Explore the core practices of growing churches
While there is no magic formula for church growth, there are various factors which are found to be associated with growing churches. The eight core practices of growing churches set out below are taken from research conducted by the Church of England in 2011-2013, the findings of which are explored in From Evidence to Action, and the Leading Together research by the Methodist Church in 2015-2016.
For each practice, an example is given of a church or circuit which has taken a prayerful decision to focus their energy on one or more of these areas. All of them are growing missionally and spiritually, and some of them are already experiencing numerical growth.
1. Growing churches have a clear mission and purpose
Reigate Methodist Church went through a lengthy mission planning process before embarking on a £1.7m building project. The whole congregation were asked to bring their dreams and a thorough community audit was undertaken to understand where the church's dreams and the community's needs might come together.
2. Growing churches know and serve their communities
Rugby Methodist Church wanted to remodel their entrance to be more appealing to passers-by. At a prayer meeting, someone asked God to “break down the walls between us and the community”. Shortly afterwards, a drunk driver came off the roundabout too fast in the middle of the night and crashed through the front wall of the church (fortunately he survived unscathed). Prompted to get on with it, and with insurance money to help, the church created a café area in the entrance serving coffee and cake a few days a week. Volunteers from the wider community and not just the church are welcomed into the café team, baking cakes on a Monday and serving them Tuesday to Friday. Local people can earn ‘time credits’ for their volunteering through the TimeBuilders community scheme. TimeBuilders offers a wide range of opportunities to volunteer, including groups for gardening, walking, knitting, crafts and model-making. In the first year, there have been over 600 hours of volunteering, and the time credits earned have been used to 'buy' treats for volunteers and their friends, such as lunches, leisure centre passes and theatre tickets. Most importantly, the café is a safe place for those who are vulnerable: the church is seeing lives transformed.
3. Growing churches offer welcome and follow up
Urban Village Church in Chicago is fanatical in its dedication to welcoming visitors and has a methodical system of welcome and follow-up. Every Sunday worshipper is asked to fill out a card, whether they're supplying contact information, signing up for programmes or making a prayer request. Having everyone do this helps gather more information and means visitors aren't singled out. That information is entered into a spreadsheet and, within three days of visiting, newcomers receive a handwritten note from someone in the team and an invitation to a one-to-one meeting. Following the one-to-one, visitors can follow a very clear discipleship pathway. First, a session introducing the church; then a four-week course which runs six times a year, offering an introduction to Wesleyan Christianity, discipleship, and the church's core values and mission; next, joining a covenant small group; and eventually engaging in service and leadership.
4. Growing churches offer discipleship pathways
Brindley Ford Methodist Church (now known as The Village Church) in Brindley Ford village, Stoke-on-Trent, had dwindled to fourteen regulars but that small congregation had a desire and a vision for growth. When mentoring support was offered it was eagerly accepted. Over a period of a few years, the church has grown to about thirty with an average weekly attendance of around twenty-five.
The renewal of the church came not only from organisational changes which everyone - young and not so young - embraced but also from a renewed focus on discipleship. The Church runs the Alpha Course, with existing members providing the core of the group. A small group with a discipleship focus meets fortnightly, applying the Bible to daily life.
As part of its emphasis on discipleship, the church now engages in missional, community initiatives which, in turn, help energise the discipleship of congregation members. Amongst other activities, the Village Choir has been formed, led by the church organist, and including people from the church, the community and the local care home. The choir sings in church two or three times a year and the church visits the care home each month to share in worship with the residents and carers. The Village Café is also a means of outreach, and for sharing with the local community and care home residents, with people joining in for fun and fellowship. The church runs the Village Youth Club on Monday evenings with an average attendance of about fifteen. Parents and other family members of the youth club members are invited to social events a couple of times each year in order to build the family atmosphere and relationships.
A large, attractive noticeboard and a Facebook page advertise the church’s presence to the village and together with its website, proclaim its openness to the community and to God, to whom they are committed “to be a people who believe Him, love Him and trust Him in our daily lives”.
5. Growing churches have transformational leaders
A very small church in urban Gateshead experienced rapid growth over a period of a few years due to the transformational leadership of a Methodist deacon. Tracey Hume led the church into many different forms of involvement in the local community, such as campaigning against benefit sanctions, giving out Christmas hampers, and providing space for community groups to meet. She built a team of mostly retired people as well as welcoming the involvement of those who are not yet members of the church. Tracey also led changes in Sunday worship, introducing a monthly café-style service with breakfast, crafts and discussion. Her leadership and the example she set of passionate engagement in the local community are specifically mentioned in the aforementioned Leading Together report as a key factor in the growth this church experienced during her time there.
6. Growing churches involve all people
High Street Methodist Church, Harpenden, has a strong culture of welcoming the diverse gifts of the people of God, lay and ordained, paid staff and volunteers, and encouraging them to exercise leadership. In the document Leadership at High Street: a guide to the way we do things, Presbyter Mark Hammond describes the work of the twelve people on the leadership team of this large and busy church:
‘Much of the mountain of work carried out by our key ofﬁce holders is done behind the scenes, but without their commitment and diligence in caring for our people, property, ﬁnances and communications, High Street could not operate at all. Nevertheless, their work is not an end in itself - it serves the greater purpose of supporting the mission of High Street, which is where the mission co-ordinators come in...
