Learning More About Church Growth

By Fr. John M. Reeves

If you want to learn about “church growth,” how it takes place, and how you can facilitate it, the Charles E. Fuller Institute Seminar Series would be well worth your investment of time and money.

Like many priests, I was concerned about by ministry. I was a pastor of a mission church. Why were we having growth difficulties? What were we doing correctly? What did we need to do differently?

Having read several books on “church growth,” I had sought to implement a number of findings which the “church growth movement” had observed over the past 35 years since its inception. Still, I wondered. Was there something else which needed to be done? Was I capable of doing it?

A friend suggested that I attend a Fuller Institute Seminar. Its title was “Breaking the 200-Barrier.” It was to deal with the reality that most congregations, whether Methodist or Presbyterian or Lutheran or Baptist, do not grow past 200 in attendance. Could this provide an answer for Orthodox Christians, too, even if my church was nowhere near the 200 mark?

The seminar which I attended was held in Dallas, one of the regional cities in which Fuller tends to offer its workshops periodically. Other cities around the country are used as well to allow the greater number of participants. Its cost was a reasonable $150 for three full days.

I noted that C. Peter Wagner, author of one of the books which I had already read, was one of the seminar speakers; and so I felt comfortable in advance with some of the material to be presented. Yet, I must add that I wondered whether or not I would be like a fish out of water, or whether this seminar might really be an evangelical/charismatic “revival” or rally.

While I was the only Orthodox Christian present out of 250-300 participants, everyone from the Protestant mainstream to the evangelical right seemed to be represented. Yet from the beginning of the seminar, I felt at ease not only with the format but with the contents as well. I was soon to discover that what Fuller had to offer was not theory about “church growth” but rather evidence based upon observation among various Christian groups in the United States.

Behind the seminar title, I found that there had been much research and study, indicative of this empirical approach. The “200-barrier” is a very real psychological and sociological phenomenon. Most North American Protestant congregations do not break it. In fact, the overwhelming majority of their churches are considered “small,” i.e. less than 200 in attendance on Sunday morning. This was certainly something to which most clergy in the OCA might relate.

Interestingly enough, I discovered that on the way to the “200-barrier” there were a number of plateaus at which churches tended to stop growing:

40 members

75-80 members

120 members

175 members

Once that critical “200-barrier” was broken, growth could rapidly proceed in multiples—that’s right, multiples—of 200!

Much of the time was spent in learning the key ingredients to get existing churches off their plateaus the cost to the parish and to the pastor emotionally, financially, and programmatically.

Ultimately, there was little that I learned during those three days which could not be directly applied to St. George’s Mission. Over the past three years, we have been doing just that, and the results are obvious. Attendance has doubled, and the median age has dropped appreciably. We are headed toward that second barrier but also have the tools now not to be stopped by it.

It has taken a lot of effort on my part as pastor to educate my parishioners in “church growth” studies. It has taken a lot of willingness on their part to learn. Together, we have discovered the truth of the Biblical analogy of the body in reference to the Church. We are not all hands or all feet. We no longer expect every member of our church to do all things equally. In fact, we encourage each other to find our spiritual gifts and to employ them for the edification of our church (Cf. Rom 12:4-9, 1 Cor 12).

Participation in lay ministries of all types is a key ingredient of a growing church and has been the wonderful result of implementing what was learned in that three-day Fuller Seminar. Some now sing, while others visit the sick, while others teach, and others keep the church plant in good repair. In the midst of it all, St. George’s is growing and providing ministry opportunities for those who would grow with us.

This data was verified by our own statistics in the Diocese of the South. While none of our missions and parishes had broken the “200-barrier,” virtually every one of our churches could be placed on one of the plateaus.

Seminars at Fuller

Various seminars available from Fuller Institute include:

“Strategies for Starting New Churches” (which I have also attended)

“How to Plant a Church”

“How to Lead and Manage the Local Church”

“Change and Conflict in the Established Church”

“How to Build and Manage Your Church Staff”

“Breaking Growth Barriers”

Others focus on reaching “baby-boomers,” preaching to the unchurched in the 1990s and assimilation of members.

For more information contact the Seminar Registrar, Charles E. Fuller Institute, P.O. Box 90910, Pasadena, CA 91109-0910, or phone 1-800 C FULLER. Ask for their seminar schedule as well as their current catalog.

A substantial discount applies for clergy wives and for groups attending from the same parish.

Recommended Reading

The following books are available through Fuller and other bookstores:

C. Peter Wagner, Your Church Can Grow

C. Peter Wagner, Your Church Can Be Healthy

Lyle Schaller, The Small Church is Different!

Fr. John Reeves was the founding pastor of St. George-the-Great-Martyr Orthodox Church, Pharr-McAllen, TX, and is now the pastor of Holy Trinity Mission, State College, PA, and the Director of the Office of Church Growth and Evangelism for the Orthodox Church in America.