#BestOf2013: What If We Made Disciples and Left Church Growth to God?

Imagine all the time, money and resources that have gone into teaching church growth in the last 40 years or so.

I know it will sound naïve, maybe even heretical to many church leaders, but has anyone thought about what the world would look like today if all that effort had been invested exclusively in church health instead?

Is it possible that if the church had prioritized health, not as a means to growth, but as an end in itself, we would be in a greater position to represent the Gospel to the world?

We’re often told that one of the reasons so many churches remain small is lack of faith. But I wonder… could it be that the reverse is true? Might our obsession with bigger and bigger churches be rooted in a greater lack of faith?

Have we been afraid that God might not do his part (building his church) if we’d simply be faithful to do our part (making disciples)? Is it possible that the glut of church growth books, seminars and classes in the last few decades been our attempt to help God do his job?

This article was originally posted on May 6, 2013, when we had less than 20% of today’s readers. I think it’s worth a second (or first) look as one of the overlooked #BestOf2013.

If you’re new to NewSmallChurch.com, I need to restate that I’m not against big churches and I don’t idealize Small Churches. I’m just wondering out loud if all our church growth strategies, instead of producing more big churches, have diverted our limited resources away from what should be Our #1 Priority – making disciples who produce healthy churches, no matter what size they are.


Health Isn’t Easy

And no, this is not me naively thinking “just preach the Word and the seats will be filled.” First, I’ve been in ministry long enough to know that a healthy church takes a lot more than good preaching. And second, I’m not saying health will bring bigger numbers to individual congregations.

What I’m saying is that we need to prioritize discipleship and church health. And I wonder if we might be able to do that better if we put all our energy there instead of worrying about how big the church is. 

Healthy churches are hard work. At minimum, a pastor has to:

  • Manage, if not master a wide variety of leadership skills
  • Keep them coordinated within a small margin or error
  • All at the same time
  • Over a long period of time
  • With volunteer labor

Many pastors are asked to do all that and more, often as a second job, sometimes with no permanent facility. And even if they manage all that, they’re still considered a failure by many people if the church doesn’t also hit certain benchmarks for consistent numerical growth.

It’s a burden few people can bear. No wonder the burnout rate for pastors is so high.


What If…

What if we’d spent at least some of our time in the past few decades preparing ministry students for the likelihood that they’ll be pastoring a Small Church for some, if not most of their ministries?

What if we’d taught them how to pastor those Small Churches well, instead of insisting they had to make the church bigger?

What if all the money that’s been lost in failed building projects and big events had gone into local church outreach and quality ministry?

How many church startups failed because they expected a level of numerical growth that 80-90% of churches will never reach?

How many pastors have quit in discouragement because they weren’t able to measure up to a church growth ideal that God may never have been calling them to?

How many big churches have collapsed, and may yet collapse because they weren’t able to transition from the dynamic church-building pastor to the next generation of leadership?

How many Small Churches close every day because they never were healthy to begin with?


What Would a Health-Based Church Look Like?

If we’d concentrated our efforts on health, and let God take care of the growth, what would the evangelical church look like today?

No one knows, of course, but here’s what I suspect:

  1. We’d probably have about the same percentage of mega to big to Small Churches that we have today, but there would be a lot more healthy ones – of all sizes.
  2. Fewer pastors would have left the ministry in discouragement.
  3. Fewer churches would have been ruined by pastors trying to push them to reach numerical goals they were never meant to pursue.
  4. Fewer congregation members would have felt overlooked by a pastor in pursuit of “the next big thing”, and would be serving God with greater joy.
  5. More Small Churches would be healthy, innovative and vibrant instead of poor, struggling and discouraged.
  6. There would be more cooperation and less competition between churches.
  7. Unchurched people would have a greater variety of outward-looking, healthy churches to choose from. Of all denominations, styles and sizes.


Here’s a Crazy Idea

If health really does bring growth, why don’t we concentrate on church health, and let God take care of the growth?.

We gave church growth principles a forty-year test drive. Some good things – and churches – have come from it. And some not so good.

What if we gave church health principles the next forty years? I say we give it a shot.


So what do you think? Have you ever thought about the idea that if we concentrate on health, God will bring the growth? How does this affect the way you minister?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(Priority photo from Robert S. Donovan • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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6 thoughts on “#BestOf2013: What If We Made Disciples and Left Church Growth to God?”

  1. Great word for pastors of both large and small churches. Recently I was privilged to participate in an exercise at our denominational Bible College. Students were to present a job description for their dream ministry and along with three other pastors, I was to interview them as if they were looking for a position. Two things were evident, first there is an incredible passion in today’s students for ministry. Secondly, they have no plan to pastor a traditional church as traditional pastors. It was also apparent, that the idea of ministry in a small place appeared to be a foreign idea to those students. My prayer is that God would present an opportunity to help train, disciple, and prepare young people for minsitry in the smaller place which represents 42 percent of churches in the PAOC.
    Thanks again for the great encouragement Karl.

    1. Thanks, Ralph. Quite frankly, those results from young ministry students shouldn’t surprise us. Ministry in a small church and/or town wasn’t in my mind when I was a ministry student either.

  2. Having pastored for some time, I believe church health may be just the thing. I have done it all. And, when I say all I mean “all” from cleanup to preaching and from worship to teaching. Coming from a large church with numbers being the focus I can truly say that the numbers game is predominant in the minds of most ethnic churches.

    I think that there needs to be resources and when I say resources I don’t mean another christian celebrity conference, but a reservoir . Most pastors are not part of a larger group and need to be informed of other concepts of church that what we see on tv. How to refocus? How to health check and what to do when I find a problem? What are the best church set ups? When can I consider myself full time? The comparisons are great but where are the how too’s?

    I am considering relocation but not pastoring again. I have a passion for it and I have now years in ministry but I’m not sure I really want another small group. As I now am in my 50’s I would like too see more leadership participation. My focus is now to disciple in doctrine and life skills. If I had to cook, clean and bottle wash in one more church I would go bonkers! However, if there was a template or maybe a healthy group of colleagues that I could share thoughts and information, that kind of fellowship would be beneficial and a blessing to me as an individual.

    And, with all the technology available today, an intimate setting would be possible from our very homes. Burnout, has a symptom, a lack of choices. That sounded better than ignorance. Bigger is not always better but smaller can be a chokehold. Healthy must be it, so what are the parameters? How are they measured? And, what are the methods that can be implemented to effect such health?

    I’m ready to learn and share, that’s my gift to the body of Christ. And, maybe through this effort we can save some great churches and great “pastors” as well.

    1. Wow, Leon. There’s a lot of your life, your passion and your frustration in that comment. I’m the same age as you and I recognize a lot of it.

      Your desire to get out of the “chokehold” that smallness can bring, really resonates with me. One of the reasons I wrote my book and started this blog is that I, like you, looked for those answers, but didn’t find what I needed, either. So I decided to tell my story, my questions and my scattered ideas to as many people as possible and see what happens.

      That’s what this website, book and ministry are all about. A place where we can share, learn, grow and encourage each other. And, like you say, maybe our combined efforts can be used by God to save some great churches and pastors from the burnout and collapse too many have experienced.

      Thanks for pitching in. Right now I have no plans except to keep the dialog open and see where it takes us.

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