The persistently growing congregation is a relatively new phenomenon – and an even more recent expectation.
Aside from the grand cathedrals of Europe (which were often the result of politics and power more than faith), it wasn’t physically possible for local congregations to become massive until very recently in history.
It’s not a coincidence that megachurches came after the arrival of cars, highways and public transit. The regular gathering of massive crowds requires the physical ability to move huge numbers of people safely, consistently and inexpensively.
Until the mass transit era, people built church facilities that suited their immediate environment – as in their small town or neighborhood. Then, when more people came to faith in Christ, they’d build another meeting place close by, within walking distance of the people in the next neighborhood or town.
Typical Church Growth
Today, as we zip along the highway through the Bible Belt, it can seem like someone should have had a more strategic plan before building all those little white chapels so close together. But it’s easy – and wrong – to assume that the small size of those buildings meant a small faith in the people who built them.
Certainly, I don’t recommend we go back to that. We need a whole new approach to church facilities today – in ways we have yet to figure out. But it’s equally wrong to think that a successful church is always a numerically growing church, or that consolidating churches into larger groups is always the answer.
Constant numerical growth has never been the norm for healthy churches, historically. Instead, the addition or multiplication of small congregations has always been the typical way the church has grown. And it’s still the usual way the church grows in most of the world today.
Bigger Is Okay, But It’s Not Normal
If you, like me, live in a region of the world where bigger and bigger churches seem to be springing up everywhere, it’s important for us to open our eyes to the wider picture of the church, both historically and geographically, and see that what we are experiencing is not normal.
It’s not bad when a church grows bigger, of course – as long as it happens from conversions, not transplantation. But it’s neither typical or inevitable. And it shouldn’t be held up as some kind of standard.
If you’re serving a church that is experiencing consistent, exponential growth, thank God for it. But don’t think that because it’s happening for your church it’s inevitable for every healthy church.
On the other hand, if you’re serving or worshipping at a healthy, missional church, don’t beat yourself up if it’s not growing exponentially bigger every year.
We can never let this be an excuse for lack of passion, mission or growth, of course. As I’ve written before, Small Churches are Not a Problem, a Virtue or an Excuse. But we all need to recognize that constant numerical congregational increase has never been the normal way the church grows.
Christ’s kingdom has always been bigger than how many people are sitting in one congregation – no matter how big (or small) that congregation may be.
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