I have had the privilege to serve as a coach to pastors for over 15 years, and I’ve noticed that it does not take long in the coaching relationship for the topic of church size to come up. I’ve also noticed that some pastors approach church growth with health and wholeness while others struggle with (and because of) church size. If you are a pastor, church planter, or key leader, you need a healthy and theologically sound attitude for dealing with church growth, size, and numbers. To help you develop such an attitude, here are five things to recognize when it comes to church size.
- Growth is not the only good. Some church leaders lack a biblical imagination that would allow them to envision a purpose for their church other than growth. Making growth (or big) synonymous with good is a recipe for disaster because it prevents good from being a higher value than growth. Granted, big and good are not opposites, but there is much more about being a good church than being big. Imagine if you gauged the goodness of your family on numbers – number of family members or size of bank account or some other metric. That would be silly and very unhealthy. Certainly there are numbers you need to look at in order to help your family thrive, but the numbers are not your goal. The same is true for a church – numbers are second and third level concerns, not primary goals with inherent goodness.
- Evangelism may be a mask for egoism. There are many poor reasons to focus on church growth (ego, consumerism, competition, greed, etc.) and only one good reason to give any attention at all to growth: evangelism. The sad fact is that some pastors use evangelism as a cover for what is really nothing more than an ego trip – they say they care about souls saved, while in reality they want the church to grow in order to satisfy their own sense of worth. To be fair, I think the ego-driven needs of pastors are often beneath the surface so that the pastor is not fully cognizant of why exactly they want the church to grow, and sometimes the motives are mixed. So be sure to reflect very deeply and very often on what is driving you to want church growth. To help explore your deepest motivations, you might ask yourself, “If God capped the size of our church at where we are now, how would I practice evangelism?”
- Pegging your sense of worth to attendance will drive you nuts. Pastors who get up when numbers are up also get down when the numbers drop. If you feel more worthy, more loved, more hopeful, and just generally better about yourself and the world when the sanctuary is full, then watch out. Watch out because when the sanctuary is not so full you likely will feel down, pessimistic, less hopeful, and generally worse about yourself and life. If you let numbers dictate your mood, you will be on an emotional roller coaster that makes a teenage girl look like a stoic. Numbers are a terrible thermometer, but an even worse thermostat.
- Growth solves nothing. If you think growth will solve some challenge your church is facing, you are wrong. A leader who thinks that more people, more resources (money!), or more of anything will solve some problem they currently face is interpreting life through something other than a biblical lens. Growth is not the solution, the gospel is. If you think growth will solve your challenges, you are likely focusing on the wrong goals and/or you have a very poor strategy for being a church. There is no biblical evidence for needing more people in order to meet a congregational challenge.
- The litmus test for truth is not growth. I cannot tell you how many times (it’s a lot) I’ve heard a pastor respond to a questionable church practice with something along the lines of, “Yeah, but they must be doing something right.” If we are not diligent, there is a subtle pragmatism that can seep into our ministry, leading us to do only that which works and discarding anything that does not work. The problem is that “works” is shorthand for “works to grow the church.” You could very likely come up with a long list of very bad things that will “work” to increase attendance so my encouragement is to cease using “does it work?” as a way to discern whether a style, strategy, practice or person is of God. By the way, the flip side is equally true: growth is not evidence of heresy. Evidence for heresy is heresy; evidence for truth is truth. If you’re in doubt about these, study the Bible, pray, and read some church history.
My experience with wise church leaders is that they reluctantly embrace growth when it comes, but they do not chase it, they do not fixate on it, and they do not use it as an indicator of anything in any short-term way. They do look at long-term trends to help identify obstacles to effective ministry, and they certainly celebrate the stories of people who experience gospel-centered transformation. For the most part, wise church leaders focus on actual people and celebrate names way more than numbers.
What about you? What have you learned about a healthy approach to church growth, numbers, and church size? Where have you seen it handled well? Not so well?
J. I. Packer:
“I have found that churches, pastors, seminaries, and parachurch agencies throughout North America are mostly playing the numbers game—that is, defining success in terms of numbers of heads counted or added to those that were there before. Church-growth theorists, evangelists, pastors, missionaries, news reporters, and others all speak as if
(1) numerical increase is what matters most;
(2) numerical increase will surely come if our techniques and procedures are right;
(3) numerical increase validates ministries as nothing else does;
(4) numerical increase must be everyone’s main goal.
I detect four unhappy consequences of this.
First, big and growing churches are viewed as far more significant than others.
Second, parachurch specialists who pull in large numbers are venerated, while hard-working pastors are treated as near-nonentities.
