I was intrigued by the insights of Jay Childs in an article he wrote for Leadership Journal. The article, titled Church Growth vs. Church Seasons, focuses on the American fascination with large numbers. After telling some of his own story, Jay makes three primary observations:
- Our Situation is Not Unusual
- Non-Stop Numerical Growth is NOT a Biblical Expectation
- Healthy Churches Go Through Life-Cycles of Growth, Pruning, Decline, Blessing
While I appreciated the whole article, it was the insights of the second point that most resonated with me:
Ever since eminent missiologist Donald McGavran first published his seminal thoughts on church growth, American churches have often fixated on numerical growth. The basic assumption seems to be this: all churches should be growing numerically, all the time, and something is wrong if your church isn’t.
But as I’ve searched the New Testament and read countless other books on the subject, this assumption seems to be alien to the Bible. There is simply no biblical expectation that a local congregation will continually grow in size, uninterrupted. That seems to be an American presupposition forced onto the Scriptures.
If anything, Jesus told us to expect the opposite. He did promise that the gates of hell would not stand against the church, but he also commended the church in Philadelphia for standing firm though they had “little power.” He never criticizes any of the seven churches in Revelation for not accumulating numbers. He does scold, however, for moral and theological compromise.
Lesslie Newbigin writes in The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, “Reviewing the teaching of the New Testament, one would have to say, on the one hand, there is joy in the rapid growth of the church in the earliest days, but on the other, there is no evidence that numerical growth of the church is a matter of primary concern. There is no shred of evidence in Paul’s letters to suggest that he judged the churches by the measure of their success in rapid numerical growth. [Nowhere is there] anxiety or an enthusiasm about the numerical growth of the church.”
Now, don’t read me the wrong way. I am not opposed to growing churches. I am opposed to the obsession with church growth that makes numbers the primary – and sometimes only – grid by which a church is measured. I am opposed to the theological compromise, statistical fraud (including re-Baptisms), and other abuses perpetrated by churches for the sake of numbers.
I do believe that healthy churches grow.
I do understand that some pastors (and church leaders) hate numbers, not because they are inherently un-biblical but, because of fear and jealousy.
But I also believe that just as God has placed his design on all people, so he has a DNA for each local congregation. While there are things both people and churches can do to stunt growth, both must be evaluated in light of their own God-given DNA. How inappropriate would it be if I grew frustrated, even dismayed, that neither of my sons grow to be 6’4! While such height is not uncommon, it is not their DNA. (I’m only 6’1)
Sometimes the light of Scripture needs to be shed upon the situation that will expose the Idols of the heart that are the impetus of this common American dilemma. Childs’ article offers a ray.