A healthy church does not inevitably mean a numerically growing congregation.
I used to believe that it did.
After all, I've read about the "truth" of inevitable congregational growth in every church leadership book written in the last 30 years. I even taught it myself.
I don't believe it any more. It's a myth.
Certainly the growth of the church – as in all believers everywhere – is inevitable. Jesus said he'd build it and he has. Relentlessly. Sometimes despite us. For over 2,000 years the church has been the most consistently growing organism in history. And it's not done yet.
But that universal church growth doesn't necessarily translate into the numerical growth of individual congregations - even healthy ones.
How can I state that seemingly counter-intuitive fact with such confidence? A simple thing called reality. The evidence stubbornly refuses to back up the idea of inevitable congregational growth. Specifically, this evidence:
- Some churches grow numerically without being healthy
- Many churches that stay small are very healthy
- Many churches don't grow beyond a certain size no matter how healthy they become
- There have been healthy churches for 2,000 years, but megachurches are a very recent phenomenon
There's obviously something else going on that produces church growth in addition to the essential elements of a healthy church. Several somethings actually.
Those "extras" are not the subject of this post, or even of this blog, so I won't be outlining them here. But you can find them in most church leadership books or blogs. They include advanced leadership skills, administrative abilities, cultural realities, fundraising acumen and much, much more. They are good skills to have. The church needs them. But, while they can be operated in tandem with church health, they're not necessary for church health.
Numerical Growth Takes More than Health
Have you ever asked yourself why there are so many books, seminars and websites devoted to breaking church growth barriers? If growth is inevitable for a healthy church, shouldn't the instructions for breaking growth barriers be about how to do worship, ministry, discipleship, fellowship and evangelism better?
Certainly, instruction on church growth has church health at its core, but isn't just about church health. Why? Because everyone knows that numerical church growth – especially continual, mega, explosive church growth – takes more than that.
Sometimes, the numerical growth of a congregation has nothing to do with us at all. Sometimes God taps a pastor or church on the shoulder and says "I need a really big church here, and I'm picking … YOU!" But you can't sell a book on how to have that happen to you.
It comes down to this. While all healthy things grow, numerical congregational growth is not inevitable, even for a healthy church.
My Own Story
Recently, someone wrote a comment on another website where an edited version of one of my posts appeared. I had listed five essential elements of a healthy small church, and a reader commented that any church that was following such principles "won't be small for long."
While I appreciate the sentiment expressed in such comments, the truth is that many churches who do all the right things do stay small for long. Mine included.
For the last three decades of my pastoral ministry, there hasn't been a month go by without someone telling me my church was on the verge of explosive growth. (One recent visiting pastor called it a beehive of activity – and he was there on a normal Thursday afternoon!)
For years I believed the voices telling me we were going to have explosive growth. It felt encouraging, after all. And I do want my church to grow, of course. But as the years dragged on the unmet expectation of numerical growth laid such a heavy burden on me that it nearly killed my ministry and my very healthy church.
Because growth was not just expected, but was supposed to be inevitable, I got very frustrated when it didn't happen. So I tried everything I could to fix a problem that didn't exist. I was convinced my church must be unhealthy in some way I wasn't aware of because the lack of growth was obvious evidence that there must be something wrong with it.
After all, if all healthy things grow, then the reverse must be true. If you're not growing, you're not healthy.
The Myth Isn't Just Wrong, It's Dangerous
I spent years trying to fix a church that wasn't broken. And I broke it and myself in the process – almost permanently.
Yes, we've grown in the 20 years I've pastored my current congregation. When I arrived there were about 35 very frustrated, discouraged people attending on Sunday mornings, while today we have about 200 very excited, involved and passionate people attending on Sundays.
As I outline in my book, The Grasshopper Myth, in the last 15 years the growth of my congregation has fluctuated between the low 100s and almost 400. But twelve years ago we had 200 attenders, eight years ago there were 200, two years ago there were 200, and today - you guessed it – there are 200 attenders. That puts us on the upper end of small, but that's still considered a small church
During that time, aside from the era where I nearly killed it, the church has steadily become as healthy, outward-focused, friendly and worshipful as any church I know.
Are we perfect? Far from it.
Have I made mistakes that have hindered possible chances for growth? Undoubtedly.
But my premise for this post isn't that numerical growth isn't possible. Just that it isn't inevitable.
Comfort for Small Churches and Their Leaders
Here's a truth that many will find hard to swallow, but many small church pastors can take comfort in.
It is possible to have a very healthy church and not see butts-in-the-seats growth as a result of it.
That doesn't mean you won't or can't see growth. You may. Hopefully you will. But it does mean that lack of numerical growth is not, in itself, evidence of an unhealthy church.
Yes, all healthy things grow. But my physical body hasn't grown beyond 6' 6" since I was in my early 20s. That doesn't mean I stopped being healthy at that point. I still grow. But now I grow in other ways. Spiritually, emotionally, mentally and more. It's the same for churches.
If your church isn't healthy, work on that. Get a better balance among the essential elements of a healthy church.
But if your church is healthy, don't let lack of numerical growth convince you it's not.
Keep at it. Dig even deeper into other, more important areas of growth. Reach out, in, up and down. And thank God for your healthy small church.
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