What If We Made Disciples and Left Church Growth to God?

priority 200cImagine all the time, money and resources that have gone into teaching church growth in the last 40 years or so.

I know it will sound naïve, maybe even heretical to many church leaders, but has anyone thought about what the world would look like today if all that effort had been invested exclusively in church health instead?

Is it possible that if the church had prioritized health, not as a means to growth, but as an end in itself, we would be in a greater position to represent the Gospel to the world?

We’re often told that one of the reasons so many churches remain small is lack of faith. But I wonder… could it be that the reverse is true? Might our obsession with bigger and bigger churches be rooted in a greater lack of faith?

Have we been afraid that God might not do his part (building his church) if we’d simply be faithful to do our part (making disciples)? Is it possible that the glut of church growth books, seminars and classes in the last few decades been our attempt to help God do his job?

If you’re new to NewSmallChurch.com, I need to restate that I’m not against big churches and I don’t idealize Small Churches. I’m just wondering out loud if all our church growth strategies, instead of producing more big churches, have diverted our limited resources away from what should be our main priority – making disciples who produce healthy churches, no matter what size they are.

This post was selected as one of the #BestOf2013, and was re-posted on December, 28, 2013.


Health Isn’t Easy

And no, this is not me naively thinking “just preach the Word and the seats will be filled.” First, I’ve been in ministry long enough to know that a healthy church takes a lot more than good preaching. And second, I’m not saying health will bring bigger numbers to individual congregations.

What I’m saying is that we need to prioritize discipleship and church health. And I wonder if we might be able to do that better if we put all our energy there instead of worrying about how big the church is.

Healthy churches are hard work. At minimum, a pastor has to:

  • Manage, if not master a wide variety of leadership skills
  • Keep them coordinated within a small margin or error
  • All at the same time
  • Over a long period of time
  • With volunteer labor

Many pastors are asked to do all that and more, often as a second job, sometimes with no permanent facility. And even if they manage all that, they’re still considered a failure by many people if the church doesn’t also hit certain benchmarks for consistent numerical growth.

It’s a burden few people can bear. No wonder the burnout rate for pastors is so high.


What If…

What if we’d spent at least some of our time in the past few decades preparing ministry students for the likelihood that they’ll be pastoring a Small Church for some, if not most of their ministries?

What if we’d taught them how to pastor those Small Churches well, instead of insisting they had to make the church bigger?

What if all the money that’s been lost in failed building projects and big events had gone into local church outreach and quality ministry?

How many church startups failed because they expected a level of numerical growth that 80-90% of churches will never reach?

How many pastors have quit in discouragement because they weren’t able to measure up to a church growth ideal that God may never have been calling them to?

How many big churches have collapsed, and may yet collapse because they weren’t able to transition from the dynamic church-building pastor to the next generation of leadership?

How many Small Churches close every day because they never were healthy to begin with?


What Would a Health-Based Church Look Like?

If we’d concentrated our efforts on health, and let God take care of the growth, what would the evangelical church look like today?

No one knows, of course, but here’s what I suspect:

  1. We’d probably have about the same percentage of mega to big to Small Churches that we have today, but there would be a lot more healthy ones – of all sizes.
  2. Fewer pastors would have left the ministry in discouragement.
  3. Fewer churches would have been ruined by pastors trying to push them to reach numerical goals they were never meant to pursue.
  4. Fewer congregation members would have felt overlooked by a pastor in pursuit of “the next big thing”, and would be serving God with greater joy.
  5. More Small Churches would be healthy, innovative and vibrant instead of poor, struggling and discouraged.
  6. There would be more cooperation and less competition between churches.
  7. Unchurched people would have a greater variety of outward-looking, healthy churches to choose from. Of all denominations, styles and sizes.


Here’s a Crazy Idea

If health really does bring growth, why don’t we concentrate on church health, and let God take care of the growth?

We gave church growth principles a forty-year test drive. Some good things – and churches – have come from it. And some not so good.

What if we gave church health principles the next forty years? I say we give it a shot.


So what do you think? Have you ever thought about the idea that if we concentrate on health, God will bring the growth? How does this affect the way you minister?

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(Priority photo from Robert S. Donovan • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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8 thoughts on “What If We Made Disciples and Left Church Growth to God?”