Third, lively laymen and clergy too are constantly being creamed off from the churches to run parachurch ministries, in which, just because they specialize on a relatively narrow front, quicker and more striking results can be expected.
Fourth, many ministers of not-so-bouncy temperament and not-so-flashy gifts return to secular employment in disillusionment and bitterness, concluding that the pastoral life of steady service is a game not worth playing.
In all of this I seem to see a great deal of unmortified pride, either massaged, indulged, and gratified, or wounded, nursed, and mollycoddled. Where quantifiable success is god, pride always grows strong and spreads through the soul as cancer sometimes gallops through the body.
Shrinking spiritual stature and growing moral weakness thence result, and in pastoral leaders, especially those who have become sure they are succeeding, the various forms of abuse and exploitation that follow can be horrific.
Orienting all Christian action to visible success as its goal, a move which to many moderns seems supremely sensible and businesslike, is thus more a weakness in the church than its strength; it is a seedbed both of unspiritual vainglory for the self-rated succeeders and of unspiritual despair for the self-rated failures, and a source of shallowness and superficiality all round.
The way of health and humility is for us to admit to ourselves that in the final analysis we do not and cannot know the measure of our success the way God sees it. Wisdom says: leave success ratings to God, and live your Christianity as a religion of faithfulness rather than an idolatry of achievement.”
Packer says that he would like to see Kent and Barbara Hughes’ book, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome, “made required reading for every pastoral aspirant.”
—J. I. Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness: Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah (Wheaton: Crossway, 1995), 207-209.
(HT: Justin Taylor)
The Great Commission is, in many ways, the marching orders of the church, the benchmark by which we measure success. Inherent to the Great Commission is the command to make disciples, which implies two types of growth—width and depth.We are to reach people from every nation on earth. That’s width. We are to make true disciples of them, teaching them to obey all that he has commanded. That’s depth. To be faithful, a church must vigorously pursue both.
Depending on a person’s disposition, however, it is easy to gravitate toward one or the other. It certainly makes decision-making a lot easier. But evaluating success by width alone or by depth alone is both unfaithful and self-defeating.Churches that grow only wide (and not deep) are not growing nearly as wide as they think; and those that grow deep (without caring about width) are not nearly as deep as they think.
1. Width Without Depth Is Unfaithful.
When a church produces converts who aren’t really disciples, the “width” they’ve produced is illusory. Jesus did not command us to make converts, but to make disciples and to teach them all the things he commanded us. I shudder when I hear pastors imply that their task is to just get people “saved and baptized,” and that other people can worry about growing people up in their faith. That is a faulty—and a deadly—view of conversion.
Think of the parable of the seeds (Matt 13:1–9). Jesus warned us that there would be those who appear saved but ultimately fade in the sun or get choked out by thorns. Where are those people? Many of them are in our churches, blissfully relying on a past experience and refusing to go all the way in their faith. Make no mistake: teaching people to walk faithfully with Christ is not a matter of simply bringing people to maturity; it is a matter of salvation.
I am not against counting numbers: Jesus counted them; Acts is full of them; the shepherd in Jesus’ parable was so in touch with his number of sheep that he knew when one was missing. But count and celebrate the right ones, recognizing that heaven counts different numbers than many of our Christian magazines. Heaven counts disciples, not those who merely prayed a prayer, signed a card, or got dunked in a baptismal.
So those who grow wide without also focusing on growing deep are not really growing as wide as they might think. If they are producing only converts and not disciples, then their growth is a charade.
2. Depth Without Width Is Unfaithful.
I know that it is very possible to be faithful to God and to see very little visible fruit, particularly in terms of quantifiable numbers. Many great men and women of God labored (and labor) for years to apparently no avail; I don’t want to disparage their faithfulness in any way. But these people would be the first to admit that while the fruit seemed sparing, their vision was still immense. The gospel teaches you to dream big, and to continue yearning for it even when you don’t see it.
Jesus taught his disciples to think like this. When he called Peter, he did so by bringing in a huge haul of fish and saying, “This is how you will catch men.” And remember, the Great Commission has as its scope every nation on earth. So the question for those of you who are not seeing growth is, Do you desire to see a harvest? Do you weep over the lost of your city—like Paul did, like Jesus did?
Is it possible that you are using an excuse of “faithfulness” to hide a root of unbelief? Perhaps you simply do not believe that God could bring a flood of growth. You would not be prepared for it if it happened. You are skeptical when you hear of growth from others. God’s arm, however, has not grown short. His ear has not grown heavy. He is as moved with compassion as he was the day he cried out for their forgiveness from the cross; and he is as powerful to save as the day he walked out of the grave. So let us follow God faithfully, expecting great things from him and attempting great things for him.
