I Am Ready to Give Up on Church Growth

Growing up and being educated and trained as a Southern Baptist, I have worshipped around the altar of church growth.  Everything is about increasing the size of the church, getting more people to “join the church” and come to the Sunday morning services.  I have been a pastor and felt the pressure of reporting good attendance week after week.  Many ministry failures can be excused as long as the average attendance increases year after year.

As a child, I was encouraged to memorize “The Great Commission” at the end of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus instructed his followers to go out and grow the church.  If there was ever a concern about focusing too much on numbers we were told that it is biblical – the Book of Acts records three thousand being saved in one day and there is an entire book of the Old Testament with the name Numbers.

When I was the pastor of a very rural church with virtually no possibility of increased membership numbers, I struggled with thinking I was doing something wrong.  Perhaps I was not working hard enough or maybe I simply was not the pastor this community needed.  Back in those days, the Southern Baptist Convention gave an award to the “Small Church Pastor of the Year.”  However, it was always given to a pastor who had turned a small church into a large church.

It now seems that some folks have figured out how to do this and they are growing churches into the thousands and ten thousands.  In the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex where I live there are numerous churches that have more than a thousand attend every week.  They can be found in every nook and cranny of the city.  Perhaps a half a dozen or more of these churches report more than ten thousand in attendance.  Church growth has been a success!

Or has it?

I have studied the New Testament for many years and have come to the conclusion that the work of the church is not about enormous growth.  Especially when you study the ministry of Jesus, there is little concern about accumulating large numbers of followers.  In fact, it sounds like Jesus almost made it impossible for large numbers of people to follow him.  Listen to these verses:

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.  For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”  Matthew 7:13-14

“And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.  He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.”  Matthew 10:38-39

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”  Matthew 16:24-25

These verses are just a sample of many of the things Jesus did that would discourage and drive away a crowd.

Perhaps these words of Jesus suggest that those who have been successful at growing a large congregation might have done so at the cost of changing the message.  There is simply no mass appeal in these words.  I’m not saying that God cannot or will not bring together a large group of people.  It happened in the book of Acts and it has happened a few times in history since.  However, it is certainly not the norm and I would not expect to find hundreds of these unusual congregations in north Texas.

There is an interesting testimony about this matter in Christianity Today.  Walter Kallestad was pastor of a two hundred member church in Pheonix.  While standing in line to purchase tickets for a movie he had an epiphany.  “The only way to capture people’s attention is entertainment, I thought. If I want people to listen to my message, I’ve got to present it in a way that grabs their attention long enough for me to communicate the gospel.”

Not surprisingly, it worked. “For us, worship was a show, and we played to a packed house. We grew by thousands, bought more land, and positioned ourselves to reach even more people. Not that any of this is wrong in and of itself – people coming to faith in Christ isn’t bad. I told myself it was good – I told others it was good… By the time we service the $12-million debt, pay the staff, and maintain the property, we’ve spent more than a million before we can spend a dime on our mission. At the time, we had plans for a spectacular worship center with a retractable roof.”

After some serious soul searching, time in prayer, and study of what God was doing with other congregations, Kallestad came to this conclusion: “We were entertaining people as a substitute for leading them into the presence of God.” 

This church made an immediate change from entertainment to learning how to enter into true worship of God and relationships with one another.  People responded in the same way they responded to Jesus – they left.  However, as the church changed something even more significant happened.  “I used to ask, ‘What can we do to get more people to attend our church?’ Now I ask, ‘How can I best equip and empower the people to go be the church in the marketplace where God has called them to serve?'”

This is real church growth.  Not necessarily numerical growth but growth toward becoming more like Jesus.  It will probably never be an especially popular type of increase because it cannot be measured so we cannot take credit for it.  Jesus’ message is hard.  Although His miraculous works attracted large crowds, his message scattered them quickly.

I think true church growth should be less about attracting large crowds to come and “be blessed” by our great music, awesome programs, and attractive facilities and more about sending followers of Jesus into the world to bless others.  It is time to move away from the model of growth that we have adopted from the business world and return to a model of growth that focuses on spiritual depth and relationship.

If this idea catches on there might still be hope for me to win that award for Small Church Pastor of the Year.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “I Am Ready to Give Up on Church Growth

  1. What you’re talking about is one of the reasons why I have decided that “organized religion” is not for me. I grew up in a small church and loved it…until the focus changed from being Christ-like to being “the best in the biz”. I have yet to find a church home that doesn’t focus on being the best in the wrong things. If I wanted to focus on growth, money, and politics I would run for office. Since I choose to focus on living a good life, I just do it at home now.

  2. Chris

    Hi Terry,
    I just read your article on church growth, and I am concerned that the verses you reference are not the only ones to look at. How about feeding the 5000, where there may have been as many as 10-15 thousand in attendance? He gave the message to a large group and knew that most of them would not truly adopt it. So why limit the message to a small group where even fewer will do so?

