Every now and then, I talk about church growth. Not a lot, because church growth is not what I’m really about. I prefer theology, polity, and biblical studies. Church growth is not charismatic enough for me.
Anyway… as we struggle to deal with declining churches in the United States, and more specifically our local contexts, there are numerous theories out there about how to grow a church and why churches are declining. However, there are facts about growing churches. Facts should give us some hypotheses and from there, through a scientific method of sorts, a theory.
Chuck Colson writes,
For instance, in 1900, there were approximately 10 million Christians in Africa. By 2000, there were 360 million. By 2025, conservative estimates see that number rising to 633 million. Those same estimates put the number of Christians in Latin America in 2025 at 640 million and in Asia at 460 million.
According to Jenkins, the percentage of the world’s population that is, at least by name, Christian will be roughly the same in 2050 as it was in 1900. By the middle of this century, there will be three billion Christians in the world — one and a half times the number of Muslims. In fact, by 2050 there will be nearly as many Pentecostal Christians in the world as there are Muslims today. (Source: How Christianity is Growing Around the World | CBN.com (beta))
The Christian Church is actually growing in many parts of the world, namely in what we in the West would call the “Third World” and with charismatic tendencies. And China too. And Cuba. Even Latin America is experiencing a growing church. Just about everywhere but Europe and North America.
Those are the facts.
What are the hypotheses as to why these areas are growing?
- We could suggest that where Christianity is new, it grows because there isn’t a cottage industry opposing it or because people aren’t tired of it yet. However, Christianity has existed in Africa a lot longer than it has in Europe. It has existed in South America a lot longer than it has in the North. And in places like Cuba, there are historic churches, crumbling in the shadow of Methodist missions-turning-into-churches. Soon, China will have the largest Christian population in the world.
- We could suggest Christianity is growing in places of economic disparity. That seems plausible; however, this is a Western measurement. Not all cultures value wealth and self-sufficiency as we do. Some could see “wealth” as something vastly different than we do. Of course, Japan and South Korea continue to see a growth in Christianity, and they are usually lumped into Western style affluency.
- If these two anthropological suggestions do not easily stand, then another hypothesis may simply be, and rather simply, that the areas experiencing growth are those areas that believe in a real world experience of the power of God. Perhaps this is why United Methodist congregations, among the Assemblies of God, that allow charismatic experiences are showing signs of growth in the United States. Yes, even charismatic Catholics are growing.
Indeed, in support of the third hypothesis, we find that historically, where the people believed in a real world, or physical, manifestation of the power of God, the church grew. Where the belief in God became more intellectual and scholastic, the growth of the church slowly ceased. Rather, where people really experience the power of the living God, the Church grows.
Sociologically, I’m sure, we can parse this out; however, in the end, the third hypothesis seems the most correct because it is being demonstrated across the globe. Belief in God (pass that of construct, pass that of a relative deity, and excluding the notion that somehow “‘god’ is really in each of us”) helps to inaugurate church growth because it demands people experience (in the Wesleyan sense of the word) the Living God of Christian Tradition as an active and ongoing Agent of transformative power — not merely as we do the deeds as required of us, but so too internally as we go on to Christian perfection, and likewise externally as we feel the Spirit move us to sing, dance, (or sit) and perhaps even believe we can perform the signs and wonders listed in our holy books.
What if we actually believed that God is Living and able to transform us, and us the world — transforming the hungry to the fed and the blind to the seeing? I’m going to be honest. I don’t know what to do about this. For more than a few years, I’ve been dead set against such things in the Church. Of course, I don’t even believe now that everyone has to experience the Living God the same way; however, there should be room to explore such renewal. We are Trinitarian, after all — and the Holy Spirit is still an active Person of the Trinity, even if the Spirit has been relegated to the whisper of a call by us mainliners.
Are we neglecting the Holy Spirit?
So as I struggle with what this means, I’ll continue to ask… what do you think?