From The Gospel Coalition:
Talk to certain critics of Reformed theology, and you might think something about the doctrines of grace inhibits church growth. Talk to some proponents of Reformed theology, and you might reach the same conclusion.
We—both the pastors up front and the Christians in the pews—assign spiritual value to church size, depending on our background and perspective. We see large churches as a sure sign of God’s faithfulness in some cases, and small churches as a sign of God’s faithfulness in other cases. So what, really, does church size matter?
That’s the question discussed in this video by pastors Kevin DeYoung, Matt Chandler, and Mark Dever. Their friendly banter touches on serious subjects, including:
- the awesome responsibility of giving pastoral account for thousands of souls;
- the urgent need for more ambition to see Jesus Christ change many lives; and
- the practical nightmare of exponential church growth.
They also suggest some helpful resources, no matter your church size. If you’re laboring with all your might and not seeing much fruit, you may benefit from reading about D. A. Carson’s faithful father in Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor. And if you’re serving in a church enjoying a season of rapid growth, you’ll learn from reading Tim Keller on “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics: How Strategy Changes with Growth.”
Watch the full video to learn more about the true marks of church growth and the pride that plagues Christian leaders no matter the size of their ministry.
By Bobby Jamieson:
How do you try to fill up your church building? And what does that say about your belief in the Holy Spirit?
TWO WAYS TO FILL A CHURCH
Nineteenth-century Baptist Francis Wayland suggests that there are basically two ways to fill a church (Notes on the Principles and Practices of Baptist Churches, 43-47). One is to preach in a way that is agreeable and inoffensive to both believers and unbelievers. The other is to preach in a way that highlights the difference between true religion and mere profession, and thus creates a sharp contrast between the church and the world.
The first approach seems reasonable. After all, why would non-Christians come to hear sermons about things they’ve never experienced and can’t understand? Why would non-Christians come to a church that highlights the fact that they are outsiders?
Yet Wayland argues that the price of this approach is far too steep. In order for his preaching to equally please Christians and non-Christians, a minister must “talk of generalities that mean nothing, or the trumpet must give an uncertain sound, so that no one will prepare himself for battle.”
Anticipating the natural objection, Wayland writes, “But it will be said, Are we then to drive away all but the children of God?”
His response compresses volumes of biblical wisdom into a mere five words: “I reply, Is there any Holy Ghost?”
Wayland’s point is that this whole line of thinking assumes that it’s finally up to us to convert people. It’s up to us to get them into the church building. It’s up to us to stir up their interest in the sermon. And it’s up to us to change their hearts and get them to repent and believe the gospel.
Wayland cuts through all of that by asking just whose power we’re depending on for the success of our ministry—ours, or the Holy Spirit’s?
IS THERE A HOLY SPIRIT?
“Is there a Holy Spirit?” I can think of few better questions to ask in order to assess whether our ministry strategies are faithful to Scripture.
You could put it like this: if there were no Holy Spirit, would your ministry work just as well?
What are you trying to accomplish in your ministry? Is that goal something that can be attained without the Holy Spirit?
What means are you using to carry out your ministry? Are they strategies and techniques that sociology, psychology, and common sense can fully explain? Or would your ministry methods prove utterly futile if the Holy Spirit didn’t sovereignly decide to work in and through them?
It’s easy to see, for example, how the promise of wealth will draw a crowd and convert them to your team. Same thing for the promise of better relationships, fewer conflicts, lower stress, or a better self-image. It’s easy to see how consummate presentation, engrossing music, and pleading appeals can generate adherents to whatever cause you’re promoting.
But none of these things need the Holy Spirit to make them work. All those strategies and messages can get along just fine without him.
SPIRIT-DEPENDENT MINISTRY IS WORD-DRIVEN MINISTRY
But let’s put this positively. What does ministry that depends on the Holy Spirit look like?
It looks like preaching to dead people and praying that the Holy Spirit would give life as only he can (Eph. 2:1-3). It looks like shining the light of the gospel as brightly as you can, and praying that the Spirit would give people eyes to see it (2 Cor. 4:6). It looks like aiming for things only the Holy Spirit can give to people: new loves, new hearts, new lives, new selves.
What means does the Holy Spirit use to give new life? God’s Word.
Therefore, Spirit-dependent ministry is by definition Word-centered and Word-driven ministry. Ministry that believes in the Holy Spirit trusts the Spirit-inspired Word to do the work God has promised it will do.
