness which makes them aware of others’ wrongness and often unable to admit their own failings.
  4. ‘But when this son of yours came…’ verse 30. Older brothers make comparisons and struggle to be generous in how they think of others.

For each of these symptoms, the treatment is repentance and a humble receiving of grace, acknowledging, as Jerry Bridges puts it,

Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.