My Church IS Growing, It’s Just Not Getting Bigger

Small tree growing on side of a pyramidBigger isn’t always better.

When pastors ask each other if our churches are growing, the question we’re always – and I mean always – asking is are we getting bigger?

Every year our church fills out a report on the vital statistics of the congregation. If the only thing you knew about our church was what you read in that report, we’d look like we were plateaued at best, and shrinking at worst. Our Sunday attendance has been fairly level for a few years now, and the current worldwide financial challenges have dropped our offerings by about one-third from their peak.

My church isn’t getting bigger. Not by Sunday morning attendance numbers. Statistically, we’re one of those sad, under-achieving plateaued churches that cause denominational officials and church analysts to call emergency meetings to figure out how to fix us.

But we don’t need fixing, because we are growing. We have been for years now. The people in our church are happy and excited to get together, and they’re proud to bring their friends and family members with them.

The building is in use six days every week and seven days most weeks, from about six am to after nine pm. Not for committee meetings (we have very few of those), but for actual ministry. Our Intern House is filled with young people who commit a year or two of their lives to move in and work with us. Marriages are being mended.

Every day of the year dozens of church members work to raise money so they can spend their vacation week on a missions trip to Panama, Zimbabwe, Northern Ireland, et al, instead of lounging on the beach. And I haven’t scratched the surface of what happens in our preschool, daycare, summer camps, retreats and more.

Sometimes what we call a plateau is simply a church reaching its optimal size, then using that size to grow healthful fruit. 

 

Maximum ≠ Optimum

One of the worst things a church can do, once it has reached optimum, is to keep pushing for maximum. But we do that. I did that.

I wanted the church to be better – I still want that – and I was convinced that better meant bigger.

I was wrong.

No church has unlimited resources. Yes, we have a limitless God. But I’m not him. I have limits, and so does my church. It’s not healthy, godly or helpful to push a church to places God isn’t asking it to go in order to meet some artificial numerical standard or stroke the pastor’s ego. Even if we call it faith.

If a church’s optimal size is 150-200, is it fair to say they’ve shrunk if their average attendance drops from 180 to 170 for a while? Have they plateaued if they’ve shifted major portions of their energies into a successful weeknight recovery ministry or outside-the-walls ministry to the poor, but haven’t added butts in the seats on Sunday?

There are many ways to grow, even if your building, your calling, your gifts or your congregational style means you’ll always run Sunday morning numbers that others consider low. The challenge, once that size is reached, is to figure out what growth looks like now.

Can a church be too small and not reaching its potential? Yes. We see examples of it every day, with church buildings sitting empty all week (and mostly empty on weekends too) and having little or no impact on their community.

Can a church be too big, as well as too small? I say yes to that too. Ill-health in a big church is less obvious, but some megachurches are little more than vanity projects for the pastor, status clubs for the wealthy or places that provide a false sense of spiritual security for people who think God takes attendance.

 

Stop Chasing Numbers

Not all growth is numerical. If you’re in a church that’s healthy, where people are growing in their faith, reaching the community, investing in missions and seeing transformed lives and families, it’s shameful, even sinful, to divert our limited attention, money, time, energy and heart away from that into chasing numbers.

We don’t pressure congregation members to reach a “soul quota” of people they must lead to faith in Jesus – at least we shouldn’t do that. Pastors, we should stop pressuring ourselves and our fellow pastors to do it too.

One person may be called by God to participate in reaching thousands of people for Christ, while another believer satisfies the call of God on her life by caring for an aging relative for 20 years so they can pass into the arms of Jesus knowing they were loved by him because they were loved by their family while their frail body was here among us.

Every person and every church has their calling and its corresponding joys and burdens.

God doesn’t take attendance.

 


Taken from The Grasshopper Myth: Chapter 10 – God Doesn’t Take Attendance


So what do you think? Have you ever diverted energy into numerical growth at the cost of genuine ministry? What do you think ministers can do to stop playing the numbers game so much?

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(Tree on Pyramid photo by Thomas Shahan 3 • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

4 thoughts on “My Church IS Growing, It’s Just Not Getting Bigger”

  1. I’m really suspicious that your comment about mega-churches sometimes being vanity projects, may be more true than not. I hope I’m wrong, but I wonder if I’m not. It is something to consider that when a church does grow and the size of the congregation exceeds the building, the decision to move to a bigger location versus planting a new church should carry with it some suspicion. If the church can’t carry on without you, well…that sounds a little like you haven’t put your trust where it belongs.

    When I hear some of the stories about the salaries of mega-church pastors, it makes me wonder if they only heard, but didn’t understand some of the stories in the bible. To be sure, there are some (Rick Warren) who appear genuine, but we hear so much in the press about those who are not, which leads me to another question, how are these mega-churches legally organized? Are they setup in such a way that the founding pastor is essentially the owner, or is it something else?

    I probably shouldn’t say it this way, but I think I prefer a hen that lays lots of eggs to a fat hen. Hope that wasn’t too crass.

    1. I wish it was just megachurches that can become vanity projects for the pastor. Unfortunately, vanity keeps a lot of Small Churches sick and dying, too.

      In both big and Small Churches we need to do a better job at helping churches thrive after a popular pastor leaves. We don’t do that very well. The megachurch examples of that are more obvious than the Small Church examples, but all churches have a problem with it.

      The idea of a little hen laying lots of eggs (no, not too crass) is catching on in a lot of places. Frank Wooden, who endorsed my book, is a great example of that. His church of 100 planted three other Small Churches last year and they have plans for a lot more in the future.

      The bottom line for me is that size is never the issue. Attitude is. And bad attitude can happen in a church of any size.

  2. I’m really suspicious that your comment about mega-churches sometimes being vanity projects, may be more true than not. I hope I’m wrong, but I wonder if I’m not. It is something to consider that when a church does grow and the size of the congregation exceeds the building, the decision to move to a bigger location versus planting a new church should carry with it some suspicion. If the church can’t carry on without you, well…that sounds a little like you haven’t put your trust where it belongs.

    When I hear some of the stories about the salaries of mega-church pastors, it makes me wonder if they only heard, but didn’t understand some of the stories in the bible. To be sure, there are some (Rick Warren) who appear genuine, but we hear so much in the press about those who are not, which leads me to another question, how are these mega-churches legally organized? Are they setup in such a way that the founding pastor is essentially the owner, or is it something else?

    I probably shouldn’t say it this way, but I think I prefer a hen that lays lots of eggs to a fat hen. Hope that wasn’t too crass.

    1. I wish it was just megachurches that can become vanity projects for the pastor. Unfortunately, vanity keeps a lot of Small Churches sick and dying, too.

      In both big and Small Churches we need to do a better job at helping churches thrive after a popular pastor leaves. We don’t do that very well. The megachurch examples of that are more obvious than the Small Church examples, but all churches have a problem with it.

      The idea of a little hen laying lots of eggs (no, not too crass) is catching on in a lot of places. Frank Wooden, who endorsed my book, is a great example of that. His church of 100 planted three other Small Churches last year and they have plans for a lot more in the future.

      The bottom line for me is that size is never the issue. Attitude is. And bad attitude can happen in a church of any size.

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