Bigger churches aren’t necessarily better. Smaller churches aren’t necessarily broken, stuck or ineffective.
Effective churches exist in all shapes and sizes. Including churches that haven’t grown numerically in a while.
But the myths persist. Especially the myth that if a church is healthy it will get bigger. And the corresponding myth that if a church isn’t getting bigger it’s either a problem to be fixed (at best) or it’s beyond fixing and needs to be closed.
It doesn’t matter if there’s other evidence of health outside the numbers. For too many of us, church size is the primary (or only) factor in determining the health and value of a local congregation.
This thinking is not just mistaken, it’s dangerous. History has regularly shown us that any time we equate bigger with better in the kingdom of God, it leads to problems. Big problems.
Today, there are a handful of unintended consequences that result from the almost universal and seldom questioned assumption that church growth always means bigger churches.
Here are just a few.
1. It Blinds Us To Bigger Issues
Imagine a town in which there are 50 small churches with 5,000 attendees – an average of 100 people per church, with the biggest church at 500 people.
Then imagine that the church of 500 starts exploding with growth. Before long, they have 2,000 people attending.
Great news right? Maybe. Maybe not.
What if, while that church was booming, the total attendance in all churches in town dropped from 5,000 to 4,500?
That’s not church growth. That’s a problem. Now, the problem may not have been caused by the growing church, but we’re likely to be so enamored with the explosive growth of one congregation that we can miss the actual drop in church growth in the town as a whole.
2. It Hurts A Lot Of Good Pastors
Most pastors are not called to lead a big church. They’re called to do faithful, effective and consistent ministry in a smaller congregation.
But they keep being told they have to grow numerically. So they try. And they fail.
Soon, the pastor who’s called to be faithful is convinced they’re doing something wrong because they’re trying to fix a non-existent problem.
For many, maybe most pastors, a push for bigger numbers doesn’t inspire them to get better, it discourages them from continuing on with the good kingdom work they’re already doing.
3. It Ignores Many Effective Churches
Many small churches and their pastors feel invisible. They’re doing what God has called them to do, but without constant numerical growth almost no one knows how to gauge their effectiveness, let alone encourage or build on it.
So they labor, not just in obscurity, but in loneliness. A loneliness that often leads to the very ineffectiveness that they’ve been blamed for. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Small churches are not necessarily small because they’re ineffective. But they can become ineffective if their value to the kingdom keeps being ignored simply because of their size.
4. It’s Not Biblical
No one in the New Testament cared about congregational size.
We know that because, while virtually every other aspect of church health is mentioned, attendance numbers are never even hinted at.
(Yes, some crowd sizes are mentioned in the Gospels and Acts, but those crowds weren’t churches. In fact, those figures were more like counting total conversions in a town than seeing one congregation grow while others are ignored.)
In the first century, faithful churches were encouraged and applauded, even if they were small and struggling. Yet some numerically-growing churches were criticized for becoming lukewarm as their success went to their heads.
In a hyper-growth culture, a church like Philadelphia might have been told to “get those numbers up or we’ll bring in someone who can” instead of “I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” (Rev 3:8)
Meanwhile a large, growing church like Laodicea might have been holding church growth conferences, while we all ignored the underlying reality of “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” (Rev 3:17)
If it seems like I’m bashing the big church for being big, I’m not. And neither was John the Apostle.
John simply recognized a truth that is very easy to forget – that the size of a congregation has no direct correlation to their health or faithfulness. Numerical growth didn’t make Laodicea complacent any more than lack of numerical growth made Philadelphia unfaithful.
5. It Takes Our Eyes Off The Prize
What’s the prize? More people coming into a saving relationship with Jesus and being discipled.
That can happen in any size of church.
But when church size is the primary focus of church leadership, it becomes very easy to put all our eggs in the “bigger church” basket instead keeping our eyes on the bigger and more important aspects of overall kingdom growth.
Going back to the illustration of the town with one church growing while overall church attendance was dropping – what if some of that growth was at the cost of the smaller congregations? That’s not a stretch. It’s almost always the case.
While we praise the growing church, we’re not just ignoring the small churches, we’re often promoting the growth of one congregation at the direct expense of others. Then we blame the shrinking church(es) instead of tackling the deeper issues.
Think Truly Bigger
As long as church growth keeps being about congregational size, these problems will not just persist, they will get worse.
There’s only one way out of this. We need to think bigger. Truly bigger.
Bigger than numerical growth.
Bigger than congregational size.
Bigger than attendance figures.
We need a renewed, Christ-honoring, cooperative approach to kingdom growth that ignores no one, includes everyone, and utilizes the gifts of every church, no matter their size.
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