The Mixed Motives Behind Church Growth
I [Andrew Wilson] love large churches. I was a pastor at a church that grew from around 500 to around 900—which, though it’s about the size of the creche in a megachurch, is fairly large in a UK context—and the church I’m at now had 1550 there three days ago, with a fourth site launching in October. Much of my day job involves helping my church, and often other churches, grow. Many of my friends lead large churches. Many of the people who have influenced me the most lead large churches. I go to several leadership conferences every year, and I learn something about growing churches from virtually all of them. I run a training course for leaders that aims to help people grow churches. I mention all this to say: yes, there are theologians out there who think that large churches are a bad idea and we should have nothing to do with them, but I’m not one of them.
Lately, though, I have become increasingly aware of the mixed motives behind church growth. This might sound like a sinister remark, although I certainly don’t mean it as one. But I think it is true: there are various reasons why we want our churches to grow, and some of them are wonderful, but not all of them are. And I think self-awareness and honesty on that point are probably helpful.
Here are ten that I can think of:
1. The examples of growing churches we find in the New Testament. Jerusalem: from 120, to 3000, to 5000. Rome: from the first missionary, whoever it was, to a group large enough to be blamed for rioting under Claudius and then scapegoated by Nero, and beyond. And so on.
2. The career validation that comes from leading a large church. If my friends are all advancing in their careers, and probably making more money than me, one way that I can reassure them (and myself!) that I am successful in my job is by growing my church. It is a form of career validation that the world understands.
3. The sense of call, or prophetic leading, to build a large church. Just as some people feel called/led to plant churches, and some feel called/led to go overseas, some feel called/led to lead a large church, without regarding this as somehow required of everyone else.
4. The fact that my salary may be connected to the size of the church. Because the pressures of leading 10,000 people and 120 staff are greater than those of leading 100 people and one member of staff, many churches will have salary structures that pay leaders of larger churches more (in my view, rightly). We may not like thinking about it, but that is another factor in the mix.
5. The belief that church growth indicates evangelistic success. (If you listen to what church growth experts say, this is by far the most common reason you will hear: “we want our churches to grow because we want more people come to know Jesus,” or equivalent. Whether it is actually true or not—whether, that is, churches of 3000 generally see more people saved and added than ten churches of 300—is another matter, of course.)
6. The feelgood factor that comes from being in a growing church. Many of our members (if we even have members, but that’s another story) will assume that a growing church is heading in the right direction, and a shrinking one is not, and this means that growth brings with it a feelgood factor, not just for the leaders but for the church as a whole.
7. The belief that church growth indicates leadership success. If I lead a small church, then I suspect that I am not a very good leader; if I lead a large one, then it suggests I probably am. So the size of my church is, at least implicitly, a way of measuring my leadership capacity.
8. The belief that reaching the world requires diversity of church size: big churches, small churches and everything in between. Some unbelievers will find a large church easier to come to than a small one, and vice versa, so some of us will need to build big ones.
9. The preference for the experience of being in a large church. Some of us prefer the strengths of large churches (big crowds, high quality music and production, specialist ministries, etc) to the strengths of small ones (ease of community, opportunities to lead, access to pastors, etc), so we want to lead large churches because they are the sorts of churches that we would want to go to.
10. The power and prestige that come from leading a large church. We like thinking about this one least of all, but if you’ve ever been in a “green room” you’ll have felt it: there can be an invisible pecking order amongst leaders which derives from church size. It is unpleasant; it is by no means ubiquitous; but it is out there.
For those of us who love large churches, or even lead them, it is worth asking ourselves whether (or, for the braver among us, to what extent) we are affected by or 2, 4 or 10. For those of us who dislike large churches, or even despise them, it is worth considering the merits of of 1, 3 and 8. For my part, working with a senior pastor and a staff team who are always talking about the latter, there is lots to be encouraged by here. But on the basis that Jeremiah was right about the human heart (17:9), and that Jesus was right about the kingdom (Matthew 13:33), it is always worth checking.