Growing a Bigger Congregation Is Hard, Rare and [Gasp!] NOT a Biblical Mandate

YeCrowd Sauces, you read that title correctly. There is no biblical mandate for congregations to grow larger.

Plus, it’s very hard work. That’s why big churches are so rare.

I know it feels counterintuitive to read that. It felt strange to write it – a little naughty, actually. But it’s true.

As I’ve written before, no New Testament apostle ever told a church they needed to get bigger to fulfill the Great Commission. Neither did Jesus.

They told sinful churches to repent, they prayed that suffering churches would endure and they helped sick churches get well. But neither Jesus or the apostles ever told a Small Church to get bigger.


The Growth of THE Church Is Essential

The bible is very clear that we are to make disciples. That’s not an option or a side issue. It’s The Great Commission, not The Voluntary Suggestion.

So the growth of the church is absolutely a commandment, a mandate and a commission. 

That’s why I celebrate when I hear of 10,000 people worshiping in one big church. But I also celebrate when I hear about 10,000 people worshiping in 100 smaller churches.

As long as people are coming to Jesus, why do we care about the size of the buildings they’re meeting in? Isn’t an increase in the number of healthy smaller churches as much a cause for celebration as an increase in the size of an individual congregation? As long the increases for both are due to conversions, that is.

For four decades, we’ve been told that if your church is not growing numerically, you’re failing. But that denies so much evidence. Evidence that very clearly indicates that growing a big congregation is not inevitable. It’s not common. And it’s not required by God to be a faithful pastor.

Let’s look at the three aspects of my title in reverse order, starting with the most important point first.


1. Growing a Bigger Congregation Is Not a Biblical Mandate

Building the church is clearly Jesus’ job, not ours. Jesus said “I will build my church”. But he did not say “I will build bigger churches.”

As Greg Laurie wrote in a recent blog post entitled, 4 Dangerous Church Growth Myths,

A careful reading of Acts 2:42-47 shows the early church didn’t make bigger and better their business. Instead, they focused on five priorities: worship, prayer, evangelism, learning and loving.

The passage ends with the words, “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (KJV). The first church didn’t have a problem with growth because God took care of the growth as they took care of honoring His principles.

Church growth is ultimately God’s business, not ours to control.

Two points are very important to remember in that Acts 2 quote:

First, it says “the Lord added to the church daily.” Not us.

Second, it says “the Lord added to the church daily.” To the church. Not necessarily to my congregation.

Let’s stop mis-reading that Acts 2 quote through our church-growth-obsession lenses. When we’re obedient to God’s clear commands, his church will grow. But that won’t necessarily mean an increase in the size of a specific congregation. Historically, it has always meant an increase in the number of smaller churches. In many places it will mean an increase in both.

That combination of small and large churches is probably what happened following the Day of Pentecost. As I wrote in The Grasshopper Myth,

There are those who “know” that the early church consisted only of house churches, and those who “know” with equal certainty that the church was founded on an instant megachurch. The instant megachurch idea comes, of course, from the Acts 2 narrative which tells us that on the day of Pentecost, the birthday of the church, there were 3,000 added to the church. Bam! Instant megachurch, right?

Not so fast.

At least sixteen nations, provinces and/or ethnic groups were represented in the Day of Pentecost crowd.

Adding Jerusalem as a seventeenth group, that’s an average of 180 people from each region. Presumably most of them went back to their homes within days.

Assuming there was a much larger representation from Jerusalem, the average number of people from those other regions drops even smaller, making it likely that many churches in those areas were made up of little more than the “two or three” Jesus referred to.

And while it is possible, even likely, that Jerusalem started with a large church of over 1,000 people, we have no idea if they met in smaller groups, all in one place or in a combination of large and small groups. So it’s quite possible that when the church met to worship around the world in the weeks following the Day of Pentecost, the percentage of mega, to big, to mid, to small, to house churches may not have been much different than it is today.

God has always used churches of all sizes. So church growth is a biblical mandate. But congregational numerical growth is not.


2. Growing a Bigger Congregation Is Rare

The numbers don’t lie. (And yes, numbers do matter. They’re just not the only thing that matters. And they need to be used correctly.)

Despite four decades of teaching and practicing church growth principles, the percentage of believers has not increased in the communities where megachurches predominate. And, even though the number of them continues to grow, megachurches still remain the rare exception in church life, not the norm. A wonderful exception, but an exception, nonetheless.

90% of the churches in the world are still under 200 people. 80% are under 100. The average attendance is somewhere around 50 people. Even in the United States, home of 80-90% of the world’s megachurches, the average church size is about 75 people.

So why are big congregations so rare? There are a lot of reasons, which we’ll debate on this website and elsewhere for years to come. But it’s not because the leaders of those churches aren’t passionate, prayerful or wise. Here’s one reason.


3. Growing a Bigger Congregation Is Really Hard Work

Leading a congregation into consistent, healthy, numerical growth is ridiculously hard to do. No matter how smart or holy the leadership is.

