I wonder if people still paint by the numbers. You've seen those kits you buy with a picture outlined and the sections numbered to correspond to little containers of paint. They are for sale because we like difficult things made simple for us.
So, I'm going to make it simple to understand growth in a church, class, youth group, etc. It's as simple as 1, 2, or 3. It's growth by promotions, programs, or people. (See I even got them to all start with the same letter!)
1. Promotions. You can attract people with a big event, or something out of the ordinary. Churches have unique rallies (like a biker rally) or a special speaker (like a Christian athelete or celebrity). Youth groups are always looking to create events that are off the edge, something that will get the kids talking and will bring other youth to check it out.
Promotionalism infiltrates standard church events. Vacation Bible Schools, once a summer enrichment for the church's children, are now promoted as attraction events, with grand themes and characters, videos and logos. Worship (called "seeker services") is now designed for this in some churches. And preachers have adopted it. I just heard of a mega-church pastor in the upstate who preached a sermon on repentance while lying in a casket. I'm sure that got people talking about it to their friends. And it has the preacher working to come up with a fresh act.
One of the difficulites of promotion growth is that you have to keep doing something new and different to get noticed. Once churches were unique for having coffee during worship, but no more. Used to be you could stand out if you had a wild-game supper event. Now even the wild is common.
2. Programs. This is the most common method of growth in the church today. Create a quality program that meets the needs of people. This could be a Bible study program, a life situation program (such as parenting, divorce recovery or marriage enrichment), a 12-step program, children's ministry, music, missions, or whatever.
This method is reinforced by denominational supply stores and para-church organizations that package programs and sell products. In fact we now have the term "needs-oriented evangelism," which basically instructs churches to determine the needs of people in their community and offer programs that address those needs.
This approach fits in nicely with the consumer orientation of our culture. People can, and do, shop around the churches for the programs that best suit their needs. Program growth works, but to what are the people connected - the program? the church? or Christ?
3. People. Surprise, surprise, growth also occurs person to person. When a friend or someone you respect introduces you to someone who is influential in their life, you usually take note. This method takes longer: longer for the individual to become a disciple and longer for the numbers to begin to add up. Smith Barney Brokerage Firm once had an ad where they said, "We make money the old fashioned way, we earn it." This is the old-fashioned way the church has grown (seems to me even Jesus used it).
There doesn't seem to be a lot of emphasis on the people to people method. We'd rather the promotions and programs do the work without having to get involved personally. Person to person growth demands more of the Christian, you have to be real in your own faith and you have to extend yourself to others. The people (or relationship) method was illumined by missionary/evangelist D.T.Niles years ago when he said, "Evangelism is one beggar telling another where to find bread."
4. There really isn't a fourth, just checking to see if you were paying attention. But I do have a closing comment, or two. I'm not denouncing promotions or programs. I make use of them as well. I just think we depend on them too much as the answer for our calling to share the good news of forgiveness and redemption in Christ. And smaller churches that have trouble creating or sustaining programs, begin to think they can't grow. They can't compete with larger churches in promotions and programs. Then their self esteem suffers because they are told they have nothing to offer.
Finally, maybe this is stretching it, but my simplistic three have a parallel in the world of sales. Stores attract and sell by 1) door-buster events, 2) quality products, and 3) a reputation built up by word-of-mouth. I would like to know, for the church, which method has the most lasting effect.