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Why Is “Growth” Such a Dirty Word in Some Churches?


I work for a Christian company where it’s our passion to ensure that the church is growing in influence and has the resources needed to fulfill its mission. It’s interesting that we’re always getting comments like these:

“Yeah, cause that’s what God and Jesus and church is all about…mo money…you ghouls…”

“Increase giving? Really? Show me scripture where Jesus said to ‘increase your giving’.

“Our focus should not be on man-made tactics to grow a business. The Church is not a business it is a body. The Church will naturally grow if you follow the Holy Spirit, and let go of your agenda. God wants you blessed more than you want to be blessed. It’s really not that complicated. If you do it God’s way you will get his Result.”[sic]

When it comes to topics related to “growth” and “money” in the church, maybe you feel the same way. That’s completely OK — lots of people would agree. Let’s look at why “church growth” is such a hot-button issue.

What is “church growth”?

The way people generally respond to the words “church growth,” you’d think it is just about creating megachurches. But that’s just not true. Church growth is about churches reaching more people with their influence and ministry. It’s also about increasing the resources they have to make that happen. If a church of 75 becomes a church or 150, that’s “church growth.”

Paul’s epistles are sprinkled with church growth advice. Consider this advice to the Corinthians:

“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”—1 Cor. 9:20–22

Paul is sharing a technique to build a rapport with people so they’ll be more open to hearing the gospel. Does it work all the time? No. Paul says it only saves “some,” but he holds up this approach as an example the Corinthian church should emulate. If they’re able to add to their numbers by learning to identify more closely with the people, they’re experiencing church growth.

My “church growth” experience

I completely understand the emotional reaction some people have to the words “church growth”. Throughout my twenties, I served as an associate pastor and worship leader in many different churches. The largest one was about 500 people. In my thirties, I pastored a church plant that eventually closed after five years because it wasn’t able to sustain itself. Over time, I found that I’d developed a pretty dim view of large churches.

But after spending some time attending Willow Creek Community Church and doing some consulting with some churches that had 5,000+ members, I had to repent. My negative outlook didn’t stack up with my experience. For the most part, these churches were staffed by focused and spiritually mature believers who simply wanted to reach more people.

They were completely aware that the percentage of people truly following Jesus was considerably smaller than the number of people who attended, yet they believed they had a better chance of influencing them if they came to the church than if they didn’t. They had programs with the sole intention of turning believers into disciples.

Why is “growth” such a dirty word in the church?

Is there a way we can seriously address concerns about church growth, while advocating for the value of offering growth advice? In this two-part series, let’s examine the objections to church growth and perhaps explore some new perspectives that might help smooth the differences between us. This month we’ll examine the first two objections, and next month address three more.

  1. Megachurches are portrayed as the standard.

Think about the way that the media standardizes female beauty. You’d think from reading ads or watching movies and red-carpet events, the standard for beauty is often judged by size. The skinnier you are, the prettier you are. This emphasis creates what’s commonly known as “body shaming”. When this standard is consistently reinforced normal, everyday women who are healthy and beautiful are made to feel ashamed for not matching a certain cultural expectation.

The same is true in ministry. In fact, megachurches are the supermodels of churches. All the celebrity pastors lead huge churches, and publishers flock to large-church leadership to create content and produce books.

When my denomination met for annual conferences, the speakers were always from huge churches — even though the average church size was only a couple hundred people. They’d talk about some of the things they were doing to grow, and we’d all rush back and try and implement them. The standardization of size as one of the most important indicators of church/pastoral health (instead of faithfulness and service) has set up unreal expectations and solidified the weary cynicism of an entire generation of pastors who lead smaller churches.

Gaining perspective:

In Matthew 25:14–30, Jesus shares a parable about three servants entrusted to care for different amounts of money. With wise investing, two of the servants increased the money they were given, while one hid and saved it. When the master returned, the wise servants who grew the master’s investment were applauded. The last servant, who was able to return everything the master gave him, was condemned. Why? Because he didn’t prioritize the master’s interests. When it comes to the church, we, too, need to be concerned with multiplying what has been entrusted to us. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to add more bodies to your church. But you do have to consider how your church can be increasing its reach and effectiveness.

  1. “The way growing churches spend money is disgusting.”

I remember the first time I walked into Willow Creek Community Church. It was huge. As my wife and I made our way to the sanctuary, I turned to her and said, “We’d better run, or we might miss our connecting flight!”

When you talk about church growth, people instantly make a megachurch connection. The next connection they make is about money. The aversion people in smaller churches feel toward seeing the extravagance in some large churches makes perfect sense. It doesn’t help when some churches make news trying to raise funds to get their pastor his own private jet.

So anytime you offer advice related to increasing a church’s giving, hackles go up. The instant response is, “All church people care about is money. This is all a big scam to empty our wallets, and if you really trusted God to provide you wouldn’t need to talk about this.”

Gaining perspective:

Let’s be frank: It costs money to run a church. It costs money to maintain whatever level a church is at, and it costs more money to grow. There’s just no way around it. I know so many smaller churches that struggle to simply stay open because they can’t keep cash flow at a consistent level. Addressing the issue of giving doesn’t display a lack of faith. Paul addresses the same issue with the Corinthians when he says:

“Now it is superfluous for me to write to you about the ministry for the saints, for I know your readiness, of which I boast about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year. And your zeal has stirred up most of them. But I am sending the brothers so that our boasting about you may not prove empty in this matter, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be. Otherwise, if some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready, we would be humiliated—to say nothing of you—for being so confident. So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction.” 2 Cor. 9:1–5

Paul’s been bragging to the Macedonians about the generosity of the Corinthians. Now he’s sending some workers ahead to ensure that the monetary gift he’s promised the Macedonians is ready. After talking up the Corinthians, he’s worried that he’s going to get there with a contingent from Macedonia and be humiliated by their lack of preparation.

Is this a sign of Paul’s a lack of faith in God’s ability to supply the Macedonian’s needs? Of course not. It represents Paul’s appropriate sense of responsibility. God’s provision always fills in the gaps of our best efforts. God might feed the birds of the air, but he doesn’t throw the food in their nest.

It’s likely that God is supplying the needs of struggling churches, but people aren’t being as generous with his provision as they should be. It’s not inappropriate to address this.

Every church is responsible for the resources God has provided. And while a coffee shop in a church annex might feel like an extravagance to a smaller church, it might represent a strategic plan of a larger church to keep people engaged and involved after a service.

There will always be some who, like the disciples, say, “How can you spend money on that extravagance when the money could be given to the poor. (Matt. 26:8–8)” But in the end, Jesus will judge the work of every church. If a church feels strongly about giving to the poor, they should work hard to raise as much money as possible to do so.

Free Resource: 5 Principles of Fast Church Growth

If you’re interested in learning more about church growth, check out 5 Proven Principles of Fast Church Growth. We interviewed the 100 fastest-growing churches and compiled the top five things they all have in common. And you’re invited to come back next month to discover three more reasons some people object to “church growth.”