When Church Growth Is The Drug Of Choice

Christian ministry, as a vocation, is inherently susceptible to the subtle but powerful forces of consumerism, celebrityism, and narcissism.

I love the church. I believe in the church. I believe that, despite plenty of flaws that need to be addressed, the church can offer the best solutions to the worst problems in the world when the church is functioning the way Jesus intended.

I want the church to grow and flourish with fresh life. I long to see spiritually disconnected people discover a thriving relationship with God through Jesus and a healthy community that offers soul-level healing and spiritual support.

I also know, as a Pastor who has trudged through the valley of burnout, that church growth can be a powerful drug for a church leader. The temporary “high” of a well-attended event, a high-attendance Sunday, an influx of new members or baptisms, etc. can have a numbing effect that keeps us distracted from the brokenness deep within us that needs to be addressed.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

Most church leaders who have witnessed numerical growth can attest to its power to give us a false sense that all is well. I believe it’s one of the reasons we’ve had to witness so many painful downfalls among leaders of churches that seemed, from the outsider’s perspective, to be healthy and growing.

We’ve sustained a kind of mythos about church growth always being the result of God’s blessing. We tell ourselves that if it’s growing, God must be pleased and the leadership must be healthy. And that would be a false equivalency. Correlation doesn’t always equal cause.

When we were planting a church, we tried to learn all we could from various church planting organizations. There is no shortage of nuts-and-bolts training available. After attending numerous conferences, reading plenty of books, and going through workshops and webinars galore, I concluded that it’s possible to lead a church through a season of impressive numerical growth with very little work being done on the deep, spiritual part of the leader’s life.

I appealed once to a church that often supported church planters. They turned me down because I wasn’t a “high D” on the DISC profile and they “only support ‘high D’s’ because we want guys who can plant large, growing churches quickly.”

Truth be told, if you have a charismatic, winsome personality, good communication skills, and a decent handle on marketing, you can start a church that grows fairly rapidly in a relatively short amount of time even if you’re slowly dying on the inside.

This is never explicitly stated. We’re careful to say things like, “You can’t do this without the Holy Spirit and a lot of prayer…” Sadly, however, too many church leaders are under the impression that their spiritual lives are in great shape because they feel good and successful on a professional level.

In the Meantime

Meanwhile, past trauma in the lives of leaders gets crammed down deep. Marital and relational issues get ignored. Addictions are hidden. Grief is avoided. Identity gets lost. Eventually, the shaky foundation gives way to a crash that leaves rubble and wreckage everywhere.

  • This isn’t fair to communities in which people are trying to trust the church again after witnessing abuses, cover-ups, sexual scandals, and power plays.
  • It isn’t fair to the families of leaders who often are the first to see the signs of burnout and imbalance, but who feel powerless to do much about it.
  • It isn’t fair to the gospel, which deserves to be adorned and presented by people who have walked the broken roads to healing themselves.
  • Most of all, it isn’t fair to church leaders who need help and, instead, are numbed by all of the positive attention on their outward accomplishments.

How We Fix It

What’s the solution? I believe the best solutions to the worst problems in the world will ultimately come from healthy, gospel-saturated, Christlike, kingdom-focused leaders.

  • We need leaders who are willing to stay in touch with other leaders rather than retreat into their own organizational silos.
  • We need to create safe spaces where leaders can open up and share their pain without fear of being harshly assessed as unqualified for doing so.
  • We need to continue to improve our language around counseling, coaching, and mental health. As Charles Spurgeon lectured his students, “We have the treasure of the gospel in earthen vessels, and if there be a flaw in the vessel here and there, let none wonder. Our work, when earnestly undertaken, lays us open to attacks in the direction of depression.”
  • We need to celebrate spiritual strength more than organizational growth.
  • We must be honest about the fact that Christian ministry, as a vocation, is inherently susceptible to the subtle, but powerful forces of consumerism, celebrityism, and narcissism.
  • We must also remember that most pastors and church leaders have good hearts, love Jesus, care about people, and want to see real positive change happen in their communities.

The fact that success, the way the rest of the world defines it, can feed the ego doesn’t mean all successful people are egocentric. It just means we have to be all the more careful about our tendency to numb ourselves to our deep, interior pain by fixing our focus on the more visible prize of numerical growth.

(This article first appeared on Patheos.com.)

(Photo by Michael Coghlan | Flickr)


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