10 Myths About Church Growth

Ministry, The Church

34rixr7“Hi, my name is Joe Preacher, Pastor of a Church of 3000.”

“Hi, my name is John Preacher, Pastor of a church of 300.”

“Hi, my name is Joel Preacher, Pastor of a church of 30.”

How do we think about the zeros in the above sentences?  What are our assumptions?  Do we have an instant gut-level reaction to the various hypothetic ministries represented by Joe, John, and Joel Preacher?  Do we envy Mr. Pastor of 3000?  Do we assume he has the superior ministerial gifting?  Or do we perhaps assume that he is a pragmatic compromiser, that his church must have watered down hard doctrinal truth and departed from Biblical precept in order to get that sort of attendance?

What about Mr. Pastor of 30?  Do we assume he is an inept man, a poor preacher with no relational aptitude?  Or do we automatically see him as the courageous warrior, the unflinching Man of God standing athwart a squeamish age and thundering out the truth, unwilling to bend on conviction even if it locks him out the world’s acclaim?

And Mr. Pastor of 300?  Maybe he our Pastoral Goldilocks, not too hot and not too cold- this one is just right.

There is much ink spilt on the topic of church growth (Note: I’m not sure what the digital age equivalent of “ink spilt” is.  “Many keys typed” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.  “Touch screens often touched” is even worse…).  Some of it is helpful, some of it isn’t.  Some see church growth as the bottom line by which pastoral effectiveness is to be judged.  Others look with constant suspicion at large or growing ministries, almost wearing as a badge of honor the relatively modest size of their flock.

The fact is much of our thinking about church growth is based on myths, and no one side of the issue has a monopoly on the mythology.  There are myths that Mr. Pastor of 30 believes.  There are myths that Mr. Pastor of 3000 believes.  And if Mr. Pastor of 300 thinks he really is the Goldilocks who has found the just right approach, he may eventually realize just how much of a fairy tale he is actually living in.

Here are 10 common myths we often believe about church growth:

1. Numerical Growth is an Infallible Indicator of God’s Blessing

Pastors of larger churches often present the size of their congregation as evidence that what they are saying should be treated as wisdom from a sage.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a Mega-Church Pastor respond to being challenged on something by saying essentially- “Well, I started 15 years ago with five people and a dog meeting in my Aunt’s kitchen and now I’m the Pastor of a church of 2 million with 46 campuses on three planets, so shut up and buy my book, you plebe.”  Or at least it was something like that.  But this argument about numerical growth being an infallible indicator of God’s blessing is a total myth.

Exhibit A: Joel Osteen is the Pastor of the largest church in America.  Do we really need an Exhibit B?  Ok, fine.

Exhibit B: Lot’s of churches are big.  That doesn’t mean the numerical growth is an infallible indicator of God’s blessing.  Mormonism is pretty big.  So is Roman Catholicism.  The predatory health/wealth approach to church is huge in Nigeria.  Next.

2. Growing Churches Are Necessarily Seeing More Conversions

Lots of ministries with surging membership roles like to rattle off impressive sounding numbers regarding their impact for the kingdom.  But consider this- take a look at how many of the members of these churches (especially the more missional/contextual types) are actually the kids who grew up in more traditional churches and drifted away.  I’m glad they’ve fully embraced the faith and are excited about church again, but let’s not pretend they were all unchurched pagans.

Also, it is extremely common for large churches to be very, very quick to say that the Spirit has done a genuine work of conversion.  Many practice immediate baptism.  Most have highly systematic and scheduled approaches to moving people from visitor to active member.  That’s not necessarily bad, but those bragging about the amount of people coming through their doors often don’t tell you how many are hanging around for a while and then slipping out the back.  Large churches don’t always get large because of genuine revival.

3. All That Stands Between Smaller Churches and Dramatic Growth is Implementation of a Set of Techniques

There is a sometimes crudely mechanistic way of thinking and talking about church growth strategies.  The impression is given that anyone who learns the proper techniques can quickly build a church of substantial size.  That’s pretty strange when you consider what Jesus taught about the work of the Spirit in John 3, what Paul says about who provides growth in 1 Corinthians 3:5-9, and the way growth is described in the book of Acts (The Lord added to their number…).  We also must remember that there is a vast gulf between drawing a crowd (which any showman can do) and genuinely building a church (which must be a work of the Spirit).

4. Ministry is Dramatically Harder in a Large Church

Somehow statements like this never quite move my spirit to pity: “Woe is me, I am the Pastor of a Mega Church.  You don’t know how difficult it is to keep this thing together.  You lesser mortals have no sense of the pressure I am under”

Granted, I’m sure there are a lot of challenges unique to numerically large ministries.  But I’m also sure there are also a lot more resources, staff, and opportunities.  No one put a gun to your head and told you to write all those books or take all those speaking engagements.  Somehow I find it difficult to work up more sympathy than I would have for Pastors of moderate to small sized congregations.

