Mention the words “church growth” and you’ll be met with a variety of opinions.
On one hand, you’ll find people who promise seven simple steps to explode growth now or organizations that will reveal the secret to growth for $99 a month.
And on the other hand, you’ve got bloggers who use scary words like abomination and say the modern church growth movement usurps the Holy Spirit.
Two very different opinions on church growth from two very different camps.
The spiritualists and the pragmatists.
Spiritualists are quick to point out that the words “church growth” do not appear in the Bible and there are no Bible verses about church growth. They remind us that because the church belongs to Jesus, church growth is something only God can do. Jesus said, “I will build my church.”
The focus is on discipleship, prayer and following Jesus while leaving the results up to God. Spiritualists don’t have much to do with the modern church growth movement.
Pragmatists love to talk about church growth strategies and tactics. And technology, and Facebook ads. And outreach campaigns. They remind us that while church growth is up to God, He uses people and systems to accomplish His purposes. And they remind us that there are several Biblical principles of church growth.
So what is the right approach? Does God want to the church to grow? If so, in what way? And what is our role in the process?
A Metaphor for Church Growth
To answer this question, let’s look at a passage of Scripture.
Here’s what Jesus said in Mark 4:26-29:
“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
Jesus used a farming analogy to explain how the kingdom of God grows.
Once the farmer plants the seed, it grows by itself. The farmer isn’t in control of that process, and doesn’t even fully understand it.
Growth happens naturally, but after the farmer did the hard work of preparing the soil. And when the harvest is ready, the farmer goes back to work.
And that’s how church growth works.
It’s a combination of the blessings of God and the stewardship of man. God-given results somehow teamed with human endeavors. A combination of divine intervention and human leadership.
Paul makes a similar statement in 1 Corinthians 3:6. He says he planted churches, Apollos came along and watered the seed, but it was God who gave the increase.
Spiritualists focus on how God gives the increase. But don’t miss the fact that Paul planted and Apollos watered.
Yes, church growth was all up to God. But two humans both played a part in the process.
So the pragmatists are right.
And so are the spiritualists.
It's a both/and approach to church growth.
Different Kinds of Church Growth
In this post, Karl Vaters, author of The Grasshopper Myth and an author/advocate for small churches, says, “Church growth should always be a part of every pastor’s prayers, passion and strategy.”
Pastors should want their churches to reach more people. But that’s not the only kind of church growth in the Bible.
Numerical growth, spiritual growth, and kingdom growth are all important.
#1 – Numerical church growth happens when churches reach more people and grow in size.
It’s simple to track numerical growth and the result is the church gets bigger. The Outreach 100 Fastest-Growing Churches list is based exclusively on this type of growth.
This kind of growth was reported in the early church and recorded in the book of acts. Despite persecution, a lack of buildings, and little formal training, the early church grew as people shared the gospel with friends and neighbors. Luke tells us people were added to the church on a daily basis.
That’s church growth.
The desire churches have to reach more people for Christ should come from God’s heart for the world and understanding Jesus’ mission to seek and save the lost. Churches that want to grow in numbers should do it out of a desire to live out the great commission.
#2 – Spiritual church growth happens when the people in the church come to love and follow Jesus.
People in the church should grow to love the Lord with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength and take intentional steps to obey his commands. That's what discipleship looks like.
This kind of growth is also reported in the book of Acts, as you find new believers gathered in homes for community and prayer. As the church grew in size, it also grew in health. The early church wasn’t content to make converts, they wanted to make disciples.
Spiritual growth is much harder to measure, and there’s no Top 100 list. But when we talk about church growth, we must not limit our discussion to attendance and budgets. There’s something far deeper at work.
#3 – Kingdom growth happens when there is both spiritual and numerical growth.
When individual churches grow numerically and spiritually, there is a great opportunity for Kingdom growth.
The Bible says the Church grew through multiplication. For example, the church at Antioch prayed, fasted and sent leaders out to start new churches (Acts 13:1-5). This intentional decision to get smaller resulted in the Church getting larger.
Ironically, it was the persecution of the early church that led some of the first Christians to spread throughout the world, taking their faith with them and building the Kingdom in the process.
The Tension Between Church Growth and Church Health
Since the formation of the early church, Christians have been arguing over where we should put our focus. Should we focus on church growth or church health?
