Almost any time I hear a pastor speak about church growth—whether in a book, a podcast, or a conference message—I want to cringe. Not because I’m against having a large number of people as part of a congregation, but because congregation size is so often used as a defense: What we’re doing must be working since people are showing up, so God must approve, right?
The thing I wonder about among many of these apparently healthy churches—and perhaps it’s just me being me—is how healthy are they, really? And how would you know if the growth experienced is actually beneficial? Based on what I’ve read so far in The Prodigal Church, Jared Wilson shares this concern. He writes:
It is a customary mantra of ministry that healthy things grow. And yet sometimes healthy things shrink. This is certainly true of our bodies, when we’re eating right and exercising. I mean, the formula doesn’t always work in every circumstance. “Healthy things grow” sounds right. But cancer grows too. (40)
Now think about that for a second: healthy things grow—but you really need to qualify what you mean by healthy growth. Are the people attending growing in godliness, or are more people simply showing up? Are more people being invested in so their gifts can flourish, or do they have to look elsewhere in order to exercise their gifts? Are leaders growing more deeply in their love for the people they serve—or are they beginning to hate them?
This is the danger of the unqualified (and unhelpful) mantra of “healthy things grow.”
If having a large number of people show up every week is our primary goal, we will inevitably do whatever it takes to make it happen. And as more people show up, while we might enjoy the high of it, we’ll eventually grow bitter toward some—perhaps many—of them because they don’t give, serve, or contribute to the life of the body in any discernible way.
The thing we want risks becoming the thing we hate.
The body will be ravaged by cancer, and we’ll be hard-pressed to do anything about it.
So what’s the solution? Having people show up on a Sunday isn’t bad, obviously, and if people are legitimately meeting Christ, we should praise God for his use of crooked sticks such as us. But maybe the best place to start, perhaps, we sit among the congregation on Sunday morning or we serve them as our vocation, is to begin asking ourselves not “are we growing”, but “are we growing in the right way”? Is our growth helping us—or is it hindering us?
There isn’t an easy answer to the question—even if that difficulty is merely accepting the truth—but it is worth asking.