Why Are We So Worried About Church Growth?

In my last article I attempted to answer the following question, “Whose responsibility is church growth?” I answered this question by concluding that this responsibility lies ultimately with God rather than men. I then made several suggestions as to how we might return to this perspective. Still this general discussion gives rise to many other questions, perhaps the most pronounced being, “Why are we so worried about church growth anyway?” and, “Where does the impulse itself come from?” I hope to answer these questions in this essay—what might be called “the questions behind the questions”—that we might gain greater insight into furthering Christ’s kingdom.

Church Growth vs. Kingdom Building

It is our Christian privilege to participate in church growth, for Christ’s command compels us. However, let us remember that church growth is concerned ultimately with kingdom growth. It is not concerned with local growth for its own sake, nor is it concerned with numbers for their own sake. Yet contemporary discussions of church growth are all too often concerned with (1) the local church to the practical exclusion of the universal church and (2) the numbers game.

First, by church growth, what we often mean is actually our church growth. We prefer this for several reasons: It can be seen and measured, and it validates what we are doing. However, this is not biblical. Instead, church growth concerns, not just local congregations, but the universal church. Yes, the local church is a like a suburb of the kingdom, but it is just that, a suburb. It uses its position in a neighborhood to proclaim the Gospel, serve the community, and proclaim social justice. However, many Christians run ashore when they focus on building their kingdoms (their local church) to the practical exclusion of Christ’s (His Church). We must remember that God’s kingdom is much bigger and grander than anything the local church can accomplish, and ultimately that is the point. Remember, it is Christ who will build His church, not men who will build their churches.

A second problem with church growth discussions is our emphasis on the numbers game. We are more concerned with attendance than we are souls. We have succumbed to the lie that “more is better,” and that true cultural influence requires us to have more people. Such notions are perpetuated by consumerism and a market-driven approach to church growth. We toy with the latest “strategies,” and have essentially made a game out of church. Meanwhile, the lost sit in our pews, are destined for hell, and have no idea that we have cheapened the Gospel. We have chosen instead to participate in a charade of numbers and figures.

However, we must remember that numbers do not equal success in God’s eyes. Recall the ministries of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and even Christ. Their ministries had little-to-no numerical impact yet they did more to actually set forth of a vision of God’s coming kingdom than many others who do have numerical success. In fact Christ’s ministry drove many away. Christ never set up church with a grand cathedral, multi-purpose building, light show, or edgy sermon title. He ministered to people where they were, and He never changed His message of repentance, forgiveness, and faith. Thus the kingdom-mindset is not about jumping on the latest trend-driven bandwagon to lure more people through the church doors. It is about advancing Christ and the pure message of His saving Gospel.

Christ’s Example

“How did Christ treat these questions?” you might ask. Throughout the course of His earthly ministry, many people turned from following Him. Certainly He had both small and large groups of disciples who followed Him—the twelve and the seventy, for example. Even so, through the course of His ministry Christ’s disciples left Him. Some left because they could not endure His message, and some because He would not provide them what they wanted. For example, we see in John 6:66 that “many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” These left because they could not endure His hard teachings.

Other disciples, however, followed Jesus because of what He could do for them. Though they could endure His message, they followed Him only as long as they benefited from His ministry (i.e. healing, miracles, crowds, popularity). People in our society are this way. They follow Christ so long as they benefit from Him. The church has presented Christianity as more about what a generic “God” can do to make my life better—and church growth has fallen into the same category. Oak Hills Church of Folsom CA pastor, Mike Lueken discovered this. He exclaims,

We had used the axiom ‘the message never changes but the methods always change’ as a defense for the unconventional, seemingly innovative methods we employed to try to communicate the gospel in our seeker days. Yet in understanding the gospel centered kingdom growth, we began to question this split between message and method. There is a symbiotic relationship between the message and the methods we use to preach it—the methods we use are part of the message. The style and strategy of the church shapes the message that people hear [1].

As explained by Lueken, we must use proper methods to convey proper messages.  Although we may try to divorce the method from the message, thus differentiating between the two, the truth is that they go together.

“What does this have to do with Christ and His disciples?” you ask. Christ’s method is our standard. What was this method? He made disciples of a small group of individuals, that they might multiply themselves in the lives of others and take the unchanging message to the ends of the earth. This is our standard, our example. Nevertheless, we have tossed this idea out of the window. We have changed the method and compromised the message. We have made an attractional train wreck of worship services by focusing on the felt-needs of the sinner, rather than the Savior, and the methods we use rather than the message we cling to. Through this the church has developed a smorgasbord of options available in order to accommodate people’s perceived needs. And some of them have no business being categorized with Christianity, let alone a church! Yet they take center stage in many churches.

Clarifying My Heartbeat

It would be easy to misunderstand what I am arguing for. I am as concerned about the lost as anyone. I strive to be a dedicated disciple of Christ, husband, father and pastor. And I rejoice at a lost soul who repents of their sins and places their faith in Christ alone as their Lord and Savior. Thankfully, we have seen God’s hand of blessing in both numerical and spiritual growth in the local churches I have served. However, my fear is that we all are often too proud of personal numerical accomplishments, rather than being servants who preach salvation to the lost for the sole purpose of Christ’s glory.

