The problem with church growth.

Rising profits

When you’re in the business of church, the easiest way to measure success is numerical growth. Are new people coming to your church? Are you retaining them? Are they bringing their friends along? Are the pews full on a Sunday morning? These are quick and obvious measures of how “successful” your church is. However, the growth we’re supposed to be looking for is spiritual in nature. Ephesians 4 makes it clear that the purpose of church is maturity. What we call success – more people coming to the church – can actually become a problem.

A few years ago, a church strategist gave us some wise advice. If something is going well in your church, don’t advertise it. You’ll attract tourists. Then you’ll have to babysit them. They’ll take up all your time and resources, and you won’t be able to achieve your original goals.

If your goal is butts on pews, watch out – you might just get it. At the beginning, you’ll be busy trying to attract them in – but then you’ll be kept even more busy keeping them happy once they come. They have expectations. You’ll need to maintain the service delivery at the same standard you began with, if not higher. If you pulled a rabbit out of the hat last Sunday, you need to do it again next Sunday. And the Sunday after. The more people who come, the more services you need to provide for them. You’ve become a big babysitter.

Attracting people to your church community is fine – if it’s a secondary thing. Empowering people has to be primary goal. When you put your effort into attracting new people, you have to use all your resources to keep them there. The newcomers who sit back and consume your resources will dilute, rather than concentrate, spiritual growth. Relationships will become shallower and more thinly spread. If you put your effort into empowering God’s people, you’ll be concentrating and building your spiritual resources, deepening relationships, and watching people mature and become spiritual elders.

It’s a bad thing to let people come and just sit back in a pew, week after week. It shuts them down spiritually from all the things that will help them grow – honesty, participation, one-another ministry. It sends a message that growth comes through passive listening, not active participation. It’s kind of like letting your kids sit and watch T.V. all day, and hoping they will develop into mature adults that way.

Success should never be measured in numbers. Success is when God’s people start to find their own voice, find their own gifts, when they bring a word of prophecy, when they speak the truth in love, when they confess to one another, forgive one another, teach one another and build each other up. If you’re building a community of people who need to be served and fed each week, you’re doing something wrong. It’s fine for new babies to sit back and be fed. It’s an embarrassment and a tragedy when adults, who should already be mature, get comfortable and wait for you to feed them.

Are you operating from an attractional model, where you provide a sit-back-and-watch-me-perform service to bring in the tourists? Or is your church willing to invest in an empowerment model, where God’s people are given a voice and a value, where participation is a priority, and spiritual growth happens naturally? Attractional models aim for numerical growth. Empowerment models aim for spiritual growth. Stop focussing on the wrong measures of success, and reshape the way you meet to see God’s people grow from spiritual infancy to maturity.

13 thoughts on “The problem with church growth.

  1. My first church home had a big revival last year and did some outrageous things to attract people. They gave away a car (Mustang), a flat screen TV and an ipad over three nights. They packed the place out, almost standing room only. However, quickly after numbers dwindled back to normal. It’s because of what you said: the attractional / seeker model demands new events / entertainment at or above the initial level that brought the individual. No more new cars? No more ipads? Then they are not coming. We are playing a silly game of bait and switch hoping that somebody who comes for a new car will stick around for Jesus. It just doesn’t work that way. It does not create true disciples. We can make ourselves feel good by having high attendance numbers, but the important value, depth of spirituality and discipleship is much harder to quantify. Jesus did not command us to fill the pews, he commanded us to “GO” and “make disciples.” I have less and less faith that it can truly happen in a typical modern church environment.

    • I’ve even heard of churches giving away guns to bring in new members! Ridiculous, but only half a step up from cars and iPads! Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.

      • Sadly, the guns thing is true. The evangelism team director of the Kentucky State Baptist Convention dreamed up this idea. The funny thing is that this guy caused some huge issues with a large church here in my hometown, resulting in a major split, financial and legal difficulties and many spiritually wounded. Then he moves on and gets in a statewide leadership position in another state. I don’t get it.

  2. Such wisdom. I’ve been pondering this topic over the past year. What metrics should be for a church. I’ve always said it’s stories. Stories of people moving closer to God, and stories of how the church is impacting the kingdom. It’s not a tangible number we can fill into a spreadsheet, that fails to represent how the gospel is impacting people’s lives.

    I appreciate the words of wisdom about not advertising. I think thats my fear if a revival happens. Tourists will come, camp out, consume, and leave. But the requirement on my time will be great because they want more and more. Good thing it’s Jesus who satisfies and not me 🙂

    • Thanks, Paul!

      A friend of mine is doing his PhD in church metrics – how to evaluate the success of churches. Such an interesting topic. I like your emphasis on stories.


      – Kathleen

  3. Hi Kathleen, you continue to hit the spot with your posts. This is excellent and so true. The church I am currently part of seems to be following this exact path. Set a goal to double the numbers, do things to make the services more attractive, yet the ‘laypeople’ are probably the least active of any church I have been in, and there is no process to empower and equip them. Recognising the problem is one thing, helping others see it and change is another! Thanks.

    • “Recognising the problem is one thing, helping others see it and change is another!”

      I hear you, Eric! Sometimes I doubt it will ever change. Our consumer culture is so very strong, of course it is represented in our churches. People are comfortable in their non-participation and actively choose it over less comfortable options.

      – Kathleen

      • Yes, I too wonder how long. Most people do indeed seem to be comfortable. But we attend a conservative evangelical church in a very middle class area, and it seems that way – but we are slowly finding people who aren’t happy with the status quo, but looking for something more. And slowly a few things are happening. Who knows how things will turn out?

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