James Howell: Church growth via luck

I grew a church big by being placed near a new housing development and bumping into a good-looking, gregarious couple that had just moved in.

Way too often, “successful” clergy speak in easily decipherable code: “This church was a bit stale and had 100 members until 2003, and now we have 3,000 members and are doing cool stuff.” Translation? “I arrived, rather messianically, in 2003.” The commonly used disclaimer, “God has done amazing things since 2003,” doesn’t ameliorate how uncharitable to one’s predecessor, and how patently arrogant, this kind of talk can be. So very American, so unlike Paul’s weakness and trembling, light years from Jesus being deserted by whatever following he had mustered come the hour of crucifixion.

So now with some considerable embarrassment, I have been asked to tell you that when I came to Davidson United Methodist Church in 1991, there were 400 members, and when I left 12 years later there were 3,500. Was I messianic? Or brilliant?

Or just lucky?

I do not recall anyone talking about the role of “luck” in church growth, but it is quite real. If you want to grow a church rapidly, you’re lucky if you land a job in a quaint location with housing developments sprouting up all around, and unlucky if you land in, say, Detroit, Michigan right now.

But there is more. My first week in Davidson, I was running some errands downtown and bumped into a husband and wife. They spoke to me out of the blue, not I to them in some evangelical outgoingness. Turned out they were the first family to move into what became a 1000 home development -- and they were fantastic looking, gregarious, the kind of people other people simply wish to be around for dinner, tennis, and even church. After learning I was the new minister, they said “What the heck, we’ll try you on Sunday.” They came, joined, and invited the next person who moved in, and the next -- and soon we had a monopoly on a neighborhood.

Total luck. What if that first couple had been cantankerous and high maintenance? That whole neighborhood would likely have gone to the dark side: Presbyterianism. And it really is luck. Don’t give me that “God placed them in your path.” God has placed so many difficult people in my path, and has sent so many prickly people who have blunted the good work of the Kingdom of God that it seems laughable to chalk up a good-looking couple to God. It was just luck.

There were other “luck” factors -- not the least of which is what I’d call the “cool” factor. When a Church starts growing, Americans, being the trendy consumers that we are, get wind of the latest, coolest, fad congregation, and that’s where we want to be. Profound holiness, sacrificial ministry, and wise preaching can be happening down the street, but momentum builds around the cool place to be, and they keep coming.

During my days in Davidson, I strove valiantly to be holy, sacrificial, and wise. But what do I make of the growth? Certainly I celebrate. But was I really a superior evangelist, or strategist, or leader? Who could know such things? But I do know, for sure, that I was lucky, or we were lucky, and luck is a bit ephemeral, and of a piece with life in this world, where we strive to follow Christ with -- what else? -- utter humility or not at all.

James Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and author, most recently, of “Introducing Christianity: Exploring the Bible, Faith, and Life” (Westminster).