Is Church Growth the Highway to Hell?

The summer issue of Leadership, arriving in mailboxes in July, focuses on the impact of consumerism on ministry. Some people have equated the church growth movement with the rise of "consumer Christianity." Others believe the church growth philosophy has brought innovation and health to ministry.

Our friends at are hosting an interesting conversation on the blessing/curse of the church growth movement. Here is a sample.

Start talking about church growth and things can get ugly. Eyebrows raise. Tempers flare. Comments explode. Just ask any blogging pastor who has broached the subject. It's as if growing your church is taking the on-ramp to the highway to hell.

The New Testament church grew daily (Acts 2:47). I think it's hard to deny that the purpose of the church is to grow, to bring in new people and increase numbers.

And perhaps that's the rub. Some people are concerned with motivation or focus, thinking numbers have suddenly become supreme. Others wonder if a successful church always has to be growing. Others ask if it's ever healthy for a church to be declining. Some might just be jealous.

In Part 2 of the discussion, Rick Warren chimes in with his 9 myths about church growth:

Myth #1: The only thing that large churches care about is attendance.

"The truth is, you won't grow large if that is all you care about" (48)

Myth #2: All large churches grow at the expense of smaller churches.

This may be true for some churches, but not all, and it's certainly not a good sign of growth. Warren calls it "reshuffling the card deck". (For the record, 80% of Saddleback's members became Christians at Saddleback.)

Myth #3: You must choose between quality and quantity in your church.

Every church should want both, and they feed on each other. Quality produces quantity (do it well and people will come) and quantity produces quality (if you have more people, you'll have more skilled people).

Myth #4: You must compromise the message and the mission of the church in order to grow.

I never understand this critique. Somehow the church is selling out because people are coming. There are some churches that have watered down the message, but painting every church in such broad strokes like this is so wrong. It always seems like a bit of petty jealousy to me - that church is growing and mine isn't, so they must be doing something wrong.

Visit Church Marketing Stinks to read more.

June 09, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 14 comments

Pastor Mark

July 13, 2006  2:54pm

I beleive that we need to create a balance concerning church growth. On one hand, I beleive that the only job of the church is to save souls for Jesus Christ. it is our primary responsibility to help others to understand the many practical benefits of living our lives in according to the teachings and practices of Jesus Christ. However, in my limited work in the church, it has been frustrating to see so many pastors and church leaders that doctor up their numbers in order to push thier career along. We need to have a passion for teaching people about the Gospel and not numbers.

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July 05, 2006  2:35pm

It is quite interesting that contemporary Christian faith sees argument and passionate disagreement as "un-Christian." This is because throughout its history, the church has always struggled and debated, no doubt forcefully and passionately about what it means to be church and what it means to follow Jesus. Seems the commercialized gospel in a pluralistic society such as ours (read Newbigin), does not have the ability to engage passionately. Try reading Luther, Calvin, and others of the Reformation. Or wait, you may not want to, they use some harsh language. But inspite of that, these leaders, these reformers took the calling and purpose of the church extremely seriously in their day. We should be doing the same in ours. They did not just accept the status quo. And by the way Protestant means exactly that, Pro-test-ant. Actually it was the ancient Jewish communities that first passionately debated the faith, with the hopes that the Spirit of Yhwh would guide them to obedience. They did this because they cared. Perhaps, those of us who want to sit back and just affirm the way things are, or even worse do not think we must think about and respond to the calling of the church in our 21st century context really don't care? Besides, in the Gospels, Jesus got really angry at the Temple economy that had been set up by the religious leaders of the day. So angry, he turned over their video/book/coffee bar in order to express how bankrupt that generation had become. They had been following their kingdom, not taking part in God's reign and rule!

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June 27, 2006  1:02pm

Phillip...thanks for pushing back. You do realize that "saving souls" is a very Western concept of human anthropology and therefore we have tended to make this our understanding of salvation in the Western church of which I am part. However, as far as I know, Jesus does not refer in any of his teachings on discipleship and belief, to the soul or "psyche" as it would be rendered in the Koine. Graham, I would agree with you to an extent. Obviously this is a complex philosophical conversation, of which, I do however believe has serious ramifications as to how we understand ourselves, the church and God. The Greeks and thus Americans have a partative (dividing up the human person) anthropology. Whereas the Hebraic worldview (and thus I believe the biblical) is "aspectual" meaning that as persons we are created as whole entities. Thus we have aspects to our whole, e.g. soul, spirit, or best put our "being." My influence in thought have been most recently Nancey Murphy and the idea of non-reductive physicalism. The question is: Can a person be saved and never be a disciple? A follower of Jesus? And why did Jesus need to "become flesh" if it is our soul that really matters? Why don't the Gospels talk about our souls escaping to heaven? They don't. Rather than speak of following Jesus, the embodied and bodily resurrected Christ. Perhaps in churches of 10,000 plus or even 1,000 for that matter we have no choice but to reduce things to a 15 min sermon about meeting my needs, and saving my soul, via a prayer that can casually be recited without any reflection or continual committment...

