“The LORD said to Gideon, You’ve got too many people.” Judges 7:2
Hold on to your pearls because what you’re about to read could send today’s church growth gurus, along with their acolytes, into cardiac arrest. However, if you open up your spirit and your mind, you may just hear God saying something that is as liberating as it is true.
Two pastors were catching up one day on how their churches were doing. One pastor said, “We’re doing great! When I got there, there were only 40 people and after implementing a few new programs we now have 400.” The other Pastor said, “That’s funny because when I got to my church we had about 100 and after years of just preaching the old fashioned Gospel, I’ve got them down to 10.”
Where did we get the idea that the real Gospel draws a crowd? If we can barely get people to stand in line for a Carmel Macchiato at the mall, how in the world are we supposed to get them to line up for the Cross of Christ? It is certainly true that Jesus offers, “life and life more abundantly” but His life is only accessible through death. That’s quite an entrance fee!
The real gospel is not as stylish, comforting, and cool as we’d like to think. Churches often justify their drive for success by sighting the thousands that followed Jesus and the thousands that were born again on the day of Pentecost BUT how many of the multitudes actually accompanied these leaders to jail or even the cross? We’ve confused spectators for real spirit-filled believers and partisans for Pentecostals. Just because someone is a sympathizer, doesn’t mean they’re serious about the Kingdom of God.
The truth is that people, especially masses already susceptible to groupthink, are easily moved by passion but the perils of discipleship soon separate the wheat from the chaff. Real, radical discipleship demands more than attending an entertaining service once a week. This is an important fact that many are overlooking in their Black Friday dash for church growth.
Isn’t Growth Good?
Isn’t growth good? The answer to this question depends on your definition of growth i.e. success. A recent survey by the Barna Research Institute asked pastors how they define success. The pastor’s responses ranged from attendance and staff to building square footage. You can almost smell the stench of pop culture on our Church leadership. “Bigger is better! Super-size me!” We may not build golden calves to show our selfish and limited revelation of God anymore but we do build monuments, empires, and enormous amounts of debt in an attempt to show the world our God. They had a similar mindset in Jesus’ day concerning their great religious accomplishments but He said, “Not one stone will be left upon another.” Are we any less lost?
I am more convinced than ever that the desperate drive to grow the church will inevitably destroy the church.
The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, even if their intentions are of ernest, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Here are three reasons why you shouldn’t want to grow your Church;
1) The desire for “growth” heightens the pressure to lower the standard.
Masses were no miracle to Jesus nor to the Apostles. Anyone can draw a crowd. The true test of one’s ministry is not how many you get to show up but how many you’re able to sift out. The Church of the New Testament demanded holiness and would publicly shame those who refused to repent. Today, preachers feel like they’re really putting it on the line if they preach a sermon on sin but they would never address it directly. Why? Because that would make people uncomfortable.
The New Testament Church demanded commitment and discipline even unto death. Today, we demand that you attended a catered life group… if you have time in your busy schedule. The desire for success heightens the pressure to lower the standard so that we can put on the façade of perceived success. God is much more concerned about protecting His Church from apostasy than He is in increasing attendance.
2) The desire for “growth” increases the need to be competitive.
I’ve had Pastors admit to me that they wouldn’t invite a certain minister to their Church because they were afraid that their members would leave to join the guest minister’s Church. Of course we will never admit to ourselves that these petty feelings exist so we come up with a variety of reasons to justify our envy toward another minister or their ministry. Everyone loves to talk about “unity” until someone leaves their Church to attend another. The search for “growth” causes us to view our real family in Christ as a rivalry that must be beaten.
3) The desire for “growth” blinds us from being able to distinguish between perceived success and real success.
Everyone will say that “it’s not about numbers” because that’s the thing to say, but in their hearts it’s not true. Don’t believe me? Find one National Christian Conference that has an 80 year old Pastor of a 25 member church as their keynote speaker. He’s been preaching for 60 years but we’d rather hear from some young hipster who has 5,000 in his services on Sunday. Don’t just point your finger at those who put on these conferences. What about those who attend? “They must be doing something right. Look at all the people they have in their ministry!” They may certainly be doing something right but the number of people entertained by it is no way to determine its success. If numbers equaled success in the Kingdom, Beyoncé would be one of the 24 Elders!
Here’s the big lie that gets thrown around to justify doctrinal and spiritual error; “Well… at least people are getting saved!” That’s like defending a negligent and abusive parent by saying, “Well… at least they’re having more kids!” We’re willing to endure a host of errors so long as we think The Great Commission is being fulfilled, but is it? To top it all off we mask our shallow need for growth by calling it a passion for evangelism.
What about the Great Commission? Isn’t there an inherent command to grow in the great commission? Let’s look at it;
“Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” Mark 16:15
“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” Matthew 28:19,20
The Great Commission is simple; “Preach the Gospel.” The Great Commission is not about “saving souls” or “growing crowds.” This may seem like a distinction without a difference but I assure you that the difference is as far as the east is from the west. If your mission is to “win souls” then you will do whatever is necessary to reach as many as you can… even alter the message. However, if the mission is to “Preach the Gospel” then you must do whatever is necessary to preserve the integrity of the message… no matter how society reacts to it.
Acceptance is an intoxicant and the modern church needs an intervention. It’s time we get back to the mission of The Great Commission and realize that the drive for success is a pollutant in the river of life. The good news is that if we don’t have to spend so much time growing the Church then we can focus on ministering to our family in the Body of Christ. This will, no doubt, be a difficult transition for many. I would recommend turning off Christian TV, fasting all major conferences and throwing away all Church strategy books just for a little while. After three months of seeing nothing but your people you’ll forget that there’s a race for success going on outside your walls and discover a contentment that is truly transformative.