Growing pains

“Growing pains.” The original idea was that some children experienced leg pain when the kids grew too quickly. Researchers now question whether that’s medically true.

But the phrase is more often used to express a broader truth: with growth comes change, and sometimes, with change comes challenge. It’s as true of human organizations as it is of human bodies.

And that includes the best and most vibrant of congregations.

As we’ve seen in the book of Acts, Luke has been describing the relentless, astonishing growth of the Jerusalem church. Consider the numbers. In chapter 1, there were 120 believers (vs. 15). By the end of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, about 3,000 more were added (vs. 41).

Think about it: what would happen in your church if one fine Sunday, after a particularly compelling sermon, your congregation increased by a factor of 30?

Talk about growing pains.

Luke tells us that the church kept growing. More importantly, despite such rapid growth, there was a family-like loyalty between its members.

But as we’ve seen, all was not perfect. There were internal problems: Ananias and Sapphira tried to deceive the community, seeking prestige and the appearance of sacrificial generosity. Were others tempted to do the same? There were also external problems, as persecution by the temple authorities increased, and the apostles were arrested and beaten.

The trouble described in chapter 6, however, was not as severe. I think of it as the kind of administrative confusion that would come with rapid growth in any organization. I’ll say more about the problem itself in the next post. But for now, I want to “normalize” such growing pains by briefly pointing to the sometimes unanticipated challenges churches face in their quest for numerical growth.

From the congregation’s side, the experience of being in a small church is qualitatively different than being in, say, a megachurch of thousands. And expectations change as churches grow.

A congregation of 100, for example, is more tolerant of the occasional lapses and off-notes of a small volunteer worship team. But a megachurch requires a stage, and techs for light and sound. “Production values” suddenly become a thing, and the congregation will judge the “performance” accordingly — even if they don’t consciously mean to do so.

Visitors to a small church expect a relatively simple service. Afterward, they’re happy to get a doughnut and an unremarkable Styrofoam cup of coffee. Visitors to a megachurch, however, expect more bells and whistles, and a whole smorgasbord of ministry offerings. They go looking for a latte or caramel macchiato.

Most importantly, perhaps, with growth there’s often a shift in ministry involvement. In small congregations with few paid staff, it’s easier to convince people that the church needs all hands on deck. People can see that certain things won’t get done unless they pitch in. In larger, multi-staff congregations, however, it’s easier for people to believe that if there’s a need, someone else has got it covered. Or someone is being paid to do it. Or someone else would do it better anyway.

What about from the pastor’s side? The shepherd with a flock of 100 can know every sheep by name, along with their stories and prayer concerns. The pastor of a congregation of 1,000 cannot, and may be perceived as less personable or more distant.

A small congregation may appreciate their pastor’s homespun entreaties from the pulpit, but a large congregation expects more polish. And pastors who wish to grow their congregations would be wise to consider whether their gifts and skills would mesh with the responsibilities such growth would entail. It’s one thing to be a do-everything solo pastor; it’s another to manage a large paid staff. Pastors who see themselves primarily as preachers may not be ready to be personnel managers or CEOs. They may not want to be.

Change brings challenge. Growing pains are normal.

And they have been since the earliest days of the church. More on that in Sunday’s post.