    I agree that some churches have missed out on an opportunity to really grow disciples, but that’s not true of all large churches. Being large and going deep are not mutually exclusive as you presume. There is a place for both large and small churches in different communities. Don’t assume that just because you are used to one way, the other way is wrong.

    Blessings,
    Chris

  3. Chris,

    Thanks for your comments – I always appreciate hearing from folks who are thinking!

    In reference to Jesus feeding the thousands, remember what happened immediately after the crowd was fed. Jesus had to run away and hide because they misunderstood (see John 6:15). Perhaps what would happen today is that we would want to make Him a presidential candidate.

    I think I might have to disagree with your statement that “being large and going deep are not mutually exclusive.” I don’t know if there is any way to attract large crowds by going deep into a subject. A good example of this is our educational system. The higher you go in education, the fewer the students. There are certainly more college freshmen than doctoral students.

    I am obviously not against preaching the Gospel to large groups of people, but I am concerned that it might not be the Gospel of Jesus that we are preaching. The message of Jesus is hard, harsh, and will not draw large groups. Jesus did draw large groups but He did so through his miracles, but then when He opened His mouth, they left. I suspect that genuine church growth will be more organic, one person at a time rather than mass evangelism.

  4. Charles Gunter

    Dear Terry,
    Thank you for your thought provoking observations and commentaries. I have read your articles for several years, and appreciate your contribution to helping everyone better understand God’s Word. I believe your observations to be painfully true. Because it is often at odds with the values and goals of our day to day world, that is the values of this world, the truth today, as it did during Jesus’ life on earth, usually drives away the crowds. Jesus told us that He is the way, the life, and the truth. It is unfortunate that many people settle for entertainment and amusement when their soul really longs for life and abundant life, which is only found through the truth – Jesus.

    During His human life on earth, Christ amazed and confounded many, just as he does today. I do not recall Him, using entertainment and amusement to attract followers. The question becomes – Because, as His followers, we are called to emulate Him and His actions, why would we choose entertainment over truth to attract more followers? I believe most people’s souls really deeply long for the unchanging and eternal truth, but they will, if it is offered by our churches, often accept entertainment as a counterfeit substitute.
    Charles

  5. Chris

    Thanks for your response, Terry. And I appreciate your candor and willingness to dialog on it. Actually, I don’t disagree with your statement that it’s hard to attract large crowds by going deep. The question is, can the church develop methods to also get people into smaller groups where they can go deep. That’s what we try to do here. We certainly aren’t perfect, but we also recognize that at any given point, we have a continuum of people who range from immature in the faith to very mature. The hard part is providing avenues that challenge and encourage growth at all levels. Most of the time, the large services on the weekends tend to aim at the lower or middle parts of the spectrum. But we have plenty of options for those who want to go deep as well. Part of the misconception is that we can’t see the weekend service as the only way to foster growth.

    I absolutely agree that the gospel is hard, and we don’t shy away from that. But it can be presented in different ways to different groups, just like Paul advocated.

    Blessings,
    Chris

  6. Chris,

    If you are saying that it is effective to use one method to attract an audience and then switch to a different method to help folks go deeper in the faith, I have some concerns:
    1. It sounds kind of like the old “bait and switch.” Promise people that Jesus can help make their life great and solve all their problems, but then try to move them into a deeper study where they hear Jesus’ real message of taking up a cross.
    2. Those who only come to the attractive, entertainment part of the church’s offering are likely to possess a false assurance of their relationship with Jesus. By the way, this might have already happened since such a high percentage of Americans identify themselves as Christians but there is very little real evidence that such is the case.
    3. We are spending an inordinate amount of money on attracting people to something that is not entirely true to Jesus’ message. The church is spending millions (more likely billions) of dollars to attract crowds in hopes that we can sift out a few genuine disciples. Not good stewardship!
    I am concerned that we are preaching a message that is not entirely true (i.e. God want you to be successful, God will make your life good, Jesus is the answer to all your problems, etc.) in order to attract a crowd. The reason we do this is because we have adopted the measuring stick of size to evaluate our effectiveness. This seems to be completely contrary to the message of Jesus.

  7. Chris

    Hi Terry,
    That’s not really what I mean. I just mean there are different ways to teach. You don’t teach algebra to a second grader, they have to learn basic math first. Then, you can build on that to lead them to a deeper understanding of math. I have never met anyone who fully understood the Christian walk the day they accepted Christ, otherwise we wouldn’t need to study anymore.

    Your second point is a good one, and I agree that there are churches who aren’t helping people grow beyond a basic understanding. However, there are many small churches which have that very same problem. You are equating large with shallow, and I am just trying to point out that there are large and deep churches, just as there are small and shallow churches.

