3 Church Growth Diseases and the Remedy They Desparately Need

WHEN SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH YOUR CHURCH

A friend of mine has a son who is by all accounts an exceptional kid. Almost everything in his life pointed to health and strength. He was a star athlete and the smartest kid in his class. Then at one regular check up before the school year his doctor sensed something was actually very wrong with him. His growth chart had flatlined. Though he was fourteen, his bone age was determined to be that of an eleven year old.

He was sent to one specialist after another and given test after test. Then he began experiencing pain in his hip and within days he almost couldn’t walk. He ended up spending 5 days in a children’s hospital where they still could not produce a diagnosis. Finally doctors had him swallow a camera pill and after pictures were processed he was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. Basically he was almost never hungry and his body was not digesting the food he was eating. He atrophied, and the disease had not only stifled his growth, it was giving him crippling arthritis and had to use a walker.

But I’m happy to say that a couple of years after his diagnosis and treatment, he is healthy and growing strong.

That can be the story of your church.

Churches, like people, are susceptible to disease. For a while these churches can look healthy on the outside even as the disease wreaks havoc on the inside. And, almost always, they stifle growth and keep us small.

DIAGNOSING ECCLESIOLOGICAL DISEASES

These ecclesiological diseases need to be diagnosed so that the barriers to growth can be overcome. Let me give you just a few.

The “us four and no more” church. These churches are happy with where they are. “We don’t want to lose our sweet fellowship!” They want a small church. They want it to feel more like a family and not get out of control with growth. When a church becomes size-happy, mission and growth stagnate. “We don’t want to grow and mess this up.”

There’s the “my way or the highway” church. These are churches where a group seem to decide everything. There are people in charge, maybe a father or mother figure in the church. Decisions, influence, direction, involvement all die at the hands of those in charge, or with seniority. “We don’t want to change!”

There’s the “voluntary association church. This is a church that likes each other enough, that involves everyone a bit, but is more like a social club than a missionary outpost. This church tries to keep everyone happy, which is deadly to mission. “Let’s keep the status quo.”

There are many more “diseases” churches can get, but at the core of most of them is a choosing of “us” over “them.” Even new churches can grow myopic. We want what’s comfortable. But comfort must be in Christ, not in cushioned chairs and pews. We are called to be a missionary people spreading the good news of Jesus and growing our churches through conversions. And to do that we cannot be lingering behind the “us” barrier.

THE REMEDY

The remedy begins with a correct diagnosis, but it ends with a renewed passion for the mission of the church. Our mission must never be the contentment and comfort of “us.” It must always be, until He returns, about “them.”

To refocus on mission we must first remember that we were once them too. We were lost. We were sinners. We were separated from Christ. And God loved us. And some Christian or church leader loved us enough to tell us the good news. They invited us in. They welcomed us and we joined their community of faith.

Second, to refocus on mission beyond the “us” barrier we need to rethink what we expect from church leadership. A growing church needs more leaders and volunteers, so lead pastors need to focus their time on leaders and the lost and not each church member. Smaller churches want family-like attention, but that will keep you focused on “us” and not “them.” Train up more leaders to care for the church and to work for the harvest of those who don’t know Jesus.

Third, this shift must also be in the area of pastoral care. If you want a growing, thriving church, you need to develop systems for multidimensional care instead of unidimensional care. Grow leaders, train them, and let them free you to work with leaders and the lost.

As you grow, you can care for your church better by not being there for them.

I once pastored a church and was trying to lead them beyond the 200 growth barrier. So I stood up on a Sunday morning and told them “I am personally resigning as your personal pastor.” That might be risky if you don’t have a church that understands what’s necessary to grow, but it’s up to you to help them see this shift in being a leader to every individual and shift to being more of a rancher.

The truth is most pastors are not willing to give up some of what they love to see something that they would love even more, the growth of the church and the salvation of the lost. It’s not just the congregation that might be a barrier for us. It might be you.

OUTWARD-THINKING CHURCH

I’ve been working on a resource to help churches move through growth barriers. It’s linked below. In the process I got connected with the story of Genesis Church in Mexico, Missouri. The pastor, Jeff Stott, was sitting at a local football game with 1,000 fans. He knew 70% of his county was unchurched and that meant around 700 of people in the stands needed Jesus.

Genesis Church chose to grow beyond 200, and that meant outward-thinking leadership to model it for their people. That meant outward-focused worship service and use of technology and media in order to connect with the community. That meant outward-thinking language to help connect during their worship service. And that meant outward-thinking ministries to engage with local schools and with the community in public places.

We can’t want this to be about us. It’s not about us. And if it’s going to be about “Him” it has to be about “them” because He was about them.

Check out this unique resource I created to help your church break through the obstacles of church growth. It’s called Breaking the 200 Barrier.

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Ed Stetzer
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.

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