Economy in trouble? Don’t fix the underlying dysfunction, pour more money into it.
Kids in trouble? Don’t discipline them, give them more stuff.
Church in trouble? Don’t change the way we do ministry, get more people in here.
Recently I’ve run across another tragic example of the damage such faulty logic can cause.
A friend of mine attends a large church that has been going through some very difficult times lately. Not by their own fault, but because of decisions that were out of their control.
This struggle has cost them a lot of members and money. Recently, they lost the church building they’ve been meeting in for decades.
Several churches in nearby towns have opened their doors, offering facilities for this congregation to meet in every week. They’ve gratefully accepted one church’s kind offer and are meeting there while they regroup.
But now this long-established church is dealing with issues most of their members and leaders have never had to face. They meet in someone else’s building, in a neighborhood many miles away from where most of their congregation lives and at a very awkward time of the week.
That’s just business-as-usual in a start-up church. But this isn’t a start-up. They’ve been around a long time. This is very painful for them and their church is suffering greatly
“But, That’s No Solution!”
My friend has had several conversations with the pastor during this tough season. So I asked him what plan the pastor has for the next phase of the church’s life.
“Get to 1,000.”
“What?” I responded.
“The pastor’s plan is to grow the church back up to 1,000 people. Then they’ll have enough of a giving base to buy a new church building and stand on their own again.”
I paused for a moment, waiting for my friend to crack a smile, say “just kidding” or otherwise indicate that he was pulling my leg. Nothing came.
“But…” I stumbled, “that’s not a plan.”
My friend hung his head. “I know,” he responded. “I tried to tell the pastor that. He wouldn’t hear me.”
“Then that church is over,” I said to my friend, with genuine sorrow. “They might as well close their doors now. Getting bigger isn’t a plan. It’s not a goal. And it sure isn’t a solution to their problems.”
My friend agreed. We prayed for them, then changed the subject.
Most church growth proponents agree and teach that church growth is not a plan or a solution. But too many of them see it as a goal.
And because of that bigger-is-our-goal mentality, too many struggling pastors leave church growth conferences thinking bigger is a plan and a solution, too. And why wouldn’t they? They’ve spent several days in the awesome facilities of a booming church. The facility is proof that this stuff works. And they want that too.
The problem is, they’ve been wowed by the successes, but they haven’t been told about any of the churches that tried the same methods and failed.
Ed Stetzer warns attenders of church growth conferences about what he calls “ministry pornography.” When we spend time at these megachurch facilities he cautions us to realize, “It’s an unrealistic depiction of an experience you’re never going to have that distracts you from the real and glorious thing.”
And it leads struggling churches, like the one my friend attends, to believe that getting their numbers up will solve their problems.
But if church growth is not a plan, a goal or a solution, what is it?
Any church that has increased their numbers in a healthy way has had a plan to do good ministry first. Sure, they kept track of the numbers. But getting bigger is never a valid plan, it’s a byproduct of a good ministry plan.
Yes, it’s a good thing when a healthy church adds to their numbers. From 20 to 30, 200 to 300, or 2,000 to 3,000. As long as it’s kingdom growth, we ought to celebrate it wherever it happens.
This may be my biggest argument with most church growth proponents. How many times have I read or heard that if we use this method, remove those obstacles or otherwise take the right steps, more people will start showing up? All healthy things grow, right?
Wrong. The evidence stubbornly refuses to back it up. There is nothing inevitable about numerical congregational growth.
Rather than outline my reasons behind this again, check out these posts where I’ve already addressed this subject:
- The Myth of Inevitable Church Growth
- Growing a Bigger Congregation Is Hard, Rare and [Gasp!] NOT a Biblical Mandate
- We Followed the Steps – Where’s the Church Growth?
Yes, there are great stories of churches all over the world that honored biblical principles, remove obstacles, applied a healthy plan and grew large as a result.
But for every church that applied those principles and experienced significant congregational growth, I can show you 10 to 100 that applied the same principles, made no more mistakes than the booming church, yet have not grown large.
Big churches remain the exception, not the rule.
…Not the Only Way Churches Grow
Getting bigger may not be the plan God has for your church. You may be a preparer and sender. You may be a spiritual hospital where people find healing, then move on. There are a lot of ways healthy churches grow that don’t involve numerical increase.
For a list of some of those reasons, check out 9 No-Fault, No-Excuse Reasons Many Healthy Churches Stay Small.
…Not the Best Thing for Every Church
Big churches aren’t for everyone. Most people who go to Small Churches choose to go there. It’s not because they don’t have bigger options. They go because they get something out of the smaller congregation that they don’t get out of a bigger one – including increased opportunities to serve and use their gifts in ministry.
There are a lot of unchurched people who aren’t comfortable seeking spiritual answers in big places, either. They want and need a smaller, more personal setting for that.
If every church was big, where would all the Small Church people go?
So What’s My Plan?
What would my plan be if I was the pastor of my friend’s troubled church? I have no idea.
But I know this. I’d work very hard to find a plan. And getting bigger wouldn’t be it.
And I wouldn’t work on that plan on my own. The church belongs to Jesus first, the people second. I’d gather the leadership and the congregation together. We’d pray a lot. Talk a lot. Brainstorm a lot. Then pray a lot more.
We’d ask questions like “what kinds of ministry can we do while we’re this size?” “What if we never get the church building of our dreams or any church building at all?” “What can we learn from other churches that don’t have a building?” and “What would happen if we saw this change, not as a problem, but as an opportunity to do church in a way we’ve never even imagined?”
What could Jesus do with that church – or with my church – if we started thinking better, not just bigger?
So what do you think? Has a lack of growth caused you to think about better ways to do church?
We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
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