A UCC pastor colleague of mine always writes the following tagline on his outgoing emails: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” (This phrase was originally written by Edward Abbey in 1977 regarding land expansion in the West.)
I used to find it strange that these words held such a great deal of meaning for him that he would go so far as to place it in a signature line for all email communications (though knowing his environmental justice commitments, it makes sense). These days, however, I have found myself coming back to this phrase when thinking about the church.
A couple of weeks ago at an ecumenical gathering of church planters and denominational workers, results of a multi-denominational study on new churches were shared. The research concluded that the vast majority of new churches are thriving as smaller niche communities, as 30% of these churches did not increase attendance over the last two years. One thing this tells me is that smaller is becoming the “new normal” and that growth is not really a focus for many of these new ministries, at least not in the way that a previous generation of church planters would have envisioned.
It might be that God is calling the church to shift its focus away from numerical growth to something else—or, at the very least, to become more inclusive in the way we think about the g-word. Over 20 years ago, Loren Mead introduced the ideas of maturational, organic, and incarnational growth into our lexicon. And since then, we have used different words to describe growth such as nurture, development, formation, transformation, and many others.
The image of a cancer cell is quite unsettling and personal to many of us, but the cell’s repetitious and unwavering commitment to expansion is a powerful symbol of what can be removed from our minds and hearts when we start to envision the g-word differently.
SPARKING MINISTRY CONVERSATIONS: How do you want to grow? How do you want your worshiping community to grow?
This post is also published through Stillspeaking Weekly, a series designed with pastors, lay leaders and committees in mind, offering thoughtful and practical reflections that invite and inspire dialogue on how churches can strengthen their ministries.