The Myth of Inevitable Church Growth

Grow 200cA healthy church does not inevitably mean a numerically growing church.

I used to believe that it did.

After all, I’ve read about the “truth” of inevitable church growth in every church leadership book written in the last 30 years. I even taught it myself.

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

The reason I no longer believe that numerical growth is inevitable for a healthy church has to do with one problem that kept presenting itself…

The evidence stubbornly refuses to back it up. Specifically, this evidence:

  • Some churches grow numerically without being healthy
  • Many churches that stay small are very healthy
  • Many healthy 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 five essential elements of a healthy church – several somethings actually. 

Those “extras” are not the subject of this post, or even of this ministry, so I won’t be outlining them here. But you can find them in any church leadership book on your shelf. They include advanced leadership skills, administrative abilities, cultural realities, fundraising acumen and much, much more. But none of those attributes have anything to do with church health.

This post was selected as one of the #BestOf2013, and was re-posted on December, 30, 2013.


It Takes More than Health

Why are there so many books, seminars and websites devoted to breaking the 100, 200, 400 and 800 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?

Instruction on church growth isn’t just about church health, because everyone knows that numerical church growth – especially continual, mega, explosive church growth takes more than that.

Sometimes, it’s got 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.


My Own Story

Earlier this month, someone wrote a comment on another website where an edited version of one of my posts appeared. I had listed five essential elements of a healthy Small Church, and a reader commented that any church that was following such principles “won’t be small for long.”

While I appreciate the sentiment expressed in that comment, the truth is that many churches who do all the right things do stay small for long. Mine included.

For the last three decades of my pastoral ministry, there hasn’t been a month go by without someone telling me my church was on the verge of explosive growth.

For years I believed them. And as the years dragged on, that expectation 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.


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

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

Yes, we’ve grown in the 20 years I’ve pastored my current congregation. When I arrived, there were about 35 very frustrated, discouraged people attending on Sunday mornings, and today we have about 200 very excited, involved and passionate people attending on Sundays.

As I outline in The Grasshopper Myth, in the last 15 years the growth of my congregation has fluctuated between the low 100s and almost 400. But twelve years ago we had 200 attenders, eight years ago there were 200, two years ago there were 200, and today – you guessed it – there are 200 attenders.

During that time, aside from the era where I nearly killed it, the church has steadily become as healthy, outward-focused, friendly and worshipful as any church I know.

Are we perfect? Far from it.

Have I made mistakes that have hindered possible chances for growth? Undoubtedly.

But my premise for this post isn’t that numerical growth isn’t possible. Just that it isn’t inevitable.


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. 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 essentials needed for 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.


So what do you think? How have you dealt with the myth of inevitable growth?

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(Grow photo from Growinnc • Flickr • Creative Commons)

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6 thoughts on “The Myth of Inevitable Church Growth”

  1. I couldn’t help but picture an Oak Tree as I read this.

    On my way from the coffee house to home or the church building, I pass this majestic Oak. I’ve got no idea how old it is, but I do know that I have been driving past it practically every day for ten years now.

    I can’t tell if it has grown, but it still stands. Through all the seasons of the year, it is holding up, persevering.

    I know it’s not the same size it was ten years ago, but it has always provided shade for the horses in the field, and more than a few squirrels have eaten from it’s fruit.

    I’m thinking that small churches are the Oak trees of the body of Christ, growing strong, healthy and providing where we can!

  2. Good stuff man. I have been wrestling with the idea of “health” not being just numbers and those kinds of indicators. I am wondering, what are the metrics for determining if the Church is healthy in the absence of numerical growth. I have some ideas of my own, but I would like to hear some other ideas from other people.

  3. I think perhaps the reason you have the “explosive growth” push is because of one word:ambition. And ambition can be good and it can be bad. On the good side, you want to increase your influence and share with the world what God has shown you. But perhaps on the bad side you have pastors who love the approval and praise of men.

    Add to this our natural desire to want the nice car and the big house that comes with being a megachurch pastor and you will have most pastors aspiring to be pastor of a large church.

    I think a happy balance is to have a church large enough for the pastor’s family to be provided yet small enough to actually shepherd the body of Christ at a personal level. Influence should come as leaders are trained and sent out, each carrying a part of your ministerial DNA.

    The main thing to do is examine your motives.

    1. I agree, Jay. I’ve seen massive amounts of ambition in small and large church pastors – including me. In both the good and bad ways you’ve mentioned – including me.

      It takes a certain amount of good ambition to want to start a church, lead a church and/or grow a church. As long as the ambition stays the good kind you mentioned, that’s great. But if we don’t constantly guard our hearts, it can turn into pride quickly. And there’s no size of ministry that hasn’t fallen prey to that.

      Thanks for the caution.

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