Church growth: Why numbers don’t tell the whole story

It is fashionable these days to judge the success of a church or ministry based on its size. Typically, the men on platforms at Christian conferences are the guys with the biggest churches. Pastors flock to hear their methods and imitate their strategies. I’m not sure when this trend began, but it doesn’t seem to be a strong theme throughout the history of the church, and least of all in the New Testament. I have a number of problems with this extremely narrow view of success.

For one thing, it’s possible to build big, and build badly. Paul says very clearly that it is the quality of your work that will be proven through the judgment, not the size of it. “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw – each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.”

We can also see that some of the biggest churches are not churches by any Biblical measure. If we’re going to use numbers as our measurement, then we’d have to say that some of the churches experiencing the most success internationally include those who pray to Mary, those who preach prosperity as the message of Christ, and all other kinds of bizarre and unbiblical practices. In other words, numbers, in and of themselves, tell you very little about whether the church is even Christian.

Further, you can build big with a fairly narrow gift set. When you read the NT it’s not at all clear that the apostles had the kinds of gifts that could have built a mega-church in today’s world. They had little to no concern for marketing, executive leadership skills, or rhetoric and excellence in the church service.

In fact, we have to confess that big church is sometimes the fruit of consumerist culture. The biggest churches are so often those that serve up a palatable diet of easy-eating, with no bitter edge and no roughage to clear out the system. It’s junk food for a spiritually flabby age, and we are playing right into the spirit of consumerism when we conform our church life to a model that draws in more customers, but doesn’t make disciples.

Now, consider this. Jesus had a penchant for driving people away rather than attempting to gather a large crowd of fans. So often in the gospels we see large numbers gathering, and Jesus responds by trying his hardest to offend them, and he usually succeeds. He tells them to “eat my flesh and drink my blood” and they think he’s into cannibalism. He rebukes them for seeking miracles rather than true spiritual life. He simply isn’t impressed by numbers, and he finds great success in repelling them.

And it goes without saying that Jesus left comparatively few disciples, so that, if we looked at the numbers alone we’d have to conclude that he would not have earned a place on any platform at any major Christian conference today. He would be an unknown provincial preacher with modest influence.

Despite all of this, I do believe that church growth is a vitally important aim and desire. If you don’t want your church to grow, you don’t care about the lost or about the glory of Christ. There is a special kind of pride that glories in being small and ‘faithful’, and I want no part of that.

But the problem is that we have become so enamoured with numbers that we judge success or failure by them, we platform guys because of their large churches who often have very little to say, we make heroes of men who may well be trimming their message to appease the masses, and we take pride in growth as though we achieved something, when the Bible is perfectly clear: one guy plants, another might water, but God gives the increase.