Church growth is an essential element in the Great Commission. But bigger churches are not.
This is not an anti-big-church rant. I love big churches. They're great. They're like padded seats, air conditioning and microphones. They can all be valuable tools, but they’re not essential to fulfilling the mandate Jesus gave us to go and make disciples.
There are a lot of pastors who don't recognize that. For too many of my pastoral peers, church growth equals bigger churches. Period.
Don’t Make Bigger Churches Without Making Disciples
Recently I’ve read some blog posts and had some conversations about breaking church growth barriers.
Most of them have reaffirmed that most pastors are strong advocates of church health as a necessary precursor to church growth.
But there’s a minority who haven’t gotten that memo yet.
I actually read a grow-the-church-at-any-cost blog post recently that was so extreme I was waiting for the twist that told me it was a satirical article like you read at Lark News or The Babylon Bee. Unfortunately, the twist never came.
(I won’t be linking to any of the posts in question. This is about content and I don’t want it to become personal.)
Church Growth at What Cost?
After reading one recent blog post, I realized that everything in it was true. Doing all the steps would give most churches a decent chance to get bigger. They obviously worked for the pastor who wrote it.
So what’s the problem? Of the 10+ points mentioned, none of them involved church health, discipleship, prayer or any other essential element of church life. In fact, several points advised pastors to take some very unhealthy steps to produce numerical growth.
That advice might bring numerical growth. But at what cost?
No, there is no cost too high to pay for the salvation of souls. But there is a cost too high to pay for bigger churches.
Church Growth Isn't Worth It When:
1. It's Only About Increased Attendance
When church growth happens through making converts and equipping disciples, I'm in. All the way.
But too much of the advice I’ve seen lately diverts our limited time, energy and funds from the task of disciple-making into the goal of attendance increase.
If it’s only about bigger churches, without the essential elements of evangelism and discipleship, that's where you lose me.
When we emphasize good things (a growing church) over the best things (making disciples) we’re trading down, not up.
2. We're Not Clear On Why Bigger Is Better
So you want your church to grow? That’s great. Me too.
But for what purpose? To be in the top 10% of churches in your city, denomination or nation? If so, please explain to me how that is in any way a biblical goal.
If it’s because you want to make converts and equip disciples, that’s more like it.
But how do we know if that’s really our goal? Ask yourself this question. If God called you to reach and disciple people without increasing the number of people sitting in your church, would you be okay with that? If not, check your ego. Because sometimes Jesus does kingdom growth that way.
Why we do things matters. Bigger churches are great. If they’re getting bigger for God’s glory, not ours.
3. It's All On the Shoulders of the Pastor
In one recent post, the writer told pastors if the church is going to grow, “It’s entirely up to you.”
He then went on to explain how many extra hours the pastor would have to work, the influencers that would have to be swayed, and more. All on the pastor’s shoulders.
This is a dangerous, toxic mindset that has been the cause of more pastoral burnout than perhaps all other reasons combined.
Church growth is not up to you, pastor. It’s not even up to you and Jesus.
It’s up to Jesus. Period.
Our calling is to make disciples. Train them to do the work of ministry. That’s a recipe for healthy church growth.
4. It Takes Christians from Other Churches
Recently I heard a pastor brag that people were leaving other churches in town to come to his church.
“If they can’t keep up, that’s on them, not me,” he said about the other churches. Yes, he actually uttered that sentence.
Words. Fail. Me.
5. It Pulls Funds and Passion from Essential Ministry
In one blog post, a pastor suggested cutting off all missions giving so the money could be diverted into a stipend for newly-hired pastoral staff members who could take the church to the next level.
In another, churches were told to replace prayer meetings with strategy sessions.
Why? Because of the next point.
6. It's All About Putting On a Better Sunday Morning Show
A killer band. A sharp 20-minute-or-less sermon. Better skits and video clips.
I have no problem with any of those tools. But not at the cost of not supporting missionaries. And not when we pay more attention to the people on stage than the one we’re supposed to be worshiping.
(By the way, this is not an attack on new worship styles. This attitude can happen in brightly-lit traditional churches with robed choirs and three-piece suits as well as in dimly-lit hipster churches with fog machines and a worship pastor wearing skinny jeans.
The church I pastor is more hipster than traditional, but I’ve seen good and bad in churches of all styles.
Now, where were we? Ah yes.)
When all our energy is going in to a better Sunday morning show, we have to ask ourselves if we’re just attracting and creating passive audience members instead of converts and disciples.
You can read more about this in Is 'Sit Back, Relax and Enjoy the Service' Killing the Church?
7. We Change Or Disguise Our Theology for It
When I go to a synagogue, I expect people to act, teach and worship like Jews. A Sabbath service should show me Judaism at its strongest, deepest and best.
When people come to a church, they expect us to act, teach and worship like Christians. I realize that Jews don’t proselytize, so we can’t make a direct comparison, but guests at a church’s main worship gathering should experience Christianity at its strongest, deepest and best.
When a church camouflages the hard teachings of Jesus on Sundays, then pulls a bait-and-switch in their small groups or the membership class, people feel deceived.
‘Come for the easy parts, stay for the hard parts’ is a farce. It doesn’t work.
Our calling is to create more Jesus followers, not just church attenders.
What we attract them with is what we attract them to.
The Benefits of Being Healthy First
Fellow pastors, please don’t let the negatives in this post discourage you.
Get out there and change the world for Jesus. Work on church growth. But always work on church health first.
If your church breaks through growth barriers, I will celebrate that with you. But if it gets healthier without breaking growth barriers, I'll celebrate church health with you, too.
Pursuing church growth without church health costs more than it’s worth. But a healthy church will always be filled with more blessings than burdens – for everyone.
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