De-sizing The Church: The Danger of Idolizing Outcomes

"Though we act and often work hard, it is, after all, not our battle, but the outcome is in his hands. We don’t battle outcomes." Dallas Willard

We’re obsessed with bigness. Enamored with size. Entranced by churches that keep getting bigger. Worried about churches that don’t.

But why? Have you ever met anyone who has left the faith saying, “I wanted to serve Jesus, but the church I attended wasn’t seeing any numerical growth, so I just couldn’t believe anymore?”

Numerical growth doesn’t impress anyone but pastors and church leaders, and lack of growth doesn’t bother anyone but us.

(Adapted from De-Sizing the Church: How Church Growth Became a Science, Then an Obsession, and What’s Next, Chapter 1: The Danger of Idolizing Outcomes.)

Bigger Goals ≠ Bigger Faith

In our skewed approach to church size, we often equate bigger churches with larger faith. In many church growth circles, it’s not unusual to hear claims that setting big goals takes big faith, or even that if your goals don’t scare you or stretch you, they mustn’t be from God. But I have found no biblical basis for it.

Not once did Jesus, the apostle Paul, or any early church leader even hint that we should set numerical goals, let alone that setting larger ones would increase our faith.

According to Scripture, faith is far more likely to be increased when it’s tested through trials (James 1:2‒8), when we love one another (2 Thess. 1:3), when we endure persecution (Revelation 2:19; 1 Thessalonians 3:4‒7), and when we lay aside worry and doubt (Matthew 6:28‒30; 14:28‒31). It’s found in trusting Jesus (Matthew 8:10), hearing wise biblical teachers (Hebrews 13:7), and seeking God (Hebrews 11:6).

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Faithfulness, Not Goal-setting

It’s not that there isn’t correlation between faith and numerical increase. It’s that the order of goalsetting followed by faith-stretching is backwards.

While large goals are nowhere seen to increase our faith, sometimes a growing faith does result in numerical increase. In Acts 2, we read that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved,” not as a cause of greater faith, but as a result of the apostles teaching, the breaking of bread, prayers, signs and wonders, giving to those in need, praising God, and meeting together regularly (Acts 2:42‒47).

We see a similar order of faith followed by blessing in Acts 11:24 where, after Barnabas’s arrival in Antioch to assess their theological integrity, “a great number of people were brought to the Lord.” Then in Acts 16:5 we see faith first, numbers second, as “the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily.”

Goal setting is not the key to growing our faith or increasing the impact of the church. Doing the work of faithful ministry is.

Obviously, some goal setting needs to happen. Sermons are due every Sunday, and projects have time-sensitive tasks. But most of the time, ministry is less about setting goals and more about doing good work, one day at a time.

The Bible regularly demonstrates this balance with admonitions about how we are to walk in obedience to God, including a wealth of instructions about how to live as the church. And it lauds the wise person for planning, while condemning the foolish one for not preparing.

  • Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? (Luke 14:28I)
  • Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed. (Prov. 15:22)
  • On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. (1 Cor. 16:2, ESV)

Planning and preparing are not the same as setting goals and determining outcomes. Outcomes are always in God’s hands, not ours.

  • In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps. (Prov. 16:9)
  • Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails. (Prov. 19:21)
  • Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13‒16, ESV)
  • I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. (1 Cor. 3:6, ESV)

We need to stop idolizing outcomes. Let go of chasing after attendance goals, trying to create a buzz, or doing year-to-year comparisons.

Just be faithful to the work. Day after day, church service after church service, year after year. When it all adds up, you’ll have consistent, faithful ministry that changes lives and honors God.

(Adapted from De-Sizing the Church: How Church Growth Became a Science, Then an Obsession, and What’s Next, Chapter 1: The Danger of Idolizing Outcomes, available now.)


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