Our June issue highlighted two sticking points about church growth. Now, continuing the conversation, is Part Two of this important discussion:
Is there a way we can seriously address concerns about church growth, while advocating for the value of offering growth advice? I think so. Let’s continue examine the objections to church growth, and perhaps explore some new perspectives that might help smooth the differences between us.
3.“Discussions about church growth make me feel inadequate.”
This frustration makes complete sense to me. With huge churches being held up as the standard, those who serve faithfully in smaller churches feel like complete failures—even though they might have incredible and powerful ministries.
It doesn’t help when celebrity pastors of large churches say things like Andy Stanley did in a recent message:
“When I hear adults say, ‘Well I don’t like a big church, I like about 200, I want to be able to know everybody,’ I say, ‘You are so stinking selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids [or] anybody else’s kids’…If you don’t go to a church large enough where you can have enough middle schoolers and high schoolers to separate them so they can have small groups and grow up the local church, you are a selfish adult. Get over it. Find yourself a big old church where your kids can connect with a bunch of people and grow up and love the local church. Instead… you drag your kids to a church they hate, and then they grow up and hate the local church. They go to college, and you pray that there will be a church in the college town that they connect with. Guess what? All those churches are big.”
This instantly caused some anger and hurt in the smaller church community. And, to Stanley’s credit, he immediately issued an unequivocal apology:
“The negative reaction to the clip from last weekend’s message is entirely justified. Heck, even I was offended by what I said! I apologize.”
Not only do small church pastors frequently hear comments like this—they sit through discussions about church growth as if it’s a process that anyone can replicate. The inability for small-church pastors to duplicate this growth is seen as a professional failure. The constant struggle to grow creates a deep exhaustion and animosity to church-growth discussions.
I have experienced this weariness myself and in pastors I have served with. When I’m honest, I recognize that a lot of my antagonism with discussions about growth stemmed from a sour-grapes mentality: I wanted it, but when I couldn’t achieve it, so I had to convince myself that there was something flawed about it.
When people expect the church to grow and it’s not, I have one of three options:
- Throw in the towel. Some pastors develop this deep sense of shame and give up. They don’t stop pastoring, or even wishing that the church would grow, they just stop pouring energy into trying to make it happen.
- Make growth look less desirable. This option is kind of strange. Some pastors go out of their way to make growth seem bad or even unbiblical. They seem to make a virtue out of not growing.
- Turn the ship around. Some church leadership teams will never give up, and they keep plugging away at it, rejoicing at every step forward.
4.“Church growth is a zero-sum game.”
I live in a smallish town with a lot of older, established churches. Many years ago a larger church planted a campus here and there was an exodus of young people and families leaving their old church families and flocking to this vibrant new one. The animosity many churches felt toward this interloper was almost palpable.
This is why a lot of churches feel like church growth is a zero-sum game. For someone to win, someone else has to lose. From the perspective of many smaller churches, big churches are doing nothing but siphoning off believers from other congregations.
I have lost my share of congregants to larger churches, and have felt this way myself. In fact, I once made a snarky remark about someone leaving my church to go to a megachurch, and the woman I was talking to said, “How come you never feel this indignant when someone leaves another church to come to ours?” Ouch.
She was right. My frustration was because I felt like something was being taken from me. But it wasn’t. Maybe I could have made them happier and they would have stayed. Perhaps they left and it was an act of willful disobedience on their part. In the end, it might have been the best thing for them—and us. I need to trust that God’s sees these things more clearly than I do.
The truth is a lot of the growth in larger churches comes from people who are coming back to church after an absence or people who are brand new to Christianity. Large churches aren’t simply building congregations out of disenfranchised people from other churches.
Jesus reminds us that the fields are ripe for the harvest. Let’s not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of feeling like there are only so many people to go around. It’s ridiculous. If someone leaves your church, praise God that you have an empty seat to fill with a new or growing believer.
5.“I don’t want to lose what makes our church unique.”
Growth requires change. I find old photographs of my kids as toddlers and it makes me incredibly sad and nostalgic. As much as I miss that time in their life, I would have been more concerned if they remained toddlers forever. Children are supposed to grow into adults and hopefully churches grow too.
There is a legitimate fear that as your church grows it will start to resemble every other huge church. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I know of huge cell churches that only meet as one large church once a month, and the rest of the time they meet in smaller gatherings of 2–4 cells in smaller venues the rest of the month. Your church can grow to reflect your values—you just have to be intentional.
As a church grows, it goes through various cycles. Some of them are wonderful and some of them are extremely trying. Of course you look at the salad days and think, “I wish it could be like this all the time.” But trying to hold onto those moments is a slow drift away from maturity.
Decide what healthy growth looks like for your community. And start aspiring to see that growth materialize. As you grow, it’s important to pull off at some rest stops, relax, and enjoy the scenery. But you can’t decide to live there.
We still need to talk about growth
When Jesus gave us the great commission, it wasn’t “go into the world and create a disciple.” It was “go into the world and make disciples (plural) of all nations.” (Matt. 28:18–20) A church’s work is never done. You want to grow your church, not because everyone who comes to your church is going to become a disciple, but because you have more of an opportunity to get involved with people’s lives and influence them in that direction.The book of Acts, along with the epistles, tell the story of a tiny spark of a religious movement growing into a raging fire. Your church is part of a story about the ever-growing kingdom of God. That’s exciting right?
Growth affords you opportunities
The 80/20 rule states that only 20 percent of any organization is doing 80 percent of the work. Obviously, if your church is 100 people, that’s only 20 people doing all the work. But if your church is 1,000 people—that’s 200 people doing work. Sure, it might still be 20 percent, but the amount of work getting done is growing exponentially.
I believe every church has the capacity for growth on some level. There are things we can do to facilitate more growth, and there are attitudes and behaviors that can stunt our growth. While we can’t recreate the exact experience of large churches, there are definitely ways we can learn from and adapt elements that have helped them grow.
If you’re interested in learning more about church growth, check out 5 Proven Principles of Fast Church Growth. We interviewed the 100 fastest-growing churches and compiled the top five things they all have in common.