If it is not growing, it is dying.* That is the plain truth of all living organisms. The process of dying may take a while to complete but once an organism stops growing, the process of death commences. This is true for our physical bodies and it is true also for another different type of body, the local body of Christ other wise known as local church.
Now not all growth in a church is numerical or outward. There is also what we might call spiritual growth that is upward and inward. Upward growth is the way churches grow in a deeper relationship with God the Father, Son, and Spirit, while inward growth is the way they grow in a deeper relationship with each other.
I believe that all church growth begins upward since the church lives and breaths by the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling among the community of believers. But as the church grows upward, inward growth and outward growth will follow. This is because Jesus teaches us that if we remain in him and he in us (upward) then we will bear fruit (cf. Jn 15:5) which I believe is the inward and outward growth.
Two things come to mind in regards to numerical growth. To begin with, just because a church is experiencing a dry spell in numerical growth does not mean they are not necessarily growing. They may be growing in a deeper relationship with God while God is preparing the church for a harvest of numerical growth he plans to harvest among them in his own time. In fact, the church may even experience some decline as God the Father prunes the branches so the remaining branches can bear the harvest God is preparing the church for. However, we must be careful not to excuse the absence of numerical under the rubric of being in a perpetual season of upward growth. Jesus does promise that if we remain in that we will bear fruit. Some churches, perhaps many, are not growing because they are dying. They are dying for a number of reasons but nevertheless, they are still dying (I’ll discuss some reasons why churches are dying in tomorrow’s post).
There is good news though. We serve the God who breathes life into dry bones, making them come to life (cf. Ezek 37:4-6) just as he raised his Son to life after death on the cross. Thus the good news means that God can breath new life into any dying church, bringing new life to that church which means new growth. Practically speaking, this involves hearing the inviting and challenging call of Jesus to “repent and believe the good news” and then follow Jesus once again (cf. Mk 1: 15, 17).
* I am indebted to conversations I have been having in church huddles led by Gailyn Van Rheenen, Facilitator of Church Planting for Mission Alive, and Fred Liggen, Lead Minister for the Williamsburg Christian Church, as well as ideas and language I have been reflecting on from the book Building A Discipling Culture.