Growing pains accompany growth, naturally. Can you remember experiencing pain in your arms or legs during one of those seasons of life when you had hit a major growth spurt, especially during adolescence? While you did not appreciate the pain, it certainly became more tolerable when a parent explained that you were experiencing growing pains. In fact, it was quite worth the pain. You may have even welcomed the pain just to know that you were growing up.
That should also be our response when we experience growing pains as a church. As with anatomical growing pains, the pains related to church growth (both spiritual and numerical) can come early or late in the seasons of growth spurts. The problem is when we begin to think the pain is unnatural or not worth the growth that comes with it. If we are called to be missional and to grow in discipleship and evangelism, we must beware of the growing pains and refuse to be discouraged by them.
In a future post I will deal with the pains associated with your personal spiritual growth. I am currently experiencing some of the those myself. But for now I would like to share with you some of the growing pains that I believe a church family will experience if they desire to grow. Perhaps these observations will enable you to rejoice over symptoms about which you have occasionally been tempted to be overly concerned.
Growing Pain 1: Personality clashes may become more prevalent. A greater missional spirit and the addition of people means a wider variety of personalities. This calls for greater patience and a willingness to learn to appreciate people that are not like you, people who do not think like you do about everything. Keep in mind, 1 Peter 2:9 says that we are all a “peculiar people.” You will also find that in the context of spiritual growth and the promotion of church unity that Paul told the church at Philippi to “do all things without grumbling or complaining (Phil. 2:14).” Don’t be threatened by people who have different personalities. To embrace them is to be kingdom minded.
Growing Pain 2: Ministry responsibilities must be networked. By the way, this is biblical. Smaller churches, however, often become accustomed to the pastor or pastoral staff doing most of the work of the ministry. Paul explained to the church at Ephesus that the primary responsibility of the pastoral leadership is to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11-12).” If the pastor doesn’t embrace the growing pain of equipping and letting some things go, he will likely master the church version of the art of bonsai. In Acts 6 the apostles provide us with a model for raising up leaders and networking ministry so that leaders can focus on their primary areas of calling. I am fortunate to be a part of a church that gets this. But we may be tempted to forget this from time to time, either by not embracing our roll in the networking process or by expecting the pastoral staff to be involved in everything.
Growing Pain 3: Assimilation strategies must change. There, I said it. The “C” word. The message of the Gospel never changes. Nor does our call to assimilate believers for discipleship. The larger a church becomes, the more necessary it is for people to be a part of a small group. Small groups can no longer be viewed as extra-curricular Bible study groups. They must provide opportunity for intimate fellowship. Whether you call them Life Groups, Sunday School, Men’s or Women’s Bible Studies, or Cell Groups… there must be a place to connect, open up, get real, and become a more functional faith family. Small group leaders must become as concerned about the facilitation of building community as they are about teaching the Bible. So it is A-OK to not finish the lesson because real community is taking place.
Growing Pain 4: Leadership and decision making strategies change. Tim Keller has pointed out that in smaller churches (the average church size is less than 100 active attendees) most decisions are made by the congregation as a whole. As a church grows, however, and expands its ministries and ministry staff, many decisions concerning direction, strategy, organization, finances, calendaring events, and ministry and mission opportunities have to be made quickly. Decision making will become a daily activity of a growing church staff.
Therefore, the ministry staff must be thoroughly vetted when called. They must be accountable to one another and keenly aware of their future accountability to God. They must model a walk with Christ. And they must demonstrate that they LIVE and LEAD by the Word of God. They must do all of these things so that they can earn the trust of the people. And when they have earned such trust, the people should allow them, even make life easy on them, when it comes to making leadership decisions under the direction of the Word of God, the mission of the church, and the guidance of the Spirit of God (Hebrews 13:7&17). The wise leader will cast vision and listen to the hearts of the spiritually mature in the body as often as possible. Learning to trust and follow God-called leadership can be a growing pain for some believers, especially if they come from a smaller church that never kept a pastor long enough for him to earn the trust of the people.
That is not to say that there are not certain systems of accountability, certain protocols of protection, or certain shared responsibilities. But our systems and structures must never become the proverbial “tail that wags the dog.” And when a leader is clearly unethical, unbiblical, or deliberately carnal, believers should apply the biblical steps of church discipline to lovingly confront the situation. (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Timothy 5:19)
Growing Pain 5: Communication streams must become more effective. There is balance to this particular area of growth. Unfortunately, the pain comes in finding that balance. First of all, everyone simply cannot always be “in the know” about everything in a growing church. As illustrated by points 3 and 4 above, many activities and ministries will take place on the small group or ministry team level. And many decisions will be made by pastoral staff on a daily basis. It would take 3 or 4 hours each evening if I explained to even my wife everything that took place during the day in the life of our church. Yes, the staff is busy all week, not just Sundays and Wednesday nights. We also trust that the church is busy “being the church” throughout the week. We actually love to hear stories of what you are doing for the sake of the kingdom, but we obviously don’t have time to hear and know everything there is to know. Why? Because so many wonderful things are happening! Praise the Lord!
But to bring balance to this, we must strive more and more to communicate the vision and mission of the church. We must especially keep folks posted on how they, how you, can be a part of it. Opportunities for service, prayer needs, and praise reports of how God is working must saturate our church family. This means that as we grow, there will be growing pains in the process of learning to better communicate. There is greater likelihood that someone will be left out by accident. With more people calling our church family home, the chances are greater that someone will have missed the Sunday that a particular announcement was made, or even consecutive Sundays an announcement was made. Not only does this provide a growing pain for the leadership to learn to use more communication channels than ever before (for example, you are probably reading this because of email or social media), there is also a growing pain for members to learn to access all of the various communication streams. Uh, growing pains! Praise the Lord!
What is the alternative to all of these growing pains? The pains of lethargy and stagnation are much worse, only to be followed by spiritual rigor mortis! So I prefer to embrace the growing pains. How about you?