Is Church Growth Desirable or Dangerous? Yes.
When it comes to church growth, virtue really is a mean between extremes. It is right for churches to avoid falling into an implicit prosperity gospel, thinking that faithfulness will necessarily lead to obvious financial and numerical increase. It is also important, however, for churches to be wary of what Andy Jones calls the “scarcity gospel,” the belief that to be small and unpopular is necessarily a sign of faithfulness. This belief assumes that “we should expect God to do little through our churches or in our lifetime.” While this approach to thinking about church growth may protect one from disappointment, it also short-changes the power of God to do great things through the ordinary and faithful work He has given to the church. We all would do well to consider the plain statement of James: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2b).
Neither growth nor shrinking is necessarily a sign of a church's gospel faithfulness. We ought to long for God’s word to spread and take root in the lives of others, but we ought also to live with gratitude for whatever work the Lord has done among us. We may petition God through our prayers, but we must not grumble against him when His providence seems strange to us.
The Joys and Dangers of Growth
If we are in a small congregation, we ought to rejoice in our close fellowship, in the ordinary work of God lived out with the people whom God has placed us among. At the same time, we ought to see growth as a good gift and as a blessing when the Lord brings it.
Reading the early chapters of Acts, one is struck by the sense that the explosive growth of the early church was a good thing. When Luke writes that “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41), Luke writes it as a highpoint of the work of Christ and the application of redemption to the saints. The souls who were “added that day” were people who “received his word.” The goal is not the adding of the number so much as the people receiving the word. Jesus predicted church growth when he said “when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). There is no room for pessimism in Christ’s church.
In Acts, growth of the church was a good thing, and yet growth also came with opportunities for sin (see Acts 5:1-11) and new ministry difficulties (see Acts 6:1-7). These were opportunities, not for the apostles to rise to the occasion and show their strength, but for God to show new vistas of his mercy to his followers.
Many churches simply take it for granted that growth would of course be a positive thing, and thoughtlessly pursue it as an end in and of itself. To be sure, the desire for growth can be a God-given sign of love for the lost, and likewise a longing for the Gospel to reach many people and go out into the nations. However, the desire could also be a marker of pride, and can grow from a longing to draw people to ourselves.
Ambition is a deadly and dangerous thing, easily corrupting the heart and twisting that which is good and beautiful. Brennan Manning warns that “ambition to be a star in the body of Christ is alluring and seductive; it is also demonic, the glamorous enemy of all servanthood and love.” One could desire to see people come to the church of Christ, and either do so righteously from love, or wickedly from ambition. Paul Tripp says it like this: “Gospel-oriented achievement is a beautiful thing, but the desire to achieve becomes dangerous when it rises to rule the hearts of the leadership community.”
Because of this, it is crucial that in reflecting on church growth church officers examine their own hearts carefully and have their motivations guided by true and God-given reasons.
It is possible to desire growth for the sake of growth to feed ego or accrue influence and power. For some, church growth can become a sort of justification or a confirmation that we are good, or we are holy, or we are doing things the right way. And yet we know that apparent success can be deceptive and is not a dependable marker of virtue. The book of Job teaches us that success, comfort, and ease are not directly proportional to a man’s virtue. Habakkuk teaches that sometimes the wicked succeed and the poor suffer. Christ himself showed us that often goodness and perfection leads to poverty and a life of suffering. He expects that the same would be true of his followers (Matt. 10:24).
The desire to have one’s work, labor, and ministry confirmed by numerical growth is misguided and will inevitably lead to either an attitude of pride or an attitude of despair when the growth does not come. It would be better for a church not to grow than for it to be led by proud leaders whose souls calcify while believing that growth is connected somehow to them and their own strengths.
All good things come with the danger of twisting and idolizing it or not pursuing it for the Lord’s sake. This is true of food, sex, speech, and even the spread of the Gospel. This means that we ought to pray for, welcome, and rejoice in the growth of the church when God gives it. Yet it also means that growth is not the reason why the church exists: faithfulness is what we are called to first and foremost. Absent, for example, from Paul’s pastoral letters is any instruction to Timothy on making it a goal to see numerical growth. Instead, he emphasizes truth, discipleship, and caring for those who are in his midst. And so we water, we serve, we do as we are called—and the Lord may choose to bless the ministry of the word in a way that we can see, and we ought to rejoice in that and praise Him for doing it when He so chooses.
