What Does It Mean to “Grow”?

If you follow my Tweets or Facebook status updates, you probably know by now that I enjoy and appreciate Dan Dick‘s United Methodeviations blog. Dan is a former consultant and researcher for the General Board of Discipleship who has moved on to be the Director of Connectional Ministries of the Wisconsin Annual Conference, and regularly shares his research on life in the United Methodist Church. One of his regular topics of concern is the over-dependence on the traditional metrics of membership and worship attendance, as signs of church vitality and growth, a concern that I share.

I, like many of my ilk and background, more often attempt to define “growth” in a church on less measurable qualities, things like the willingness of participants to engage actively in mission and ministry in the world, the depth of members relationship with God, the quality of the prayer life of the congregation, and a host of other factors that are even more nebulous. Very often, at least for me, there is a sense of growth without any metric upon which to demonstrate that growth. As I look around, I know that we have grown in some way, that we are a different people than we used to be, but have no statistical way to measure that growth, and if we’re honest, have to question whether our intuition is indeed correct or open ourselves to the possibility that we are delusional.

This is staring me in the face as I prepare to leave a church that I have loved and served for seven years, handing it off to another in the belief that we’ve grown, but also recognizing that this growth has not yet translated into more bodies, more ministry, and more bringing forth of God’s kingdom. Is this congregation the same as when I came seven years ago? No, and by many metrics one could easily make the argument that it is worse off because of my tenure. I believe that the ministry I’ve been engaged in has planted seeds that will ultimately bear fruit, but then again that could simply be a justification for a ministry that hasn’t been as successful as some. Certainly I’ve learned a lot, and I can argue that several of the scars that were at the heart of this congregation have begun to heal significantly, but does that represent growth.

For me, the growth markers come in very small events. Seven years ago this congregation still tended to be fearful and set apart from their ethnically difference neighbors. Two years ago the Church Council named diversity as an important value for the church, based in Jesus’ embrace of all. Seven years ago, the church I serve was conflict adverse, punch drunk from several years of damaging battles. Today we are able to recognize conflict not as something to be avoided, but rather as something which means that we are doing significant things, and more better positioned to address conflict rather than avoid it. This is a church that has become more active in the surrounding community, a church which is developing a missional focus and identity, and a church that is significantly more visible in the community now than before.

For me, those are markers of growth, signs that we’ve been able to experience the tiny places of transformation that are preparing us for major change ahead. And part of my leaving is in fact another marker along the way that God is bringing us to a new place, for the decision to leave is based solely in a desire to push Antioch UMC to a new place. It is a gift of growth, a recognition that my gifts have brought us to a different place, but now that someone is needed to move what’s been planted toward harvest.

Of course, I may very well be deluded. This may simply be revisionist history to justify the past seven years of work.

But I think not. Growth is an elusive concept, not easily grasped. Sometimes it’s very visible. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it is overt, while other times it is hidden just beneath the surface. The danger comes in valuing only the overt signs of growth to the exclusion of the more subtle markers along the way. For those of us engaged in the art of ministry, very often we have to sit back and contemplate where we’ve come from to recognize the change we’ve been a part of.

I’m reminded that growth is not uniform throughout the universe. Some plants grow quickly, bring forth abundant fruit in a short growing season. Others, like the olive tree, grow much more slowly, often at a rate that looks like no growth at all. And yet, the fruit of the olive produces amazing oil which is much more precious that a bushel of green beans.

So what does it mean for a church to grow, and can one truly look at surface level measurements as anything more than a simplistic measure of growth? Or, is there growth that lies just beneath the surface, unseen by the masses, which will lead to better fruit in the future?

I opt for number two.

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