I Don't Want Growth, I Want Flourishing

I don’t want my church or my ministry to grow. I want them to flourish. And those are different things.

I live in Wisconsin. It is currently the middle of winter. Most every living thing here is in a state of dormancy. Even me. It gets dark by 6pm and stays dark until about 6am. I simply find myself slowing down. The branches outside my window are bare. Lifeless browns and greys are accentuated by the white, frozen layer of ice and snow which seems to have killed all signs of life. Wisconsin in February is like a page out of a post-apocalyptic novel.

But there is no panic. No marauders on the highway from which to hide. No scavenging for unopened, ten-year-old cans of food. Society has not disintegrated into chaos. It’s just winter. We know that spring is coming and the world will turn green again. Dormancy is normal in America’s breadbasket. Some of the greatest farmland lies fallow a quarter of the year. Midwesterners have come to terms with seasons of fruitfulness and seasons of dormancy.

Life is like that. Nobody is always “on,” always producing, always moving forward. We shut down regularly. Sometimes we stand still. We may even regress by some outward appearances. It doesn’t mean we’re dead, or even that we’re not flourishing. It may simply be winter for a season.

Ministry is like that too. Flourishing things shut down for regular periods, and fruitfulness cannot always be determined by things that can be outwardly measured.

Why do we expect constant growth in our churches and our mission agencies and ministries? I contend that Evangelical Protestants have been overly influenced by the capitalistic worldview which has colored how we view success. This is probably true of many secular non-profits as well. More is always better, therefore when there is not more this year than there was last year something has gone wrong. For many in the field of economic development, things like the gross national product (GNP) are the key measure of success or “development.” I like what Robert Kennedy about GNP:

It measures neither the health of our children, the quality of their education, nor the joy of their play. It measures neither the beauty of our poetry, nor the strength of our marriages. It pays no heed to the intelligence of our public debate, nor the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our wit, nor our courage, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worth living.1

We have confused growth with flourishing, whether by measuring the size of our churches or ministries or the economic productivity of our societies. Growth and flourishing are different things. What I am not saying is that growth is bad; I’m just saying that I don’t think it is a consistent measure of what is healthy and flourishing.

InterVarsity has some special needs friends who, along with their care givers, come for hours each week to shred some papers and stock our vending machines. From a strictly growth-oriented perspective, Sean and Sheila and John do not grow the number of students and faculty which make up InterVarsity. Their work will not show up in our annual plans and budgets. But for me, they are signs of the kingdom and evidence of flourishing. They enrich our community here in the office. You cannot pass John without him urgently calling out, “Shake my hand? Shake my hand, please?” Sheila used to be fixated on shouting “Bob Barker!” down the hallways. They remind me to slow down and take a breath. They are symbols to us in the office of the fact that we are dependent on one another, that we all have limitations, and that there are critical things in life which are not connected with increasing the size of our ministry.

The advance of God’s kingdom on earth may well include growth.  Isaiah said about Christ, “Of the increase of his government and peace, there will be no end.” (Is. 9:7) Certainly Luke notes when large numbers were added to the church – though I doubt it was due very much to the strategizing and goal setting of the disciples. What I see happening in our churches and our mission agencies and many economic development organizations is a metric of success almost exclusively pinned to growth.

We pay lip service to qualitative values in our fellowships and organizations. But just take a look at our annual reports and church bulletins and you’ll find them chock full of numbers of people and number of dollars. There is rarely a place to mention how Sean and Sheila and John walk alongside us as signs of Gods flourishing kingdom.

Nobody wants to enshrine the campus fellowship or church made up of a handful of fearful, inwardly focused people hiding away from the world (though the early church locked in the upper room prior to Pentecost may have been described that way). But what we must acknowledge is that a flourishing church or ministry or poor neighborhood where the kingdom of God is slowly dawning may indeed have periods of fallow and stasis and may not always be held to the metrics of growth.

May the Lord give us grace toward ourselves and our ministries. Some of the most fruitful soil enjoys regular seasons of dormancy.

1. Robert F. Kennedy, University of Kansas, March 18, 1968

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