Growth from the Posture of Prayer
This humble posture ought to be one safeguard against prideful ambition. However, this is not enough. Our church, from the members to the elders, must see any growth that happens as a gracious work of God, and that will only happen if we have been people of prayer, both privately, and publicly as a congregation. Prayer does two things: (1) it is a way of publicly giving credit to God for everything good that can be seen in the church. (2) It also forces the one who prays to admit his own powerlessness. Paul Tripp, again:
“If you take credit as a leader instead of assigning credit to the one who sent you and who alone produces fruit out of your labors, you will praise less, pray less, and plan more. Leadership communities are in trouble when they assign more power to their planning than to their prayer. When you take credit for what you could not have produced on your own, you assign to yourself wisdom, power, and righteousness that you don’t have. Then you begin to assess yourself as capable rather than needy, as strong rather than weak, and as self-sufficient rather than dependent.”
A lack of prayer is a mark of self-sufficiency, and it is simultaneously a cause of self-sufficiency. There could be few things more dangerous for the souls of church leaders than to lead prayerlessly and then to see growth. Woe to him who does not pray for what he needs, but a double-woe to him to whom God grants success apart from prayer.
The humble posture of gratitude, helplessness, and prayerfulness are powerful safeguards that by God’s grace are meant to protect prideful ambition or growth pursued for its own sake. This means that if a church is small, we don’t become discouraged, and if it grows we don’t become puffed up with pride. Both small and large churches are a work of God and an answer to prayer, and they exist by God’s miraculous grace which he can give and take as he wills.
Should We Pursue Growth?
We’ve hopefully seen here that growth really is a blessing when it comes to a church that is humble, thankful, and prayerful. If growth is a good thing, then ought we to pursue it? Again, this is an area where many churches have fallen into dangerous situations and corrupt patterns. When one looks at the book of Acts, one sees a church that is at once doing its duty, but that is also not self-consciously seeking to accrue power and prestige, or feed ambition.
What does happen in Acts is that God’s servants pray, they do their duty by declaring the word, but you never hear them say, “We have to grow this church.” Rather, they do what God has called them to, and by the power of his Spirit, in his own timing, he rescues people and brings them to faith in him, increasing their number. So what the disciples actively and intentionally pursue is obedience and faithfulness through the foolishness of preaching (1 Cor. 1:20-31), and then God is gracious to give growth (3:6-7).
We should draw some principles from the practice and attitudes of the disciples in Acts. This means, in the first place, understanding that growth is a gift. Notice that the means given to the church, by design, make little worldly sense. It is perplexing to think that the simple declaration of God’s words would draw people in and change lives—and yet that is God’s plan. Churches err when they stray from the path of proclaiming the word, prayer, and sacraments. Yes, it seems foolish. How is a guy getting up and talking, handing out bread and juice, and the church singing old songs a plan for church growth? But it’s meant to baffle by design. God gives us His means, and he graciously uses them to change lives. Remember, this is the God who defeated the Ammonites using an intentionally nonsensical collection of 300 quasi-soldiers. This same God also grows His Church through “the folly of what we preach” (1 Cor. 1:21).
Growth is a gift, yet it is not a goal. We are called to gospel faithfulness and service, so that “when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Lk. 17:10). We should see growth as analogous to the scriptural attitude toward money. It is not money which is the root of all kinds of evils, but “the love of money” that is so destructive (1 Tim. 6:10; Heb. 13:5). Why? The person who loves money pursues money and lives for money, and does what he can to achieve this thing that he loves. By making money a good and a goal, many evils and heart motivations can be excused or even treated as virtuous when in fact the heart becomes twisted by the pursuit. Money can become part of one’s identity or status – it can puff up. What is the right way for a Christian to live with regard to money? He is to enjoy money and the opportunities that money grants, but he is also to be aware of the extreme dangers and attachments of the heart that money brings (1 Tim. 6:17). He is to remember that money is God’s to give and to take back. It is a gift, and never owed, and so he should hold and steward it with humility. It is given by a Father who is free to revoke what he has generously bestowed. He is to hold the money loosely and freely give and use financial blessings for the good of others.
If someone were to ask if they should pursue money, a pastoral heart would say, “No. Pursue faithfulness and stewardship with what you have. If you are not using the talents God has given you well, and you are burying those talents, then you may be guilty of disobedience, but money and its accumulation is not why God has placed you in this world.”
So, should the leadership of a church directly and intentionally pursue growth? No. Rather, we should pursue faithfulness, and pray that God would bring from it fruit. Sessions should pray that God make them faithful stewards of those people the Lord has sent their way and given them delegated care of. We should not be pulling back from blessing God’s people out of a fear of growth, but neither should we be controlled by a desire for it.
For some churches, faithfulness may include numerical growth. Yet whatever the case, we must trust the Lord of the harvest to bring in the sheaves (Luke 10:2), and pray always to that end.
Adam Parker is the Senior Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Beaverton, Oregon. He is the husband of Arryn and a father of four. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.
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 Tripp, Paul. Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church. Crossway, 37.
 Ibid., 45.