As their title suggests, the purpose of our Mission Coordinators is neither to take over nor to direct the wonderful work already being done by our various church teams, committees and volunteers. Rather their purpose is to ensure that all the work we do is well-coordinated and enabled to continue developing in a way that is fully consistent with our church vision and strategy. Their work is one of ensuring the support and coordination of all that goes on through High Street. It is, however, clearly very good that those who fulﬁl these co-ordinator roles have ongoing hands-on experience of being actively involved in leading some of the work they now help to co-ordinate...
The administration of the leadership team is no easy task, so we are very blessed to be served in this respect by two very experienced and unﬂappable lawyers. R_____ keeps our meetings on track (and sometimes even on time) and C_____ deals with the day-to-day work of organising meetings, keeping paperwork up to date, and ensuring that all agreed actions are indeed enacted.’
7. Growing churches change and adapt
Lemington Methodist Church, on the western edge of Newcastle, was down to fewer than twenty, mainly elderly, members. They invited their District Evangelism Enabler in to help them think about the future, with the looming sense that closure was the likely outcome. However, both the Evangelism Enabler and the Superintendent had a nagging feeling that God wasn’t done with them yet. This was a small group of elderly people and yet they were willing to try anything. As a result, the church was put in touch with someone in the area who believed God had given her a vision to start an initiative to help families who were struggling to get clothes for their children. Volunteers from other churches in the circuit got on board, and the weekly ‘Clothes Bar’ was born.
Every Tuesday, the church’s worship area is reconfigured as a free children’s clothes shop, with tea and toast area where people can sit and chat. One of the regular mums at the Clothes Bar asked the minister about the possibility of starting a Messy Church there, having taken her son regularly to one when they lived elsewhere. This resulted in a monthly Messy Church, beginning in December 2018, with the parents helping with the planning and running. This now attracts 30-40 children with their parents and carers on a Saturday afternoon each month. A Messy Church day trip in summer 2019 saw 106 people going to Edinburgh Zoo in two full-size coaches. Baptisms have taken place in families who previously had nothing to do with the church.
As the success of the Clothes Bar continued, and as relationships developed with new local people, it became clear that the distance between Lemington - situated at the far west of Newcastle - and the main West End Food Bank in the town was a real issue for local people who were struggling for food. “We need something local here,” said one of the Clothes Bar mums, who was passionate about trying to do something about it. This has resulted in a partnership being established between the church and West End Food Bank, with the church now operating as a twice-weekly ‘satellite site’ allowing local people to obtain both vouchers and food provisions without the expense of multiple bus trips into town. As time passes, some of the new local people who have got involved have really started to see Lemington Methodist as ‘their church’. One young couple, who first came to the church for the food bank and now help out as volunteers themselves, have changed their plans to marry in a registry office this summer. They now want to get married in a service at the church instead.
8. Growing churches connect with young people
Two lay workers in the Vale of Stour Circuit wanted to connect with families whose children had been baptized in Methodist churches. They were conscious of the churches’ baptism promise to help the families bring up their children in the Christian faith. Their creative solution was to hire a local soft play centre once a quarter for all families connected with the churches, including those from the toddler groups and Sunday school classes, along with those who had brought their children for baptism. Once every three months, on a Sunday morning, the families were invited to the soft play centre for free play and informal prayer and worship. A prayer station was set up in the soft play centre, ministers were there in clerical collars offering to pray with people, and there was a short child-friendly worship slot. The week before, a team would pray for the event, and prayer requests written at the event were kept and prayed over afterwards. Rather than an activity to compete with Sunday school, this was a quarterly alternative that was very child-friendly, had great appeal for families, and provided appropriate worship and prayer opportunities. The response has been so positive that the circuit has continued with this ministry despite its original founders moving on to new posts.
- If you don't yet have a mission plan, now is the time to write one. Mission planning can help with many of the features identified above. As you follow the eight-step mission planning process, your church or circuit will be prompted to consider its mission and purpose, to think about the needs of its community, and to consider any change that may be needed. If you already have a mission plan, maybe now is the time to revisit it and to make changes in consultation with your congregation/s.
- To improve the welcome you offer to newcomers, there are welcome cards available free from Methodist Publishing that have been specially designed for Methodist churches to use in welcoming and following up new people. Use them to capture people's information, and be sure to follow up once you have it.
- You may feel that developing transformational leadership is a priority for your church or circuit. The Transformational Leadership Learning Community aims to develop teams of lay and ordained people and to build their capacity to effect much-needed change in their contexts. The learning community is currently accepting applications for teams to start in March 2021.
- For help with equality, diversity and inclusion, consider working through the EDI Toolkit. This will help you ensure that, in all you do, you are welcoming and developing the gifts of people of every ethnicity, sexuality, age and ability.
- Consider sharing this summary of the eight practices of growing churches with your church or circuit team.