Small Churches aren’t small because the pastor doesn’t care. I’ve met a lot of Small Church pastors. And I can count on one hand the number of them that are faithless, inadequate, settling or inward-focused.

So, why are there so many Small Churches? Because, despite what we’ve read in all those “Here’s Why You Church Isn’t Growing” lists, there are no simple steps to getting a church to grow or keeping that growth consistent. That’s why I wrote my post, Please Stop Writing “Here’s Why Your Church Isn’t Growing” Lists – They Don’t Help.”

The logistical complexities of growing and maintaining a mega congregation take a combination of administrative skills and resources on a par with building a Superbowl-winning NFL franchise. Not everyone can do that. Very few are called to do that.

Most pastors are not capable of building or maintaining a mega congregation. Including me. Telling us we can – let alone that we should – is neither true nor helpful. We all know it. Let’s admit it.

But that’s OK. It’s not that Small Church pastors have lesser skills and gifts. It’s that we have different ones. Most of us aren’t called to pastor a mega congregation. So let’s get better at pastoring the smaller congregations we are called to pastor and stop worrying about a task we’re not called to do.

Maybe it’s time we started looking at church growth in a new way. Or the old way.


Jesus Didn’t Ask Us to Gather Crowds

The good news is that bigger congregations are not required in order for the church to grow.

Take a look around the world. For 2,000 years the church has grown, both in raw numbers and as a percentage of the worldwide population, on a relentlessly consistent basis. Even today, Christianity remains the world’s fastest-growing religion. Even (especially?) in places that have few or no large congregations.

But here’s a truth most people don’t realize. The growth of the church is most often done through a multiplication of healthy Small Churches, more than by increasing the size of individual congregations.

In fact, it could be argued that big and megachurches tend to prosper, not in places where the church is growing, but almost exclusively in places where there are enough financially prosperous believers to fund them.


Being Small Doesn’t Mean Settling for Less

Are you a faithful pastor? I have some good news for you.

If your church is small, it isn’t because you’re

  • not praying hard enough
  • not applying the proper principles
  • not working enough hours
  • failing God and your congregation

You’re not disappointing God in some unknown way if your Small Church is healthy, worshipful, loving, outward-looking and community-impacting, but isn’t seeing the numerical growth you expect. As I wrote in “Why Some Great Churches Grow Big, But Most Don’t“, there are two lists. One for a healthy church, one for a big church. The lists aren’t mutually exclusive, but they don’t overlap.

No church should ever settle. Settling is sin. But if you’re not settling, relax.

If hard work, passion and applying the right principles was all it took to have consistent, numerical church growth, there’d be a lot more big and megachurches than there are. Including your church. And mine.

Jesus isn’t asking you to grow your church. That’s his job. And he’s doing it quite well.

He’s asking you – and me – to be faithful with what we have. To invest our talent, not bury it. To stay passionate, not settle for less.

And to be content, but never complacent in our calling.


So what do you think? Have you been operating under the false assumption that growing a bigger congregation is a biblical mandate?

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(Crowd Sauce photo from • Flickr • Creative Commons)

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11 thoughts on “Growing a Bigger Congregation Is Hard, Rare and [Gasp!] NOT a Biblical Mandate”

  1. Thanks Karl for this word of encouragement. Your point that we are to be faithful with what we have is well taken.Small church pastors sometimes feel like a failure because their churches are not numerically growing like others say they should be. The pressure to grow the church numerically can become very stressful. May God give us peace and joy in serving the people he has called us to shepherd or under shepherd remembering Jesus is the shepherd of his own church. He brings the increase.

  2. I love to ruffle a few feathers myself! This is another article that is point on! Of course this type of thinking may conflict with the many church growth/coaches that are hard at the lecture circuit today. I love the picture with the hot sauce! I think of the many times we have been told how to scratch people where they itch in order to increase attendance. I have never been much of a scratcher personally, except for my loyal dog. I am glad scratching him does not increase the dog population in my house!

    1. Hi Dan. Thanks for the kind words. On the issue of scratching people where they itch, Greg Laurie addresses the problems with that really well in the article I quoted. It’s worth clicking on the link and reading what he has to say about it.

  3. Small churches can be sinking fast, struggling, stable, strong, and/or soaring…and maybe all of these at one time if you look at some of the small pieces. Small has never been enough of a descriptor. Pastoral leadership will be more faithful and fruitful if one adapts one’s leadership to the small plus framework.

  4. This perhaps one of the best article that I have read. This spoke volume to my heart and spirt. It is my prayer that God will bless me with the strength I need to continue the work as pastor of a small church.

    1. Absolutely agree, A.B.! So much of what Karl articulated has been rolling around in my brain/heart for a long time. Thanks, Karl, for sharing such great ideas and passion!

  5. I am a pastor of a small church. These articles are the best I have read concerning small churches. Very encouraging. Thanks.

  6. Pingback: Rick Warren’s Surprising Video On Church Size & Attendance | New Small Church

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