That might sound like a trick question. Many people would like to see their churches grow. Heck, many pastors would like to see their churches grow.
I’m not here to give anyone Ten Surefire Ways to make that happen. I’m here to ask another question. If you’d like to see your church grow, why?
The accepted logic, of course, is that we want to see more people served and saved. Nothing wrong with that.
Beneath that motivation, however, there often lurks another, less politically correct one. We want to grow because bigger is…well, better somehow.
Pastors of larger churches are often envied by those with smaller congregations. In casual conversation at clergy gatherings, pastors may subtly (or not so subtly?) compete with each other: “What a blessing it’s been to see our congregation grow by over 200 people in the past year! The Holy Spirit is really doing a work in our community. Praise God!”
Yes, it’s possible for that sentence to be uttered in complete humility. But let’s be honest; there’s often a tad of boasting involved, and others know it.
This isn’t just a matter of individual character. We live in a culture that’s obsessed with numbers and the implied social status that goes with them, from attendance in worship services to views and likes on social media. In such an environment, it’s hard not to equate popularity with success.
And pastors want to do work that matters. But their job descriptions are often vague, their responsibilities ever increasing, and the stakes high — and the only concrete markers of “success” that anyone cares about (including those in the hierarchy above them) are numerical.
The result? I’ve had conversations with pastors who have felt deeply discouraged because they were still leading small congregations. To them, that fact alone was a mark of personal failure.
On the surface, a bigger church is assumed to be more successful, even if beneath the surface nobody in the congregation is actually becoming more like Christ. To all appearances, the pastors of larger churches seem to have it made, even if behind the scenes the ministry team is riven by conflict.
Reaching more people with the gospel is good. Helping more people be truly transformed in their character is even better. Adding more names to the church directory, however, or getting more butts in chairs and pews cannot be an end in itself. Sure, everybody “knows” that. But I suspect that we too often take for granted that numerical growth is a sufficient proxy for spiritual growth.
In Acts, the explosive growth of the early church in Jerusalem is a sign that it’s a work of God, a continuation of the ministry of Jesus through the Holy Spirit. But growth is neither an automatic marker of “success” nor an end in itself. Churches can grow for the wrong reasons — like giving people a watered-down, feel-good gospel that makes no demands on their lives.
And as we’ve seen, growth brings change, and change brings challenge. A church of 100 members doesn’t become healthier or better simply because it grows to 200, and indeed, some important aspects of community may be lost if growth is not handled wisely and well.
So do you want your church to grow? Fine. Just be wise about what kind of growth you’d like to see. And take a break to do some prayerful soul-searching if you find yourself playing the numbers game.