Granted, all ministry is difficult.  And yes, I’m sure there are things I don’t even know about that come with a higher profile.  But I don’t buy the myth that being Pastor of a large church is a dramatically harder calling.  Predictably, Trueman has an outstanding post about this.

5. Ministry is Dramatically Harder in a Small Church

Ok, this is where we pivot and try to give equal time to smaller churches in pointing out a few of these myths.

It is true that the burden of having to print your own bulletins and answer your own phone as well as leading nearly all elements of worship and taking on the majority of ministerial responsibilities solo is exhausting.  Isolation and loneliness are legitimate struggles.  But smaller ministries have their perks too.  There can be a blessing to the simplicity of a modest ministry that shouldn’t be overlooked, and is often taken for granted.  Many who have experienced dramatic growth have later pined for those earlier and simpler days.

6. Small Churches Are More Faithful to the Truth

Yeah, maybe.  But maybe not.  Just like I did with large churches, it’s not hard to list small congregations that are anything but faithful.  The lunatics out of Kansas who picket military funerals come to mind.  Plus, not all churches are stay small because people have “itching ears” and run to more flashy ministries that don’t care as much about the Bible.  We have to be honest and say that sometimes a man just doesn’t posses the requisite gifting to be a credible Shepherd to a flock, no matter how orthodox his doctrine may be.

7. Pride is only an Issue for Large Churches

Ministerial pride is a two way street.  I’ve heard some shockingly prideful statements from men who Pastor tiny flocks.  There is a sort of pride that can come with seeing yourself as a Jeremiah or Isaiah reincarnated for the 21st century.  Pride is such a subtle enemy that it can even turn rejection into a badge of honor.

8. It is Wrong to Desire Church Growth

The very real abuses of the Church Growth Movement shouldn’t make us take an unnecessarily pessimistic view of all church growth.  Church growth can mean more people are being saved.  It can also mean more Christians to disciple.  Often it comes with an increase in resources which open new opportunities for the spread of the gospel in the world.  This are all good things which ought to inspire joy rather than condemnation.

9. A Church Must Be a Certain Size to be Effective in Gospel Ministry

This is simply not true.  I know from first hand experience that very small churches are sometimes the most generous with their money in the cause of missions and support for ministries.  Additionally, we need to be very careful in how we define “effective.”  Decades of faithful service from a Pastor, a congregation (of whatever size) that grows together like a family and rides through the trials of life and ministry together, and  consistent support for missions and evangelistic outreach is pretty “effective” by any Biblical standard.  We ought not depreciate things God has called good.

10. Church Growth is Purely Numerical

The church shouldn’t be guilty of being a mile wide, but only and inch deep, no matter how long its membership roles may be.  Jesus did say to make disciples after all, not simply converts.  Growth isn’t just numerical, it is also spiritual.  Individual Christians should be growing in the knowledge of God, love for the brethren, and the experience of Spirit led New Covenant life.  A congregation should be growing together as the members experience this growth in their own lives.  Love for Christ and desire to see sinners saved should be increasing day by day.  No matter what size your congregation is now or will be in the future, those are areas everyone can seek to be in constant growth.

In this last way especially, may the Lord give us great increase!

(By: Nicolas Alford)

7 thoughts on “10 Myths About Church Growth

  1. This is really good, even though we know the magic number is 106 members and an attendance of 168 on Sunday morning. Anything less is too insulated, anything more is too close to a mega-church.

    Seriously, you’ve made some excellent points. Naturally, I’m a bobbing head doll when I read all of your points about large churches… but then those other ones… Great exhortations and reminders. I have often noticed in conversations with men I’ve had who are pastors of smaller churches the issue of pride you addressed. It’s the false notion, as you stated, that people want nothing to do with the church because “we’re preaching the truth and people don’t want to hear it…” And while the truth may be present, if it’s not in love and seasoned with grace, I don’t want to hear it and shouldn’t expect that anyone else would want to either! There seems to be the idea of, “We know and preach the truth and we’re really, really angry about it!” So I think a lot of churches are small and stay small, as you said because of pride, and also because of a complete lack of grace – it’s the “Telling it how it is” syndrome… I think someone wrote a blog post about that one time…

    1. Thanks Nick. I hope that the readers will see that the reason I present these as myths is that they are often presented as absolutes. There are plenty of small churches that are indeed faithful to the truth at the cost of the world’s acclaim. I thank God for those ministries, but we should be careful to not adopt simplistic universals.

  2. My numerological calculations lead me to believe that the PERFECT church size may be 1,689 members. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. Next up, I will predict the return of Christ…

  3. I’m reminded of John 6, particularly vv. 65-67 where Jesus began the Church Shrinkage Movement. It’s a great reminder that true growth is just as much about depth as breadth. And as a person who has always been involved with smaller churches, it is easy to cast the stones at the myths embraced by larger churches, but it is a great exhortation to remember that small churches have our own myths to deal with.

    By the way Kennicott, I think you’re calculations are a bit off. The perfect number is 1611. Sheesh. Anybody knows that. Or it could be 95 if the church is Lutheran.

    Or even better: as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post, Nickle.

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