Among American churches there is a gnawing and persistent anxiety about church growth. Every church, it seems, is in the growth business, even those with thousands of members. For no matter how many members a church has, you can always make room for more. More people, more income, more impact, more outreach…that’s the name of the church game. Perhaps the reasons to desire growth are good (reaching precious souls with the Gospel) or perhaps they are not (building an impressive resume or justifying yourself before God). Either way, the push to grow is a never-ending cavalcade that drives alarming numbers of pastors to burnout, churches to bicker and fight, and the Kingdom of God to be underappreciated for what it is (God’s people gathered under his Word and Sacraments) rather than we want it to be (an increasingly large collection of warm bodies).
So with all this anxiety around church growth, why are we so bad at it? The simple answer is because God has not ordained it. But we can surely go deeper than that. The truth is that some church growth is unhealthy, and where it is healthy, a uniquely gifted pastor is at the helm, the likes of which are relatively rare. Let’s take a look at the first.
Most of the massive church growth we see in America is at the feet of unfit leaders. A careful examination of the biblical doctrines of many large churches – and certainly those that beg for our attention on radio and television airwaves – demonstrates that there is simply a whole lotta false teachin’ going on. The Prosperity Gospel and its derivatives, shallow me-centered preaching, or entertainment spectacles designed to raise money often draw crowds. But if they are not teaching the Truth, they count for absolutely nothing when we consider Church growth. For whatever is growing there, it isn’t the Church.
Of course, there are faithful churches that are large and are growing. They’re all around us! Why are they growing? We all want the easy answer, don’t we? Well, I hate to break this to the Church Growth Movement, but if there was one “silver bullet”, every church would do it and it would stop being a silver bullet. The silver bullet in the 90s was “contemporary music”, but it is now de rigeur and we’re the weird ones for still singing out of a hymnal.
Thousands of churches adopted contemporary worship in an effort to mimic bigger churches and nothing came of it. Except in many cases, they alienated the faithful who weren’t searching for a silver bullet, but simply wanted to worship God as their forefathers had. And if contemporary music was the solution to a lack of church growth, why do so many church bodies continue to shrink?
No, churches grow for normal and not necessarily exciting reasons: they have competent, trustworthy leadership, they believe in what they’re doing, and they believe their mission makes a difference. That can take many forms aesthetically, but, usually, it is as simple as that. And occasionally, the Church is blessed with extraordinary men who are exceptional teachers, administrators, writers and speakers. It’s a rare combination, and only those kind of men are able to lead a multi-thousand person congregation.
Think of it in sports terms. Of the millions of high school athletes out there, only about 2% get a scholarship to compete at the collegiate level. Then, only a fraction of them will play professionally. Only a fraction of them will have long careers and make the Hall of Fame. Even only a fraction of Hall of Famers will be Peyton Manning or Willie Mays-caliber players. Just as that kind of athletic ability is rare, its rare as well in corporate leadership, political leadership and church leadership. Great men and women just don’t grow on trees. That’s what makes them great.
So congregations would do well to stop comparing their small, “average” congregation with the greats that end up publishing books, leading conferences, and hosting thousands every Sunday. That would be like demeaning high school football players because they aren’t starting for the Green Bay Packers. 90% congregations were never meant to be large and 99.9% of pastors are not the great men (or women) that become institutions in their own right.
Rather, most pastors and congregations are somewhere between 50 and 200 people on a Sunday. And so long as the teaching is faithful and the congregation makes (at the very least!) an effort to reach those who do not know the Good News, they should not be filled with anxiety, but thanksgiving. For so long as anxiety about growth and size continue to define the day-to-day character of congregations, they should expect to do exactly the opposite. Shrinking and dying is their more likely path, because instead of being content with what God has provided, they argue with God that they do not have enough.
We’re past Thanksgiving now, but be thankful now for what has provided us. And do the work we are called to do! The secret to church growth is that there is no secret. There is only faithfulness to our mission.