And to return to Wayland, he argues that such Spirit-dependent, Word-driven ministry will in fact fill churches:
If we preach in such a manner that the disciples of Christ are separate from the world, prayerful, humble, earnest, self-denying, and laboring for the conversion of men, the Spirit of God will be in the midst of them, and souls will be converted. The thing will be noised abroad. There is never an empty house where the Spirit of God is present.
Is there a Holy Spirit? There is, and he speaks through the Word. And when he speaks, the dead hear and rise to new life.
(To think more about ministry that depends upon the Spirit to bring new life, check out the new 9Marks Journal on conversion, especially the articles by Jonathan Leeman, Jeramie Rinne, and Owen Strachan.)
From Colin Hansen:
Some churches excel in raising up a large number of disciples. Others are known for their strong quality of discipleship. What accounts for this difference? James MacDonald, Mark Dever, and Matt Chandler discuss in this roundtable video how God has particularly gifted them as pastors and how they relate to other evangelical churches with different strengths.
Chandler talks about what he learned from leading a young church with a swelling number of new converts with few experienced Christians to train them. MacDonald and Dever share how they honor other churches in their area, such as Willow Creek and McLean Bible, even while disagreeing over important aspects of ministry practice. In so doing they demonstrate their belief that the kingdom of Christ in a city is larger than any one church.
Watch as these three pastors explain how they facilitate spiritual depth among church members while trusting God to take care of width of influence.
John MacArthur writes:
The market-driven philosophy of user-friendly churches does not easily permit them to take firm enough doctrinal positions to oppose false teaching. Their outlook on leadership drives them to hire marketers who can sell rather than biblically qualified pastors who can teach. Their approach to ministry is so undoctrinal that they cannot educate their people against subtle errors. Their avoidance of controversy puts them in a position where they cannot oppose false teaching that masquerades as evangelicalism.
In fact, the new trends in theology seem ideally suited to the user-friendly philosophy. Why would the user-friendly church oppose such doctrines?
But oppose them we must, if we are to remain true to God’s Word and maintain a gospel witness. Pragmatic approaches to ministry do not hold answers to the dangers confronting biblical Christianity today. Pragmatism promises bigger churches, more people, and a living church, but it is really carnal wisdom–spiritually bankrupt and contrary to the Word of God.
Marketing techniques offer nothing but the promise of popularity and worldly approval. They certainly offer no safeguard against the dangers of the down-grade toward spiritual ruin.
The only hope is a return to Scripture and sound doctrine. We evangelicals desperately need to recover our determination to be biblical, our refusal to comply with the world, our willingness to defend what we believe, and our courage to defy false teaching. Unless we collectively awaken to the current dangers that threaten our faith, the adversary will attack us from within, and we will not be able to withstand.
(HT: Todd Pruitt)
John Loftness identifies three specific advantages:
- Small forces you to focus on the fundamentals, but with flexibility.
- Small allows you to build one interconnected community.
- Small allows you to expand.
Here are few selected quotes from his message:
“What is a small church? I don’t think it is about numbers. I think it is about relationships. A small church is a church in which every member is able to participate personally with every other member.”
“My purpose is not to advocate for small churches or to label large churches as inherently bad. Both have their strengths and their weaknesses. I am here to address small church pastors. And here is my big point: In a large church the opportunity is excellence, but the challenge is relationships. In a small church the challenge is excellence, but the opportunity is relationships.”
“Small church pastor, my advice to you is to see that your church—by virtue of its size—has tremendous advantages that allow it to further Jesus’ mission in the world. You can build a God-glorifying, gospel-proclaiming community of interdependent people who bear fruit in the world for Jesus. You can do it with wonderful fruitfulness. You are in no way hindered from effectiveness because you are lacking in people or in certain qualities of excellence. Exploit your relational advantages. And in the meantime I would urge you to drop any program-driven, large-church-wannabe mentality that may be filling your dreams.”
Download and listen to the message here.
From CJ Mahaney’s blog.
John MacArthur celebrated 40 years as pastor of Grace Community Church this weekend.
In the book, Stand: A Call for the Endurance of the Saints, MacArthur shares the secret of his success in conversation with Justin Taylor:
Early in my first year or so at Grace Community Church, I had this little kind of motto that I used: “If you concentrate on the depth of your ministry, God will take care of the breadth of it.” My ministry hasn’t changed since that first year in that small, little church. For me, it’s all about getting into the depth of Scripture and my own personal walk with the Lord. Breadth is something that God does. . . .
(HT: Between Two Worlds)