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Graham Veale

June 27, 2006  5:01am

Sam, I certainly think of myself as more than a soul - but not less. There is a part of me that is not physical - part of me that is embodied. In fact my thoughts, emotions, beliefs and the like are the part of me that makes me interesting. The human will is in rebellion against God, so that is where salvation starts. It ends in Resurrection. I'd be curious to see if you agree with these thoughts.

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June 21, 2006  5:21pm

The NT church grew because the Holy Spirit empowered every member to be a "witness" and through that "empowered" witness the Lord added daily to the church those who were being saved. "Church Growth," it appears to me, is an effort to synthetically replicate NT growth without the the grassroots empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Absence of natural (Spirit empowered) "growth" in the church is simply reflective of the compromised spiritual condition of the church in North America today. It seems to me that we get the cart-before-the-horse when we make size the issue when spiritual health is the greater issue. Healthy things always grow.

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June 20, 2006  1:30pm

For something more general: I believe the focus of big churches is "SOULS" and not "NUMBERS". Of course numbers are good and easy to deal with, but it's not the key issue. Big churches want growth - but not by "eating up" members from small churches. The numbers will go up; but the number of souls saved? Well I don't think so. Unless the new members used to be just Christians by name then that's a different issue. Also, the Jabez Prayer clearly tells us that God wants to bless us and wants to enlarge our territory. There's nothing wrong with big churches wanting to grow bigger. It's totally coherent with what God wants - assuming the focus and motivation is right. However something to note is this: When we pray for God to enlarge our territory we ARE NOT praying that God will help us extend our fences into our neighbour's territory! No! We are praying that God will help us conquer the land that currently still is under the Devil's foothold. And may God help us. Go big churches. Go out and conquer. God allowed churches to grow big that these churches will become a big army. So go. Conquer. =]

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Mark Goodyear

June 15, 2006  11:26am

Sam's post reminds me of Luke 10, when Jesus sends out the 72 disciples. They go out two by two, not individually. That's a great picture of small groups–if you can call two people a small group. And isn't Jesus' response great? He says, "I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven" (18). Then he dances with the joy of the Holy Spirit (21–check the Greek). What an image! When the church moves out into the world, Jesus dances with joy. That doesn't mean we shouldn't gather together regularly. We should! That doesn't mean our gatherings have to look the same. They don't! Some people prefer the beautiful polish and shine of mega-churches. Some people prefer the uglier, raw authenticity of smaller churches. But we are all God's people. And like Sam said, CHURCH IS PEOPLE.

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Mark Goodyear

June 14, 2006  8:34am

Michael Parker's comment struck a chord with me. He talks about the people on their way to mega-churches who drive "by dozens of communities with small, struggling churches who could desperately use their gifts." My family recently left a mega-church and moved to a church 1/10 its size. I loved our old church, but finding a place to serve there was a constant struggle. We used to joke that only Grammy winners could help lead worship. At our new church, God is letting us serve and worship him in ways we never imagined. My wife even joined the choir! Now she sings with a new joy and confidence. Even more exciting is the drama ministry in our new church. Because of our small size, we can't adopt the mega-church attitude toward drama. Steven Pederson opens his otherwise fantastic book, Drama Ministry, with a dangerous assertion. He says the only thing worse than no drama at church is bad drama at church. Now, I understand what he means, but that attitude ultimately excludes many people from serving in large churches. Some ministers at our old church (but not all!) seemed to think: "We only offer God lambs without blemish. If you aren't winning awards, you aren't good enough to serve around here." I'm not saying everyone should leave the large churches—or even that all large churches make it difficult to serve. Certainly Willow Creek and Saddle Back (and many other mega-churches) are doing God's work in a powerful way. But as for me, I'll never super-size my Sundays again.

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June 14, 2006  7:33am

Does anyone have a vision for maturity? It seems to me that going on to maturity is where our eyes should be refocussed. Yes, church growth is vital but too often that's where it stops. New converts are encouraged to plug into the program but because many leaders have no real vision for maturity, or what it looks like, so converts are left paddling in the shallows and never really grow up. Surely growing up is what it is about or have we been so put off by the past misapplication of the word discipleship that we have lost its real significance and meaning in today's fast food consumer junkie world where image is continually triumphing over substance? Our commission is still to make disciples. Quality may encourage quantity, although quality costs and being a Christian was never about having an easy life, and quantity is the potential for quality but only if there is the will and vision of leadership for maturity. We need both but we need to recapture what it means to be mature and be prepared to risk the journey then others will be encouraged to follow.

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Pr. Dave Poedel

June 13, 2006  1:56pm

I recently accepted a call to a 50 year old church that has been declining in numbers for quite some time. This church would not show up on anyone's radar screen as having good potential for "church growth". Do I hope that God will give this church growth? YES! But I would prefer that our Lord not take away from other congregations to grow our congregation. That means we have lots of work to do. Will I toss out our Lutheran tradition and model our congregation on those traditions that "grow"? NO, because that would demonstrate a lack of integrity. I cannot "do" Baptist or "non-denominational" community church as well as they can. I can do evangelical catholic very well and with integrity, which is what I shall do, by God's grace and strength. When "church growth" becomes a template or one-size-fits-all, it lacks integrity and is, indeed, the road to hell. I have learned much from the insights of the CGM regarding things like parking lots, restrooms, and welcome packets. Beyond that, no thanks.

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