Instead of focusing solely on numbers, we should focus on being effective in our preaching, diligent in discipleship, and humble in the pursuits of holiness. We focus on being bigger and more alluring; instead we should focus on administering the ordinances faithfully and promoting sound doctrine. If one observes society today, promotion and church growth have taken precedence over Gospel-driven, kingdom-building ministry. Yet even a quick look at the church’s history will reveal that this ecclesiological balance did not go awry until the twentieth century. The differences in church growth and kingdom building have left Christians and non-Christians alike scratching their head seeking answers.

The Answer?

The answer to these concerns is simply asking whose glory we seek. When man seeks to build his church, the glory, praise, accolades, and sense of accomplishment is easily attributed to him. This garners pride and honor for the pastor, church people, or local congregation. And this is where things have gone awry. The church is not, nor has it ever been, about bringing more glory and honor to men. It has always been, and will always be (whether we do so or not) about bringing complete glory to God.

Our ultimate goal in life is to bring glory to our Father. Our means and methods within congregations may be different, just as the talents and abilities of individuals are different, but our goal must be the same. For if our purpose is not supremely underlined by this motive, then whatever we try to accomplish will be lost. We must remember that church growth is about kingdom building, and we must not be too concerned with numbers. In conclusion, worrying about church growth is useless, for the growth of the local church is ultimately about the kingdom, and about glorifying the God who reigns in it.

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[1] Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken, Renovation of the Church: What Happens When A Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2011), 57.

For Further Reading:

Rainer, Thom S. Surprising Insights From the Unchurched (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 2001.

Rainer, Thom S. The Book Of Church Growth:  History, Theology, and Principles. (Nashville, B & H Publishing), 1993.

Reid, Alvin. Radically Unchurched. (Grand Rapids, Kregel), 2002.

Author: Ryan Johnston

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5 Comments

  1. Hey bro,

    Thanks for this!

    A few questions for you:

    1. I have heard some say that numbers are important because numbers represent souls. Is there a way to use numbers and be concerned about how many are attending and are involved in a healthy way? On the flip side, is it possible to minister and for a church to function without counting people at all? Is there any potential downfall to this?
    2. What are some practical steps a church could take to move away from being so concerned about church growth in the wrong kind of way?

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  2. Jacob,

    thanks for your comment. I always apprecaite your readership and interaction regarding spiritual matters. I will try to answer your questions from a personal standpoint. Please realize these are my personal feelings.

    1. I have heard some say that numbers are important because numbers represent souls. Is there a way to use numbers and be concerned about how many are attending and are involved in a healthy way?

    Yes I believe fully and whole heartedly that you MUST be concerned about people’s souls. And I know and understand that by ‘counting’ the attendees you have an understanding in a healthy way the representation of souls. However, my fear is that we put too much emphasis on numbers, attendees, or people in the pews, and much less emphasis on how God is properly glorified by the souls who worship Him.

    I can look out and lecture to people all day, but my calling is to preach God’s word to souls destined for eternity, however many that may be whether 10 or 1000. How you view people essentially – as souls or just numbers will determine, I believe, in the end your emphasis. Yet far too many churches and individuals will overemphasize numbers, while deemphasizing (whether purposefully or not- sometimes its just a result) the glorification of God through His word, the ordinances, the preaching, etc.

    On the flip side, is it possible to minister and for a church to function without counting people at all? Is there any potential downfall to this?

    There are potential downfalls to many things in ministry. In a round about way it goes back to my statement prior. If our minds are on numbers – not the souls of people and not the glorificaiton of God, no matter what you do there will be downfalls.

    2. What are some practical steps a church could take to move away from being so concerned about church growth in the wrong kind of way?

    The only practical steps I have found are not necessarily “practical” as garnished by the world’s standards. Our concern MUST be on God and on His kingdom advancement. When we falter from taking our eyes off of the big picture of what He is doing, we often succumb to focus on our individual selves, our individual churches, and our individual ideas. Rather than the gospel mandate for the church universal coupled with kingdom advancement through preaching and teaching God’s Word. Faith does not come through the church. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. Healthy, practical, sustained, life changing, soul converting, kingdom minded, God glorifying growth is biblically saturated growth. The old adage, its not about me (my church, my numbers, my growth strategy) it’s all about God, is as practical a statement as I can think of.

    Love you friend, thanks for the comment.

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  3. Ryan,
    Thanks for your article – I enjoyed reading it.

    I believe the answer is two-fold. Yes, seek to give all the glory to God. Then to get about His task of preaching the Gospel among the lost. Acts 11:21 says, “the Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” This spiritual awakening happened as faitful Gospel preachers went to the lost and proclaimed the good news. We need more workers in this harvest.

    Blessings!

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    • Ron,

      AMEN!!! You are absoulutely correct! Seeking His glory, then be about His business. As a pastor, Christian, and brother in Christ -I could not agree more.

      God Bless my friend,

      Ryan

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  4. The tension between being numbers conscious and being numbers centered is always difficult to deal with. I remember hearing Jerry Falwell speaking of the tension between the doctrines of election and free will. He stated that the Bible is clear that election is true, but that he had noticed that the more people he witnessed to the more it seemed were part of the elect. I think this observation applies to the tension of numbers. Our focus should be on honoring God and spreading the gospel. But I think we will find that the numbers will be there if we do these things.
    Terry Reed
    Small Church Tools

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