    If a church is misleading people, obviously that’s not good. And I agree that size is not the only measure of effectiveness. But if a church is not bring new people into the fold, then it is missing the point of the great commission. That would also be contrary to the message of Jesus.

    -Chris

  8. I agree about teaching algebra to a second grader (or sometimes to someone with a college degree in my case), but the difference is that you are not trying to make a mathematician out of the second grader. The analogy does not work with the message of the Gospel. If we are to follow Jesus’ example, it seems that we need to lay it on the line at the beginning. Best example is the Rich Rule who specifically asked what it means to be saved. Jesus told him that he had to give it all up, hold on to nothing, and follow Jesus. Jesus did not encourage him to “come listen to our great worship band and hear our pastor preach about the good life and then, if you want, you can get into it.”

    Although I understand how it might seem that I am “equating large with shallow” that was not my intention. What I mean is that our methods of trying to become large have made us shallow. I agree, there are more small churches that are just (or more) shallow than some of the very large churches.

    Again, I have no problem with large crowds or with preaching to large crowds. My concern is that in order to attract large crowds and keep them coming back, we have to change the message. The message of Jesus is not appealing to the masses (although we all need it). I am not saying that you need to “fully understand the Christian walk” when we accept Christ, but we are not helping folks if we suggest the Christian life is one thing (i.e. being successful, having problems solved, learning how to experience happiness, etc.) with the hopes that one day they will stay long enough to discover what it really means to follow Jesus.

    In response to my original post, Rebecca W. wrote these words: “What you’re talking about is one of the reasons why I have decided that “organized religion” is not for me. I grew up in a small church and loved it…until the focus changed from being Christ-like to being “the best in the biz”. I have yet to find a church home that doesn’t focus on being the best in the wrong things. If I wanted to focus on growth, money, and politics I would run for office. Since I choose to focus on living a good life, I just do it at home now.”

    I think we are going to hear more and more comments like this in the coming years as folks become disillusioned. Churches are making promises to get people in the door but they can’t deliver. The reason they can’t deliver is that these are not the promises of God and ultimately the enormous expense of giving people what they want will cause the structure to collapse on itself.

  9. I enjoyed both the article and the rapport between Chris and Terry, but as a pastor of a small country church (In the middle of the metroplex) its Rebecca’s response that is disconcerting. I frequently have pressures on me to make the church “grow.” But what that really means is numbers not a deeper commitment to Christ. Nothing thrills my heart more than when a person comes to Christ, except maybe when I see someone becoming a fully committed Disciple of Christ, because, after all, thats what we were told to make.

  10. Chris

    Please understand that I don’t disagree with much of what you are saying. I am well aware that there are many shallow churches. I guess I get a bit defensive because Saddleback gets lumped into that group just because it’s big. I have worked with a lot of other large churches in helping them start stewardship ministries, and many of them are doing a great job of discipleship.

    I don’t like to hear Rebecca’s comment for her own sake, but I also have friends who were turned away from Christianity by small, legalistic churches who required everyone to conform to their standard.

    I think we probably agree on most points, but our society has changed dramatically as well. We have a lot more large churches because we have a lot more people in our country living in close proximity to each another. When you see thousands accepting Christ in Acts, you have to also realize that Jerusalem was a very small city by modern standards. In effect, everything is just getting bigger, and technology is making reaching large groups a lot easier.

    In addition to the stewardship ministries, I also oversee our food pantry. We have hundreds of volunteers serving about 2000 hours each month. These aren’t people who just come to a rock ‘n roll show every weekend, they are serving the poor in their spare time. They are reaching out in the community and sharing Christ with non-believers and giving of their time and money to do it. That just doesn’t seem like a shallow faith to me.

    Keep challenging people; it’s good for us all to think through what we are doing and teaching. I would just ask that you be careful about assuming all big churches are pulling a bait and switch.

  11. Heather

    It is absolutely true. 80% of Americans call themselves Christians, but I doubt if half of them truly are. So much of the Bible gets watered down, distorted or simply ignored just to please audiences and keep attendance up. I don’t think any priest or pastor can remotely serve the spiritual needs of a thousand people–you wouldn’t even know their names. The “proselytizing” of the evangelical churches is an absurdity. What are they “converting” people from? Another form of Christianity? That’s not conversion–it’s just shuffling.

    The true purpose, I think, of almost all proselytizing is not conversion–that’s impossible, as I mentioned–but to reaffirm group boundaries and increase in-group loyalty. The proselytizer is really convincing themselves. Many groups do it, but it is a form of control and therefore potentially dangerous, especially when used by cults.

    All Christians should lead by example, but the apostles lived in a time when most people had never heard of Jesus. We don’t. To act like we do is just silly, and a bit annoying.

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