If you’re involved in a congregation, I’m sure that the subject of congregational growth has come up over and over again. It’s given as the reason for a whole host of pulpit-directed efforts.
We have to raise money for a building fund. Why? Because the congregation needs to grow.
We need to hire a youth minister. Why? Because the congregation has to grow.
We need to create these new programs. Why? Because the congregation has to grow.
And so on and so forth. Now, have you ever seen anyone question the assumption that “the congregation must grow?” Anybody stand up in a congregational meeting and say, “Why?” Any brave soul write a letter to the editor (usually the pastor/preacher/minister/priest) of the newsletter asking the question why?
Probably not. That’s one of the unquestioned beliefs that no one dares question. To do so would subject you to the whispered judgment of a majority of the people. It’s just not done. Culturally unacceptable. A cataract belief.
Too bad. It ought to be questioned.
Before we consider the Biblical view, let’s analyze the practical consequences of congregation growth. What happens when congregations make major efforts to grow?
First, the process of growth is often expensive, requiring funding to build new buildings, put on new programs, hire new staff, pay for advertising, newsletters, etc. And, while all of this seems good, the reality is that it often moves the focus of the church from the simple message of the gospel to the more complex message promoting “our church.” Congregational members become involved in church programs, church messages, and church initiatives which substitute the “church” for the gospel.
And then, there are the effects of successful church growth programs. On the one hand, the worship service has more people, and seems more exciting and uplifting. There often are more hands available for church programs, so the core group doesn’t need to volunteer for everything. They get a little break. And, since the congregation is now larger, the weekly collection is bigger. That means that you can hire additional professional staff to take over what church members were doing before. No need to have a volunteer organize a youth ministry, you can now afford a professional. No need to have a member of the congregation teach a Sunday school class, you have an associate pastor who can do that. As the congregation grows, it can afford more professional staff, maybe a full time church secretary, hey, maybe even a pastor of administration!
All of this seems good. You can invite your friends to Sunday worship knowing that you won’t be embarrassed by amateur performances. Seems good.
But there is a devastating flip side. As the congregation grows, often more and more of the budget is siphoned off to the support of professionals, the funding of programs, and the building of buildings. The more money and energy devoted to these things, the less devoted to the simple work of the church. The more bureaucrats and professionals your church employs, the less need for involvement on the part of the people.
God’s charge that we are all ministers and priests becomes just a hollow statement that is ignored or given lip service, but not really pursued. And the more professional and polished is your worship service, the more it encourages spectator Christianity. Often, the net result of congregational growth is the super involvement of a few, and the alienation and marginalization of the vast majority.
You and your family could be one of them. As the congregation grows, often it only succeeds in building a larger bureaucracy and a bigger building, leaving the vast majority of members in spiritual sleep.
That’s the devastating consequence of congregational growth. You and your family could very well be sucked into the effort, causing you to change your focus from the simple gospel of Christ to the building fund, the search for another professional, or the management of another pulpit-directed program.
Or, you could be left on the margins. Expected to be a spectator in the growing professionalization of the congregation. No longer necessary – thanks for your time, now move over and let the professionals do it.
What seems good to mankind is actually devastating to much of the congregation. Man’s “good” substitutes for God’s best.
But what about the Biblical view? Isn’t it mandated that congregations grow?
The great commission given to the church in Matthew 28:19 says:
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Jesus did not say, “Stay, therefore, around your neighborhood, inviting people to church, building ever-bigger buildings and programs.”
OK, I know that not everyone can be a foreign missionary, etc. However, the point is that Jesus said “make disciples, baptize and teach.” He did not say, “build the local congregation.”
The mistake we make is when we believe that building the local congregation is a means to the end of evangelizing the world. The truth is that it is generally a substitute for it! Normally, when we’re building the local church, we’re engaged in activities that substitute for pure Christianity. We invite our saved neighbors to church, we don’t invite our unsaved friends to Christ. We encourage our kids to support the youth ministry instead of teaching them at home.
What would happen to Christianity in this country if we believed that it is Christ’s church that must grow, not necessarily our local congregation? What would happen if we focused on Christ, not “church?” Wouldn’t we be more active in promoting Christ, not our church? When someone came to Christ, wouldn’t we be more concerned about personally discipling him/her instead of seeing to it that they got shuffled to the appropriate class?
And if our congregation did grow, what would happen if instead of building a new building and hiring new staff, we encouraged a group to form their own small congregation? Wouldn’t the net result be more people active, more leaders created, more personal ministry, less money spent on bricks and mortgage, less money spent on professional clergy, and Christ’s church growing more rapidly?
The myth that our congregation must grow is one of the most deceptive of them all. It seems like such a good idea. But remember, mankind’s good is a poor substitute for God’s best.
What’s the impact on you and your family? Energy, money, gifts and talents wasted. Instead of building a relationship with Christ, you’re in danger of focusing on the efforts of the church. Relationships No, programs YES. And the further away you and your family move from the purity of Christianity, the sadder and more unfulfilled are your lives. Focus your energy and your family’s on the “congregation must grow” and you are likely to look back in sadness and regret a number of years from now.
What about you? Where are you at on this issue? You could be on one end of the spectrum: “That’s heresy. You must be the anti-Christ!”
Or, you could be on the other: “I’ve often thought similar thoughts. Here I thought I was the only one who thought that.”
Or, you could be in the middle: “I’m going to think about this. There has always been something inside me that wondered about some of these programs.”
The institutional church system in this country has spent over $530 Billion, and not grown the percentage of Christians by even one percent. Some where between 60 – 89 percent of kids raised in the church will leave Christ when they become adults. Isn’t it time thoughtful Christians asked some questions? Read “Is the Institutional Church Really the Church?”