What to Think About Church Growth
I don’t know what to think about church growth anymore. I’ve always believed it’s God that causes a church to grow–and I still do. But what role does the leadership of the church play in bringing more people in? I’m afraid the answer to this question I’ve long held to is actually little more than a caricature: If it’s God that does the growing, then the pastors need only preach the Bible and sit back and wait for people to come in. If they’re faithful in this and in their handling or the Lord’s Supper and baptism, that’s really all they can or should do. I now question this belief.
Often times there’s a dichotomy in the discussion of church growth. On the one side are those who believe the only growth that really matters is the growth in sanctification of the believers in the church. On the other side there are those who only focus on growth in terms of numbers. (Do a Google search for “church growth” and you’ll find a lot of people in the latter camp.) But the problem with both of these extremes is that they miss part of the Great Commission:
[box] “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a).[/box]
Those who focus solely on growth in sanctification ignore the “go” and the “all the nations” parts. They make certain those in their congregation are fed with great teaching and preaching, but their emphasis on evangelism and reaching out to their community may be lacking. Those who emphasize bringing more people into the church often have a clear focus on reaching the nations, starting with their community. But sometimes it’s the “make disciples” and “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” parts that don’t receive enough attention.
Between these two extremes lies something of a grey area. If we acknowledge that sanctification is important (the Bible is pretty clear about this) and that drawing people from the community into the church is important (read Acts if you question this), how should the leadership of the church go about accomplishing these objectives?
There are a myriad of church growth models out there. Should the church put a lot of resources towards a couple of big outreach events a year? Should they do more marketing? There are a number of church growth models that seek to implement strategies from the business world. Are these necessarily wrong? My knee jerk reaction in the past has been Yes, they’re wrong. But that response was driven by the belief that business strategies were designed simply to bring people in for the sake of bringing them in. In business the objective is to sell more goods and services. Customers are valued because businesses want their money. The thought of that mentality influencing the church made me nervous. But is there absolutely nothing the business world can teach the church? Yes, preaching needs to be at the center of the church. But is it wrong to strategize about how to disseminate that preaching to as many people as possible? Every business knows it’s important to have a modern and easy-to-navigate website. Most major businesses have a presence on Facebook and Twitter. Shouldn’t the church consider these avenues? Is “marketing” a church wrong if it focuses on what’s important in a church (preaching, ministries, etc.)?
To be sure, there are bad ways to grow a church in terms of attendance. That’s the danger in measuring growth by attendance. It’s easy to get more bodies into seats if you’re willing to compromise in one way or another. Avoid topics that make people uncomfortable. Create worship services that are designed to entertain. Find out what people want and give it to them. These are the types of things that Paul warned Timothy about in 2 Timothy 4:3-4: “For a time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teacher to suit their own passions.” Examples of this abound.
All of this to say, I’m afraid I’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater in the past. With the compromise that has occurred at many megachurches in order for them to reach their size, there’s a hesitancy on my part when I think about church growth. I’ve finally recognized this hesitancy, but pragmatically I still don’t know what to think about church growth. What’s permissible or what should be done to grow a church and make more disciples within our communities?