Nine things I learned on sabbatical about church growth

I was prompted by someone yesterday on facebook to outline some of the things that I learned about churches and particular something about church growth that I learned whilst on sabbatical in North America. I came up with a quick list and thought that I would share it here too in a slightly expanded form.

The actual question that I was asked was regarding why people are giving up Mission Action Planning and looking for something else. It is indeed the case that I heard of people giving up doing Mission Action Planning. It is also the case though that lots of people in the States and Canada are still using that as a tool. The people who were giving up on it would say that they were giving up on it because it doesn’t work. The other reasons they might give would be these:

  • It can make people feel guilty
  • The risk is that it involves asking those who quite demonstrably don’t know what to do, what should be done.
  • It can often lull people into thinking that if they just do what they’ve done with a bit more effort then all shall be well when perhaps it won’t.

In trying to think about patterns of church life amongst those who seemed to be doing well at helping congregations to grow, I would identify the following themes, which I’ve been thinking about since I came back:

  1. The need to stop talking about mission – no-one joins a church that is so needy as to advertise that they are interested in “doing mission”. (Advertise in this context means any website, poster, church sign or magazine)
  2. The need for strong high quality lay education – I was impressed by EFM
  3. The need to train people in good quality congregational development – I was impressed by this:
  4. The urgent need to think about quality in every aspect of church life. Especially worship. But not just worship.
  5. Quality costs money and that means deliberate stewardship work to raise the money needed. Note that the giving at St Mary’s is currently 14% higher year on year than it was and that these are the austerity years. This is partly down to a lot of very hard work done by a small number of people and partly because of ways of talking about money that I learned on sabbatical. The moral of the tale is that sending clergy away on fabulous trips can pay off financially.
  6. The need for leaders (mostly, but not exclusively bishops) taking a lead on hard issues like guns, drugs, gangs, marriage. This may mean talking to gangsters, taking a surprising opinion about drugs in public and joining the Pride parade.
  7. The need for conscious work on teaching people a religious identity. Teaching people how to be an Anglican – what you do as an Anglican – how to keep Holy Week and Easter as an Anglican – how to say Compline etc
  8. The need not to waste institutional and personal time trying to be ecumenical in a lowest common denominator way
  9. The need to start things up as often as you close things down and do both deliberately and intentionally


  1. pamela says

    Agree EFM – great opportunity – my wife used to teach it here, loved it.

  2. Kelvin, thanks for your endorsement of EfM. There is some interest in bringing EfM to Scotland, and I’d love to include you in the conversation.
    Karen M. Meridith
    Executive Director of Education for Ministry, Sewanee

  3. Dr Micha Jazz says

    Is it church growth we need or an informed, engaged and empowered laity? I am more committed to recovering the active awakening and engagement of lay penitents since every significant reawakening to active faith has been accompanied by such. Church growth sadly always seems to place the church in the way of lay witness and diverts resources and energy into what ultimately becomes maintenance.

    Good lay education paramount. Training constructive dependent upon purpose and substance. As for the rest, I remain personally unconvinced.



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