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The Danger of Focusing On Numerical Growth

I wrote this entry some time ago and never published it. It isn’t that I didn’t like its message. It just got missed. I am publishing it today because I think that it is an important message for the beginning of a new year. I hope that you are challenged and encouraged by its message.

In my last year of Bible College I was introduced to what was then a fairly new movement among church leaders in Canada and the United States. It became known as the Church Growth Movement, led by Donald McGavern and C. Peter Wagner out of Fuller Theological Seminary.

The main focus of this movement was on numerical growth with the suggestion that if you weren’t growing numerically you were failing as a church and as a pastor.

As a young man just out of Bible College this all sounded exciting to me. To paraphrase from the famous Christmas poem I went to bed at night with visions of large numbers dancing in my head. I could envision a church filled with excited people. All that I had to do was follow the steps laid out for me in the Church Growth material.

In the intervening years I have had lots of time to consider this approach and I have moved from embracing it with wide open arms to viewing it as dangerous to the well-being of churches and leadership personnel.

There are three primary concerns that I have with a focus on numbers.


Its impact on churches

Having been told for a half century that numerical growth is the prime indicator of success, too many churches feel like failures when they don’t experience it. The result is that many small churches suffer from low self-esteem. They see themselves as second rate, as having little impact, as not meeting the expectations of outsiders.

Low self-esteem in a church is often caused by an emphasis on numbers and ironically the low self-esteem then results in even fewer people coming to the church. When that starts to happen it becomes a vicious circle.

An emphasis on numbers cause low self-esteem which in turn reduces the numbers which then results in even lower self-esteem which may result in even lower numbers.

Reality is that people don’t invite other people to come to a church if they themselves aren’t excited about being there.

If it was as simple as following a set of rules, then every church would grow but it isn’t. Numerical growth is affected by numerous factors many of which are beyond the church’s control. Church’s need to pin their sense of value on theological truths that are unmovable and certain not on something that may not happen even when they do things that are right.


Its impact on pastors

The emphasis on numerical growth has had a devastating impact on pastors. They have been fired from churches because the numbers didn’t increase like everyone hoped they would when they hired them.

They have felt like failures because they haven’t been able to grow their churches the way that the books and workshops tell them that they should.

They become depressed because they are trying to do something that they are not equipped to do.

They lose their passion because they feel that other people are judging them and they aren’t living up to the expectations.

Perhaps most serious of all they are being asked to do something that isn’t even what God called them to do. Most pastors have been called to pastor and shepherd the people under their care. They have not been called to build a vision around market strategies that will produce growth.

Too often churches, in looking for a new pastor, search for someone who is charismatic and dynamic who will be able to lead them to the promised land of numerical growth. If only they had twenty more families their problems would be over. If they can find that dynamic young leader, they will be sure to attract those families. The problem is that more often than not this approach fails.


Its impact on our theology of the church

For the past fifty years church leaders have been told that they need to apply business principles to their churches. If leaders will just apply those principles, their churches will succeed.

The problem with this is that churches are not businesses.

Let me repeat that:

Churches are not businesses.

Because they are not businesses they have different values.

Because they have different values, they need to operate on a different set of principles.

The New Testament uses a variety of word pictures to help people understand how the church is to function.

The church is likened to a family with a focus on relationships.

The church is likened to a bride with an emphasis on the love and commitment that should be part of all marriages.

The church is likened to a body with its diversity in function and its unity in purpose.

The church is likened to a building with its description of the many parts combining into a unified whole.

To the best of my knowledge there is no where in Scripture where the church is likened to a business designed for the purpose of producing a profit for the people involved.

I am not suggesting that businesses shouldn’t produce profits. I am saying that while that is a legitimate purpose for a business it is not for a church.

The church needs to measure success in ways other than simply by how many people attend its services. The measure of success for a church needs to be the impact that it is having in people’s lives.


What constitutes impact

I want to conclude with a very important point. I realize that it would be possible for someone to read what I have written and come to the conclusion that I am opposed to numerical growth in churches. One might decide that I am in favour of small churches remaining small and that evangelism isn’t important to me.

That would not be the case.

Churches need to be concerned about winning people to Christ. They need to have a passion for reaching out into their communities with the gospel. For more on this see my blog of a few weeks ago entitled Evangelism In The Small Church.

The problem is that most churches, even the large ones, aren’t growing because they are successfully reaching people in their communities but because they are successfully attracting people from other churches.

The one thing that most large churches do really well is provide the kind of programs that attract Christians to their churches.

I’m not saying that they do this intentionally but they do do it. If a survey were done of the people who attend, they would find that the largest majority come from other churches.

The sad thing is that when the focus is on numerical growth then drawing people away from other churches becomes a good thing. In fact most churches are excited about the transfer growth that they experience and console themselves with the belief that if the other churches were fulfilling their mandate as well as they were, people wouldn’t leave those churches to come to them.

A focus on numerical growth tends to produce bad theology and bad theology produces a faulty vision for what a church should be.


One thought on “The Danger of Focusing On Numerical Growth

  1. Owen Juhlke

    Thanks for the posting Ron. You’ve hit the mark with this issue! We have approximately 20 that attend our church, and we’re okay with that. I would rather have a church of 20 devoted believers, than a church of 200 fence sitters. Thanks again.

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