During the Church Growth Model Building Series, three types of growing churches were conceptualised. Only the Discipleship one was developed into a model, but the contextual and generationally sustainable are also food for thought.
A discipleship church, also called a conversionist church, is one that sees the world and the church as clearly distinguished: unbelievers and believers, unsaved and saved, etc. It will generally have a clear way of identifying itself, such as the main Sunday service that is a reasonable representation of those who “belong” to the church. It will also have additional activities that will clarify who are the committed and more spiritually mature members of the church. Conversion is mainly through initial contact, maybe something like the Alpha Course, with subsequent stages to deepen the faith towards maturity.
The conversionist church’s growth strategy is to see individuals outside the church converted and then discipled to spiritual maturity. Initially, it works to change individuals (that is for God to change them) so that they become Christians. Then the church develops the converts to become mature followers of Jesus, as the church has defined it. A sociologist might say the church is trying to change people into some church norm, whether intentionally or not. (See discussion on strictness in Kelley, 1986). Essentially it is the individuals that change to fit church, not the church that adapts to fit the individuals.
A contextual church is one that seeks to draw people in from a surrounding community by adapting the church context to the context of society. The contextual church can be split into two broad types, seeker-friendly and emerging.
The seeker-friendly church can be pictured as a sequence of phases, each of which has its own well-defined purpose, which can be an end in itself. Each phase can be viewed as an expression of church, some closer to the context of society than others. These phases thus act as bridges between the context of society and the context of church. For example, people could start in a Mums and Toddlers group, progress to Messy Church, then further progress to Family Service, then to full Sunday attendance, and finally church membership and communion. Some of the phases may be places of social action; some may have a more obvious spiritual element. Although the name seeker-friendly became popular in the late twentieth century, the concept is not new. Many churches in the UK in Victorian times tried to “lure” people to church through gentle and more secular entertainment style meetings outside of church. The modern versions have refined the concepts and see the earlier phases as important expressions of church in their own right.
It should be noted that the intention to progress people to the “central core” may not be clear to the participants. This should not be viewed as deceit by the church, as it could in some cults that use this strategy, but the difficulty the church has in running a meeting which has more than one purpose. They want people to be satisfied with the phase they are in, but also want people to progress to another. Balancing these two purposes may not be easy. Many churches know the dilemma of deciding how much challenging spiritual content they can put into a family service to challenge people to make a greater commitment, without alienating people from the one expression of church they have been able to relate to.
Emerging churches are also examples of contextual churches, but in this case, the definition of what is meant by “church” is blurred as even the central core of church changes its context to fit society. For example, the church in a pub or in a night club might be the “central core” of the church. Instead of phases, there are different communities that represent meeting places where Christians relate with the wider population on a spectrum of relationship to Jesus. That relationship spectrum will vary according to the context of the target population. Unlike the seeker-friendly, they may be no intention to progress people from one community to another. However, like seeker-friendly, the church community has been adapted to relate better to society.
The difference between the contextual church and the conversionist/discipleship one is that its growth strategy is to change church to fit the societal context, with the intention that individuals are included immediately and will then gradually change. Thus, the church changes to some degree to fit the individuals rather than seeing an immediate change in the individuals. The degree to which the church is willing to change, and the areas it may change, e.g. culture, beliefs etc., will be important issues and vary from church to church.
Generationally Sustainable Church
A generationally sustainable church is one that can sustain itself over long periods purely through the physical offspring of the church members. This is more like the church in Europe would have been in previous generations when there was less social mobility and may also reflect situations today in some non-western cultures. If the birth rate is not less than the death rate, and people do not leave then, such a church will survive across generations. Some faith groups such as Jews and Roman Catholics could lose people and still grow because there were times when the birth rate exceeded the death rate in some way. Indeed this is the main way most subcultures last many generations.
A generationally sustainable church has no growth strategy other than to survive. It does not seek converts, or to change society, or to change itself to include others. This may be because it believes such changes are in God’s hands, not theirs.
Real churches may have traits of all three types of church. They rely on the new generation to help them survive, are seeking converts and disciples, and are willing to make changes in church to assist their growth and see God’s mission accomplished. The purpose of the three models is to specifically focus on one mechanism to understand its strengths and weaknesses so that the growth of the church, and the Kingdom of God, can be better facilitated. It should also be stressed that all these churches exist for purposes other than their growth strategy, not least of which is to see God worshipped.