My recent visit to New Zealand and Singapore has been tiring but fruitful. I’ve finally gotten over my jet lag. I want to share one lesson I’ve learned from this visit. This lesson is about church growth.
In the popular imagination (even among many pastors) here, a growing church seems to exhibit certain traits such as a younger demographic, cool lighting, strong sound system, loud and hip rock band, a pastor who doesn’t wear a tie when he preaches and so on. If we look at all the mega churches in the US, almost all of them fit this profile. In fact this uniformity is yet another kind of culture, and it works marvelously so much so that it has turned into a formula. Gone are the days when we go to church in our Sunday best, sitting attentively in our pews and listening to a well-dressed preacher talk about the Bible. These days, we have some who act like pseudo comedians, whose jokes aren’t as funny as the comedy club but are funny enough to hold our forever shortening attention span. Relevant issues range from how to raise children, how to live a fulfilling life, how to get the maximum return to your investment (no, I’m not joking) and how to have a white-hot sex life.
To be sure, like all American products, such a formula also has its exported versions. In Singapore, we have City Harvest, Faith Community Baptist, and New Creation, just to name a few. Having followed the news on these churches, they’ve landed on tough times. Although on the outside they look fantastic as usual, whispers and charges of corruption are ever present.
One pleasant surprise in visiting Singapore was my meeting with the faculty of Trinity Theological College of Singapore, the oldest seminary created by the mainline denominations there. One thing I’ve learned from our conversation, besides the problem of Singapore mega churches, is the growth that is happening in Asia. In case we think that growth came out of the American formula, we would be far off base. In our sharing, many colleagues laid out the form of church growth in some of the Asian countries. I was surprised to find that there’s a resurgence of high church worship. In fact, some areas experience extraordinary growth in high church worship (i.e. worship filled smells and bells). This is contrary to our image of a relevant church growth in the West.
Although many attribute church growth to God’s Spirit working, the uniformity of our mega churches only shows that perhaps it’s more of a social phenomenon than something uniquely supernatural. Although many attribute our church growth to our western formula, the same formula has created nothing but problems in Asia. Church growth has many factors then. A simplistic attribution to either supernatural forces or to a formula should have no place in any open mind. What have I learned from our conversation?
I’ve learned that observation of growth only yields more questions than answers. I’ve learned that equating the work of the Spirit with a formula based on a social phenomenon is dubious. I’ve learned that statistics do not tell the whole story. Church growth depends on too many factors to have any black and white answer.