Church Growth And The Myth Of Inevitability

Many churches won't grow beyond a certain size no matter how healthy they become.

A healthy church does not inevitably mean a numerically growing congregation.

I used to believe that it did.

After all, I’ve read about the inevitability of church growth in virtually every church leadership book written in the last 40 years. I even taught it myself.

I don’t believe it any more. It’s a myth.

Certainly the growth of the church—as in all believers everywhere—is inevitable. Jesus said he’d build it and he has. Relentlessly. Sometimes despite us. For over 2,000 years the church has been the most consistently growing organism in history. And it’s not done yet.

But that universal church growth doesn’t necessarily translate into the numerical growth of individual congregations—even healthy ones.

How can I state that seemingly counter-intuitive fact with such confidence? A simple thing called reality. The evidence stubbornly refuses to back up the idea of inevitable congregational growth

Specifically, this evidence:

  • Some churches grow numerically without being healthy
  • Many churches that stay small are very healthy
  • Many churches don’t grow beyond a certain size no matter how healthy they become
  • There have been healthy churches for 2,000 years, but megachurches are a very recent phenomenon

There’s obviously something else going on that produces church growth in addition to the essential elements of a healthy church. Several somethings actually, including advanced leadership skills, administrative abilities, cultural realities, fundraising acumen, and much, much more.

They are good skills to have. The church needs them. But, while they can be operated in tandem with church health, they’re not necessary for church health.

Numerical Growth Takes More Than Health

Have you ever asked yourself why there are so many books, seminars, and websites devoted to breaking church growth barriers? If growth is inevitable for a healthy church, shouldn’t the instructions for breaking growth barriers be about how to do worship, ministry, discipleship, fellowship, and evangelism better?

Certainly, instruction on church growth has church health at its core, but it isn’t just about church health. Why? Because everyone knows that numerical church growth—especially continual, mega, explosive church growth—takes more than that.

Sometimes the numerical growth of a congregation has nothing to do with us at all. Sometimes God taps a pastor or church on the shoulder and says “I need a really big church here, and I’m picking . . . YOU!” But you can’t sell a book on how to have that happen to you.

It comes down to this. While all healthy things grow, numerical congregational growth is not inevitable, even for a healthy church.

The Myth Isn’t Just Wrong, It’s Dangerous

I spent years trying to fix a church that wasn’t broken. And I nearly broke it and myself in the process.

The unmet expectation of numerical growth laid such a heavy burden on me that it nearly killed my ministry and my very healthy church.

Because growth was not just expected, but was supposed to be inevitable, I got very frustrated when it didn’t happen. So I tried everything I could to fix a problem that didn’t exist. I was convinced my church must be unhealthy in some way I wasn’t aware of because the lack of growth was obvious evidence that there must be something wrong with it.

After all, if all healthy things grow, then the reverse must be true. If you’re not growing, you’re not healthy.

Comfort for Small Churches and Their Leaders

Here’s a truth that many will find hard to swallow, but many small church pastors can take comfort in.

It is possible to have a very healthy church and not see butts-in-the-seats growth as a result of it.

That doesn’t mean you won’t or can’t see growth. You may. Hopefully you will. But it does mean that lack of numerical growth is not, in itself, evidence of an unhealthy church.

Yes, all healthy things grow. But my physical body hasn’t grown beyond 6′ 6″ since I was in my early 20s. That doesn’t mean I stopped being healthy at that point. I still grow. But now I grow in other ways. Spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and more. It’s the same for churches.

If your church isn’t healthy, work on that. Get a better balance among the essential elements of a healthy church.

But if your church is healthy, don’t let lack of numerical growth convince you it’s not.

Keep at it. Dig even deeper into other, more important areas of growth. Reach out, in, up, and down. And thank God for your healthy small church.

(This article is adapted from my book, Small Church Essentials: Field-Tested Principles for Leading a Healthy Congregation of Under 250.)

(Photo by Jason | Flickr)


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