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?