  1. I love posts that make me think, make my thoughts chaotic, and force me to be disciplined towards my reply. So, good post! Dead-on.

    Your point here, I share: What do I care how big any church is? Aren’t they exactly the size that God decided they should be in his plan? If he wants one to be big, he’ll grow it. And if he wants it to be small, he’ll shrink it. And if he likes it just the size it is RIGHT NOW, Baby-bear….he’ll leave it exactly the size it is!!!! But, it will always be the size HE wants it to be.

    Likewise, as a pastor, God will provide the gifts he wants you to have to serve the purpose in your church he wants you to fulfill. What’s next, seminars that count spiritual gifts, I have 6, you have ten, and to be a mega-church pastor you need to have at least twelve? Tell me please that hasn’t happened!

    I hear a parallel in all of this to John 21:22 when Christ is talking to Peter and says “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Point being as you stated, don’t worry about what you’re not supposed to worry about and focus on Him.

    Yep….like you said, leave church growth to God.

    1. “…posts that make me think, make my thoughts chaotic, and force me to be disciplined towards my reply.” I love that phrasing, Brian. And I consider it high praise.

  2. Patsy Collins

    I agree completely !!! This was very encouraging to me, this is what I have been trying to do for 22 yrs. now. I love to see the saints mature in the WORD !! Keep up the good work Karl . !!

  3. Yes, I too agree that health is the most important thing and we leave the growth to God. However, as a pastor, I have not seen the church grow while I have focused on church health. In fact 98% of the members are in a home group and I’ve seen their growth, but no growth in numbers. As a tiny church, we’re on the brink without more people. What to do?

    1. Kathy, I understand that problem because I’ve faced it. All I can speak to is my experience, so let me tell you what happened in my church.

      We got to the point of being healthy, but we then needed to become healthful. Healthy means all the disease is gone, but healthful means we’re bringing nourishment to others. Our church started becoming more self-sustaining when we started doing more outreach. Our discipleship is based on producing disciples who make disciples.

      You may be doing that already, but that’s what worked for us.

      1. Thanks Karl for your reply. Once again I agree that we need to be heathful/helpful. We are very active in our community, volunteering at the food bank, jail, pregnancy crisis center and Big Brothers and Big Sisters organization on a regular basis. Some of our problem has to do with the age and abilities of our members, but we do serve well! And we will keep serving and doing our best and trust God for His supply.

        Thanks for your ministry. It is very encouraging to me.

  4. My experience (I’m not a pastor) has been that a great many of us in the congregation spend far too much time getting fed (nourishment) and quite frankly, I think we allow ourselves to get way too fat before we begin giving back through discipleship. I’m sure there’s a multitude of reasons why, my own being a quite misunderstood notion that I had to know every passage inside and out to be qualified to disciple/ minister to others. That “fear” stopped me in my tracks for a long time. Zeno’s Paradox of Motion is alive and working in so many of us in the pews.

    To be brutally honest, I think we could use a little “biblical kick in the backside” (encouragement, if that makes you more comfortable) in the form of some one-on-one conversation from our pastors when we stay in a continual state of being fed. It’s a curiosity to me that in most churches we don’t hear conversations on spiritual growth unless we ask for it. In the secular world, most of us sit down with our bosses once a year to plan, create goals, milestones, and discuss training that we need to achieve. At the end of the year, we go back and review our results. Personally, I think there’s a problem when our secular bosses will engage us concerning our temporal growth and our non-secular clergy seemingly are only comfortable talking to us as a group about spiritual growth from the pulpit, or when we knock on their doors.

    We (the congregation) want to do those things that help to grow the church. But, all too often we think we’re not ready (when we are), or are not ready (and no one’s working a plan to equip us to be ready). Egads, 98% of us have never led another to a confession of faith in Christ. We’re pretty good at sharing our faith, leading non-believers right up to the front door of the church (a confession of faith), and then saying “see ya inside.”

    My question is this, what would our churches look like next year if our pastors made it a point to reach out to one member a week in our congregations to ask us about their spiritual growth? Disciples producing disciples and of course, bringing in the harvest.

  5. Pingback: Healthy Church | troybeecham

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