Church growth advocates often use phrases like “reach the lost at any cost” and say things like “We will do anything short of sin to reach people.” The focus is often getting people in the front door. And even though there’s Biblical precedence, this type of passion can be easily misplaced.
After all, unhealthy things can grow too. In fact, some have argued unhealthy things grow even faster (weeds and tumors, for example). A lot of damage can be done to the Kingdom by adopting a “grow at all costs” philosophy.
Church health advocates argue that if you focus on the flock, growth will naturally occur. Well, there are a lot of inward-focused churches that seem to have lost focus on the great commission. It seems like a focus on church health can lead people to live like the “frozen chosen,” unaware of the real needs around them.
My argument is the tension between growth and health is a good thing.
Perhaps it should never be resolved.
Maybe the fact that we worry about it keeps us in balance.
Fully resolve the tension toward growth and you’ll end chasing tactics to just build a crowd. Fully resolve it toward health and you’ll provide pastoral care to people until there’s nobody left.
Acts 2:42-47 describes church growth as the result of intentional evangelism and discipleship. It seems that when the church loved God and loved their neighbor, the Gospel spread.
Jesus-centered teaching, a community built on love and investing in one another’s lives, and living a life of faith was not only the result of church growth but also the cause.
Pastors, People, and Church Growth
In 1 Corinthians 3:8, Paul writes, “The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor.” This verse seems to indicate that pastors will be rewarded for their part in building the church.
Even though Jesus said, “I will build my church,” and even though Paul acknowledged, “God gives the increase,” it’s appropriate to view earthly leadership as a stewardship opportunity.
In Ephesians 4:12, Paul says that pastors and leaders are not to perform all the ministry in the church, but should equip the believers to “do the work of the ministry.” Commenting on this verse, Eric Geiger writes, “In some sense, a pastor is to leave the ministry the moment the pastors enters the ministry.” This shift in thinking should result in a more distributed ministry and greater effectiveness.
To this end, God gives spiritual gifts to each Christian to use to build up the body of Christ. Building up should result in a healthier church, but also a church that’s growing in size and influence.
Church growth, then, doesn’t just depend on the pastors but also involves the people.
Why Don’t Churches Grow?
In this article, Carey Nieuwhof shares several reasons churches rarely grow beyond 200 regular attenders.
- The pastor is the primary caregiver, a model that creates false expectations and leads to burnout.
- The church fails to involve leaders (leadership is one of the spiritual gifts listed in the New Testament) and those leaders may not be given real opportunities to lead.
- The church structure allows for the strange combination of top-down decision-making and too many meetings.
- Churches offer too many programs and ministries that don’t lead people to follow Jesus.
Notice that many of these reasons, while certainly influenced by faith and spirituality, can be addressed through practical and intentionally corrective steps. God calls and equips pastors and leaders to build up the body of Christ and lead a church to effective ministry. It’s certainly a spiritual endeavor.
We’ve worked with hundreds of churches to create plans and strategies for growth. Through our Breaking 200 course, we’ve helped churches implement scalable systems. Through Church Fuel, we provide fresh church growth tactics that can be quickly customized and implemented.
Three Things That Lead to Church Growth
Oftentimes, we see a renewed focus on these three things that serve as a catalyst to growth. Notice how these three things involve both the spiritual and the practical.
- Vision. Pastors must continually remind the church why she exists, calling people to love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and challenging them to live out the great commission in their worlds. In addition, casting a clear and compelling vision for the future is often a catalyst for healthy growth. In addition to casting a preferred picture of the future, vision should also include strategy, answering the question “how will we get there.” Learn more about creating a clear growth plan in our course Building Your Ministry Plan. You'll also be introduced to our preferred template, simply called The Two Page Plan.
- Leadership. Whether it’s leading staff, lay leaders or volunteers, when churches focus on leadership development, good things happen. The result is often healthy growth. In the church, leadership is really discipleship. It’s equipping people to discover their calling, use their gifts, and build up the body of Christ. If you want helping building a simple pipeline and find content to use every step of the way, check out our course on leadership.
- Focus. When churches come to the conclusion they are too busy, they rightly focus on how God has uniquely called and equipped them. That’s why, for many churches, the key to growth is not starting something, but stopping something.
In the end, church growth involves the spiritual blessings of God, the faithful leadership of pastors and church leaders, and a people committed to love God and love others.
Then we pray some more. And we keep leading.
We co-labor with God to build something that’s eternally important.
Grow the Church
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