“A Healthy Church Will Always Grow” – Or Will It?

health appA friend of mine pastors a wonderfully healthy Small Church.

One of the ministries they have invested in is a partnership with a nearby halfway house for men who have recently come off of drug and/or alcohol dependency. Each week, faithful church members drive 8-10 of these men to and from church.

The people in the church invite these recovering addicts in with open arms and hearts. They befriend them in many ways, including inviting them into their homes for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Through this church, these men receive tangible evidence of the love of Christ during a particularly difficult time of their lives. Many of them come to faith in Christ.

This wonderful, Jesus-style ministry to “the least of these” is just one evidence of the compassion, health and outward-reaching attitude of this great church.

But the loving care they’re showing towards these men has not and probably will never add one single permanent member to the rolls of their church. And it certainly doesn’t add to their financial bottom line.

After all, this is a temporary home for men who have nothing – literally nothing – but the clothes on their backs. When they’re done with this stage of their sobriety, they move away.

This church invests significant amounts of time, friendship, money and other resources into people who will never be able to give anything back to their church – not even to their permanent attendance numbers. But they do it anyway.

That’s a healthy church.


But Doesn’t a Healthy Ministry Mean a Growing Church?

But, wait a minute! I thought all healthy churches grow, don’t they?

Not necessarily.

As I’ve outlined in these previous posts

Numerical church growth is not an inevitable byproduct of a healthy congregation.

There are many healthy churches all over the world like my friend’s church. They invest in people who will never add to the church’s numerical or financial growth. But they are adding to the growth of the kingdom of God.

It’s not that small or large churches are better or worse. Or that churches with such selfless ministries can’t grow. Of course they can. Many do.

My point is simple, but since it’s so counter-intuitive, I’ll repeat it. Numerical growth is not an inevitable byproduct of a healthy congregation.

The key word in that sentence is “inevitable”. 

Sure, there are a lot of numerically growing churches engaging in those kinds of selfless ministries. But church growth is not just the result of healthy ministry. As I’ve written about in my post, Why Some Great Churches Grow Big, But Most Don’t, there are two lists. One list for a healthy church (the Great Commandment and the Great Commission), and one for individual congregational growth, (a long list that includes items like a large donor base, available land, religious freedom, etc.).

Every church can and should do the two items on the first list. Large, healthy, numerically growing churches are doing the things on both lists.

But many churches don’t have some of the assets on the second list. Or they may be called to ministry where the ground is hard. All they have is a group of people with willing hearts to meet the needs of people who will never be able to pay them back.


A Song for the Unsung 

No, this is not being offered as an excuse for not doing everything we can for church growth. In case I haven’t mentioned enough previous posts yet [sigh], I’ve dismissed such no-growth excuses regularly in posts such as, Small Churches Are Not a Problem, a Virtue or an Excuse.

But if you’re pastoring a healthy church that isn’t seeing the numerical growth you expected, hold your head high. Many great churches that are meeting real needs will never see the numerical growth that we’ve been told is inevitable. Lack of numerical growth is not the universal sign of ill-health we’ve been told it is.

Healthy Small Churches should never be second-guessed for their lack of numerical “success”.

They should not be made to feel “less than” for doing thankless ministry.

They should be celebrated.

They should be supported.

They should be honored.

And there should be more of them.


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6 thoughts on ““A Healthy Church Will Always Grow” – Or Will It?”

  1. I see this constantly at our church. We provide food for hungry families, offer gifts and food to needy children at Christmas, and have a huge Fall Festival every year to provide family fun for our community. All this with less than 40 members! Very seldom have I seen any numerical growth from these efforts, but I’d never even consider not doing them. It’s all about Christ’s love being put on display.

  2. This is so very true. We have come to believe it is all about noses a nickels that we forget we are called to grow his kingdom. We are impacting our community and we only run about 23. Which is up from the 6 we had when we came 13 years ago.

  3. While healthy organisms may not always grow in size, they do reproduce themselves. Even the cells that form a healthy organism replicate themselves, replacing cells that have been damaged or otherwise reached the end of their natural life span. A healthy organism is not static. The same is true for healthy churches. While size may be considered as a factor in evaluating the health of a church, it is only one of a range of factors that must be considered. It is not the primary one. This may make the evaluation of church health more complicated but the end result will be is that we will have a more accurate picture of the health of a church, what its strengths and limitations are, and where it may need to make changes.

    Willow Creek and other large churches have found that a large congregation and a high weekly attendance are not necessarily indicative of a healthy church. Yet the notion that they are persists. Its persistence may be related to American culture more than anything else. American culture tends to equate large size with success. Evangelical and non-evangelical Christians are much more influenced by American culture than they may think or are willing to admit.

  4. Forgive me for asking a question that I’m certain has been asked before but your post has me thinking. One of the ways I would qualify a church as healthy would be by its engagement of (and fruitfulness in) making new disciples. Does that necessarily mean tithing members? No. But it does mean addition (numerical growth) of some kind – even if those new disciples move away they are still viable examples of the presence of a healthy church. If I understand you correctly, your calling for new metrics in measuring church health and I’m with you on that one. But my question is this: how does the message of “it’s okay to be small” coincide with a passion to make disciples – an action that “inevitably” means new converts (growth)? Thanks in advance!

    1. Great question, Chris. And yes, I get asked that a lot – and for good reason. If you click on the other posts I mention in this article you’ll find some of my answers to that, but here’s a quick response.

      Aside from the grand cathedrals of Europe (which were more about an unholy alliance between church and state than true conversions) big churches are a very new and very isolated phenomenon. Yet the church has grown relentlessly for 2,000 years. How? Almost exclusively through the multiplication of smaller churches.

      Even today, in places where the church is growing the fastest through conversions, it’s usually about an explosion of smaller congregations. Big- and megachurches are a very new phenomenon – and they’re great! – but they’re not the usual way people come to faith in Christ.

      Just yesterday after church two young people came to me and told me they’re about to leave our church. One to become a medical missionary, the other to plant churches among unreached people groups. That’s a typical result of discipleship in our church. Every time it happens, it’s a negative number for our “church growth” stats, but it’s a net positive for the church as a whole.

      I hope this helps. Those other posts should help too.

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