Northwest leader cites factors in church growth
By Sheila Allen
NW Baptist Convention, Witness Newsletter
PASCO, Wash. — Armed with observations from visiting more than 100 congregations and a vision for the Northwest Baptist Convention becoming a network of thriving churches, Joe Flegal reflected on factors leading to church growth in the Northwest. Flegal, evangelism and church health resources director for the NWBC, spoke Nov. 9 to church leaders enrolled in the convention’s “Pastor Cluster” program during the NWBC annual meeting in Pasco, Wash. He noted the juxtaposition of church in similar settings and circumstances, some of them flourishing and others continuing to lag.
“There are several things that do not factor into why churches thrive,” Flegal said. “The first thing I’ve noticed is that it is not related to the size of the city churches are located in.”
He noted growing churches in “small rural towns” such as Post Falls, Idaho, a town of about 26,000 people. There, Real Life Ministries has around 8,000 people attending weekend services and small groups.
“I have also seen large metropolitan areas with relatively small congregations,” Flegal added.
Flegal suggested church vitality is not necessarily related to the spirituality of individual church pastors, most of whom exhibit desire that their congregations grow and mature.
He also ruled out “church facilities alone” as a reason for church health.
“There are large churches that rent their facilities,” Flegal noted, “and others with nice buildings that are not making much of an impact.” He pointed to some churches leaving their existing buildings for rented facilities if it contributes to growth.
“But I do encourage church leaders to fix it up, paint it up or burn it up,” Flegal quipped.
Visits among growing churches also dispel the notion the Christian message in those congregations are “watered down,” according to Flegal.
“I have attended one of our larger churches that had one of the most powerful, evangelistic services I have ever heard,” Flegal recalled. “At another large church, a sermon on biblical morality was straight forward and to the point.”
Many of those churches also require membership classes or other necessary commitments to fully participate in the congregation. Such higher standards of expectation “could point to one reason these churches are thriving,” Flegal suggested.
A key factor for growth is also “holy dissatisfaction” on the part of leaders that the majority of people in their surrounding communities do not have a personal relationship with Jesus. These churches have an external focus, he added.
“Jesus himself focused on those least like himself,” said Flegal, citing the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin in Luke 15. “Churches must focus on the lost to the exclusion of those who are not lost. The only reason Christ came was to seek and to save the lost.”
Another factor making Flegal’s list of churches making a difference was the sense of the church being an exciting place to be and having a feel of energy.
Flegal encouraged church leaders to visit thriving congregations in order to learn about what might be missing in their own settings.
During his visits to growing churches, Flegal also noted a “willingness to risk” the status quo in order to reach more people.
He noted Westside Community Church in Beaverton, Ore., grew from 150 people to more than 700 in weekly attendance are making a “painful journey” of transition in its style and approach to ministry. According to the Flegal, the church has gained two people for every person it lost during the process of making changes. “I suggest that churches sink the ship rather than stay the same,” Flegal said. “Churches must be willing to lose the whole thing rather than slip into ineffectiveness.”
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