It is not uncommon to be told about a particular church which is very ‘successful’. The story usually contains accounts of growing attendances, thriving youth groups, new families etc, and also sometimes a charismatic leader. Such churches often then become the ‘model’ we are all to copy.
Where such a story is true we should rejoice at the great work that is being done in the advancement of God’s kingdom, particularly in these times of generally, and chronically falling church attendances. Perhaps, however, before we become to enthusiastic we should apply some critical analysis to the reports. The reality is that alleged ‘successes’ can often be illusory, a result of a lack of critical analysis.
For example, it should be asked if there are particular local circumstances that facilitate growth that are not usually present in other areas and can’t generally be replicated. This is important given the need for new churches or forms of church that can be multiplied rapidly. Such multiplication is essential if we are to reverse the significant decline trends. ‘Special circumstance’ churches are not by definition usually easily replicated in the absence of their ‘special circumstances’!
A fairly common, example of growth which is greatly facilitated by special local circumstances would be the claimed missional ‘success’ of a ‘Greenfield’ church plant in a growth area where the number of ‘bums on seats’ looks good. However, if the question is asked ‘where did all these new members come from?’ It is often the case that the vast majority were previously members of other churches before moving into the area of the ‘Greenfield’ church and have in fact been lost by their church of origin. This is not Kingdom growth!
Then there is the (real) example of the large Anglican church with a large thriving and growing youth ministry, held up as a great ‘success’. That is until one puts it in the context of the diminishing, even closing, youth ministries of the surrounding parishes from which the ‘successful’ church has ‘poached’ its growth. An example of what I call the ‘Transferee Mirage’ on a local scale, and again not ‘kingdom growth’.
Another frequent area of often illusory ‘success’ is that of special ‘In-drag’ outreach events. Large numbers of attendees and a well-run event can leave the ‘Christians’ with the ‘illusion’ of missional success. However, critical analysis usually reveals little or no gospel fruit (i.e. how many became an ongoing member of any fellowship) in return for what is often a large investment of resources and little if any Kingdom growth.
It may be that a particular church evidences ‘success’ because of a particularly charismatic and visionary leader, what some call the ‘Rock Star’ minister. However, such leaders are scarce and so repetition of their ‘success’ is very limited and not a growth model for the church generally.
It does have to be said that some real ‘success’ is occurring and must be celebrated. However, the fact is that this is usually little and isolated and it is not legitimate to argue a general conclusion of missional effectiveness from isolated particular ‘successes’. The reality still is, despite such ‘success’, that the ‘Missional Emperor’ has no clothes on! And the percentage of ‘Newcomers’ i.e. the ‘unchurched and the de-churched’ is still declining in our congregations as once again been demonstrated by the just available church attendance data for 2016.
The reality is that alleged ‘successes’ can often be illusory, a result of a lack of critical analysis.
There is a general lack of preparedness on the part of many existing standard churches to consider something different, in part perhaps because they allow themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security by some limited missional success. Success does and will occur, particulary as we harvest the ‘low hanging fruit’, that is largely those in the community who have some affinity with the traditional church for some reason. That however is a shrivelling orchard, and reality is still defined by the negative trajectory of declining trends of church attendance and which warn us against being seduced by occasional localized reports of success, and the ‘Transferee Mirage’.
We must indeed seek to establish large numbers of ‘Successful’ churches. However, real success in terms of our need for significantly increased missional fruitfulness will only come through models that can easily be replicated.