While some churches are shrinking into oblivion, others are growing into oblivion.

Sometimes numerical growth squishes the very things that appealed to those who fueled the growth. This is often the case with new church plants that launch with fanfare but eventually dissipate. What happens?

A commenter on my earlier article, “I’m Not Being Fed at This Church,” offered some thoughts on this phenomenon. He’s Pastor Bill Wagner in Tacoma, Washington, who wrote:

“Church plants in the early stages are so exciting. A group of dedicated people join together to form a new church and they meet at coffee shops, in living rooms, anywhere they can gather and talk about everything. This attracts others who get caught up in what’s going on and they make new, tight, long lasting friends with those who are beginning this new church venture!

“But along the way, after they finally get ‘enough’ members, they rent a school or a space, set up some chairs and start doing church. Then things change. Now there is a schedule. Now there is an order of worship. Now there is a sermon. Now there are rules and a time and a place for things. It all changes.

“The very thing that was so attractive about this new church plant now has gone away and they become just like every other church. That group of believers got involved because of each other and being able to engage with each other as they learned about God’s word. New people came because they could ask the tough questions and get an answer. Now that we have a space and chairs and a pulpit, they no longer can ask their questions. Now the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit speaking through someone sitting in the congregation is frowned upon because it does not fit into the schedule or the planned service.

“THAT’S why they stopped coming. They had the fire. Our structure and lecture model is what put it out.”

Wagner leads a ministry called Parkland House Ministries, which gathers in small groupings in different locations. He said, “We have ages birth through 60 with mostly 19- through 23-year-olds–all meeting together over a meal, several times a week.”

Intimate, relational settings like Wagner describes may still be underused in America. But they’re fueling significant growth in other parts of the world. For example, by necessity, millions of Christ followers in China gather in homes and other venues every week. The same is happening in Cuba, where the church is also posting steady growth.Cuban church

The American church can learn from these examples in China and Cuba. (Incidentally, I’m leading an excursion to Cuba with Lifetree Adventures to see how Christ followers are being the church in effective ways. Join me in October.) These ministries in China and Cuba accentuate a sense of belonging, real relationships, conversation, an openness to tough questions, spontaneity, the “priesthood of all believers,” and opportunities to serve together.

So how do these ministries handle numerical growth? They mutate. As their confined spaces fill up, they replicate and form new small groupings at other places or times. Wagner said, “We never grow a house to more than 15. Once we reach that number, we begin a new house.”Cappadocia This reminds me of earlier church models in places like Cappadocia (now in modern Turkey), which located in dwellings carved out of limestone pinnacles. There were hundreds of them in one area. When one filled it was time to carve out another one.

Pursuing ministry in this dispersed manner requires leaders to demonstrate a certain humility and sharing of control. Wagner said, “I am always looking for a new person of peace to serve as a host for their neighbors and community. I work with them and provide the content.” But he doesn’t seek the limelight. “I am not impressive. I have no ambition to be a superstar,” he said.

He wants to grow–while seizing the advantages of being small.