Growth May Have Little to Do With Numbers
Is your parish growing? But more importantly, how do think of growing? Is it numbers? When it comes to church growth little is measured by the numbers. Churches can grow numerically for a variety of reasons, some of which are deceiving or merely coincidental. As with so many other living things, when it comes to vitality, numbers are an outcome of growth, not the cause or the purpose of growth.
Nature is filled with examples of plants that seem dormant for years before explosive growth, demonstrating that the vitality is in the roots, long before it is displayed in the shoots. Perhaps this is why Jesus found faith the size of a mustard seed an apt analogy for vitality in faith. A parish is similar in that the most significant changes can happen below the surface, long before anything is evident by way of outward evangelization.
Authentic growth happens inside people, before it is visible outside of them. Likewise, the only sustainable numerical growth in a parish is symptomatic of the faith growth happening in each and every parishioner. What is happening to our people? What is the result of our programs? What is happening "below ground" in the hearts of our parishioners? What is happening in our relationships at Church? How connected is your parish to the community around it? Do parish leaders still think of growth in terms of dollars and collars or nickels and noses? Do less tangible metrics count when parish leaders plan direction and set priorities? Christ-centered relationships cause transformation and transformation drives our roots more deeply in the Lord, just as it energizes us for our mission in the community.
Authentic Church growth is founded upon transformed people who are filled with a sense of purpose, and who are in vital relationships with others both inside and outside of the Church. According to the Gallup research that produced the book Growing an Engaged Church, thriving parishes pay attention to the connection between the people and the mission. No people, no mission. But just as certainly, no mission, no people. Gallup praises the small church group for its capacity to call and confirm people for mission and ministry today.
Most essentially, our Church is a communion of faith communities - one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Intentional participation in small church groups can make faith a daily reality for participants who often report changes in themselves, and their families. Growing churches give high priority to all kinds of small group experiences which raise intentional disciples who are nourished and challenged for living faith out loud.
What about my own parish? Is it a communion of communities - united, set on God's intentions, open to all, and active in the community? Are our parishes developing authentic and reliable relationships for their parishioners? Do these parishioners have opportunities to consider their own spiritual growth together, beyond the mandatory hour of worship each week? Do our parishes invite people to tell stories of growing, contributing, and belonging in the parish?
Recall the vitality of the early Churched who caused the Unchurched around them to remark "They must be His followers. See how they love one another!" We still hear stories of the sustained impact of Renew groups that were started in this diocese over thirty years. These small church groups encouraged Catholics to encounter Christ, find their joy in Christ, follow Christ and grow by sharing their faith in Christ. Several parishes are using the ChristLife process to grow in Christ.
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