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.