Day: July 8, 2009

the molecular biology of church growth?

double helix mobile, detail

double helix mobile by mr.jamespeake (on Flickr)

OK, so you’re probably wondering about the title of this post. Which means it’s confession time (again). I have an undergraduate degree in molecular microbiology. But let’s just keep that between you and me, huh?

My point, however, is to register a protest against a worrying trend that I’ve noticed: We’re starting to talk about church growth in terms of DNA.

Three or four (or five) key factors present across a range of successful church situations are isolated and everything’s ascribed to them.

I totally get it of course. In the search for explanation, we’re right to be on the lookout for commonalities (although we need to be wary of mistaking correlation for causation). I even indulged in it myself in my recent paper on the development and implementation of ESL in the Sydney Diocese — suggesting that five common factors help explain its emergence as a flagship cross-cultural ministry partnership:

  1. The honest confrontation with demographic facts;
  2. The alignment of contingent material and institutional realities (resulting in the availability of funding, etc);
  3. The (providential) involvement of the right people;
  4. An increasingly widely-accepted theological consensus that action must be taken to cross-cultures with the gospel; and
  5. The circulation of stories as precedents to inspire and show that it can be done.

The problem is that in the stuff I’m encountering about church growth, I’m never quite sure that the equivalent of my second and third factors get much of a guernsey — what’re known in the business as the ‘fudge factor’.

In molecular biology, you see, DNA can only ever tell us so much. It points to the flexibility and available resources a cell (or colony of cells) might bring to bear. But it doesn’t explain everything. A myriad of contingent, local environmental factors must be taken into account alongside DNA.

I mean how often do we hear about the contingent factors in a successful church’s background? And the things that didn’t have to be that way?

Perhaps we need to develop a science of environmental assessment to offset our new molecular biology of church growth…