Church Growth: A Solution Looking for a Problem?

According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the median size American church has 75 participants on Sunday morning. That means half of American churches are smaller, and half are larger.

However, if we were to talk about average church size (the mean), the number “soars” to 186 attenders. This number is skewed to a degree due to the influence of very large churches.

Another statistic indicates that 90% of all American churches have less than 350 members. And statistics can be very confusing to people (like me) who have a hard time understanding algorithms and complex statistical analysis. But we may summarize (as one blogger puts it): “While most of the churches in America are small, most of the attenders go to large churches.”

The other night I was having a conversation with a wise member of a very large church (2,000-3,000 attenders on a weekend) who bemoaned the perceived obsession with church growth. His concern was that there is a price to pay when numbers increase. First, budgetary concerns are aggravated as new funding will be needed to minister to these new people.

Second, growth can make it increasingly difficult to focus on the primary job of the church, to build mature followers of Jesus.

Third, this problem is exacerbated by the reality that often these new members arrive for a multiplicity of reasons, but not always because they want to grow in their faith. People can be attracted by size, good programs, excellent care of their children, high quality music, or excellent preaching. None of these are necessarily wrong, but the old adage says that “what you attract them with is what will keep them there.”

Yes, the “notoriety” of the modern “mega-church” can breed a new unhappiness with the size of our congregations. I am a member of a church that (without me counting heads each week) probably approaches the median size for an American church. But I hear voices in our congregation that express concern about our size. “How can we grow?” they ask. “Why aren’t we growing? What would we do if we had dramatic growth?” I don’t recall these questions dominating the conversations of church leaders before the advent of Willow Creek, Bill Hybels, Saddleback, and Rick Warren. Perhaps the “successes” of some have spawned the seeds of our discontent.

Though I understand these concerns, I also wonder if they reflect a wrong assessment of the situation. I haven’t expressed my opinion on this topic with members of my church, but I have held some firm opinions on the subject and have been giving it a lot of thought lately. And so an article by Karl Vaters immediately caught my eye as it accurately articulated my thinking:

In this article, Vaters ponders: “We’ve invested a lot into the art and science of church growth in the last 50 years. It makes me wonder. After such a massive output of time, energy, research and money, have we become like the proverbial man with a hammer who sees everything as a nail? Is that why church growth is always the go-to answer for every challenge? Because we can’t afford it not to be? Has church growth become a solution looking for a problem?”

Vaters suggests that the early church was not that much different from today’s church. They had multiple problems with multiple fixes recommended in the epistles. We can easily postulate a solution to our problems today by fixating on church growth. But, says Vaters, “church growth was never a solution…No New Testament writer ever told a sick, dying, or hurting church to get bigger…Perhaps they didn’t consider numerical congregational growth to be as important as we do.”

My contention all along has been that we need to prioritize church health, not church growth. Yes, the church grew dramatically (in Jerusalem, in particular) but not because the apostles were fixated on size. The actual reason for this growth is obvious in Acts: they were doing the things that can produce a healthy church.

No, I am not suggesting that, if we do those same “right” things, our churches will have a dramatic upward spike in attendance. By analogy, though God may bless us financially if we are generous givers, our motivation for giving should never be to get blessed. In like manner, churches that do the right things may (or may not) grow numerically. But the motive for doing those right things should be because they’re right, not because we see them as a gimmick to increase our numbers.

Vaters makes the astute observation that “church growth and church health are not the same.” I could easily make a corollary observation: “the increasing problems that accompany church growth should make congregational leaders a bit nervous about striving for more members.” My fear is that, in the mad rush for growth, the necessary foundations may be ignored that might enable the church to actually manage new members in a mature and healthy fashion.

For instance, with biblical illiteracy a recognized problem in the American evangelical church, perhaps leaders should be addressing that deficiency rather than fixating on numerical growth. Or, with fragmenting relationships causing isolation and a “going it alone” mentality among believers, perhaps pastors and elders should prioritize the training, equipping, and supporting of small group leaders as a step toward “doing the right thing” for congregational nurture and maturity.

Vaters concludes: “Jesus told us to go and make disciples. And yes, that would mean church growth. But no apostle ever named growth as a strategy for fixing a broken church. And John, when he addressed the challenges, sins and blessings of the seven churches in Revelation, never told any of them to grow, either.”

The problem confronting your church today is not church growth but church maturity. Focus on the maturation of those who attend your church and sense the pleasure of Jesus as you are nurturing his precious bride.