Much has been written about the “Church Growth Movement” over the last few decades. This movement has virtually become synonymous with pragmatism, consumerism, diluting the gospel, minimizing doctrine, and abandoning church membership. Although the movement is not as prominent as it once was—and despite being thoroughly critiqued and biblically dismantled—it is still alive and well today.
One unfortunate side effect of this movement is that small churches tend to be written off as either unhealthy, unsuccessful, or both. So, considering that ECC is a relatively small church, I want to provide some encouragement by helping us remember what true, biblical church growth looks like and what metrics we ought to be concerned with.
The Church Growth Movement and Business Metrics
According to Church Growth thinking, numerical growth is the primary indicator of a church’s health and success. If a church has many visitors, dozens of programs, big budgets, multiple worship services, slick branding, high-quality “productions” (according to Hollywood or Nashville standards), multiple “satellite” campuses, a commanding social media presence, and ubiquitous marketing, then the church must be healthy and successful. After all, aren’t those that kinds of things that make a business successful?
Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with large churches or the desire for growth. But if a church’s health and success is based on business principles—if numerical growth is assumed to be a church’s most important goal—we end up adopting the world’s metrics rather than God’s. The desire for big numbers all too often overshadows the desire for gospel purity, faithfulness to Scripture, and healthy church membership. And when numbers become the primary concern, pastors become CEOs rather than shepherds; deacons simply become a board of trustees; and people are seen as “leads” and “potential customers” rather than sheep.
Examining the Biblical Evidence
If we consider what Scripture has to say about church growth, it becomes quite clear that numerical growth was not the primary goal of the early church. While it is true that the book of Acts records the dramatic and supernatural growth of the church (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 6:7; 9:31; 16:5), this does not seem to have been a focus of the early church.1 Consider the following biblical evidence:
- There is no record in the New Testament of a church rebuked for being small in size, for its lack of numerical growth, or even for not being committed to personal evangelism. The NT writers do, however, have plenty of words for churches teaching heresy, practicing immorality, and being filled with idle brothers sowing division.
- In Romans 12:9-21, Paul gives 20 or so commands to the church, but there is no exhortation to grow or even evangelize.
- In Paul’s list of commands in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22, we find another long list of imperatives that excludes any reference to church growth.
- In Peter’s first epistle, we find many commands about Christlikeness, being good citizens, and being able to give a defense for the hope Christians have, but there seems to be no concern with numerical growth.
- John tells the church to walk in the light, confess their sin, love one another, and remain faithful to apostolic teaching, yet he has nothing to say about church growth.
- Jesus assures his disciples that his kingdom will grow and fill the earth (cf. Matt. 13:31-32), and the Great Commission is a command to preach the gospel and make disciples of all nations, but that in no way implies or guarantees there will be mega-churches in every city.
Let me be clear: this does not suggest churches must be small or that a church need not worry about evangelism or numbers at all. The church certainly preached the gospel out of obedience to the risen Lord Jesus (Matt 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; 1 Thess 1:8). Paul himself prays for opportunities to preach the gospel as well as boldness and clarity when preaching (Col. 4:2-4). But Scripture gives no indication that numerical growth necessarily means a healthy and successful church.
Biblical Metrics for Church Growth
The constant concern and primary goal of the early church is spiritual growth—namely faithfulness to Scripture, patient endurance, and holiness.2 In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he doesn’t pray that the church grows numerically, but that they might know God’s will, walk worthy of their calling, bear fruit, increase in knowledge of God, endure suffering with joy, and give thanks to God (Col 1:9-14). Once again, Paul is not opposed to the church growing numerically, but that’s not his primary focus. His ultimate concern was Christlikeness (Gal. 5:15-26; Eph. 1:17-23; 3:14-21; 4:11-16; Phil. 2:14-16; 4:4-9; Col. 1:9-14; 2:6-8).
While there are many passages to support this conclusion, consider Paul’s commands to the Thessalonians:
May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones (1 Thess. 3:12-13; cf. 4:1-12).
Paul could care less how “big” the Thessalonian church became. In fact, when Paul praised the Thessalonians for preaching the gospel (1 Thess 1:7-8), he didn’t comment at all on whether or not their evangelism resulted in numerical growth. Why? Because he understood that the numerical growth was up to God and God alone (1 Cor. 3:7; Acts 2:47). He knew that while there is much work to be done for the kingdom of God, we cannot do God’s work: raising those dead in sins to newness of life. We can plant the seed, we can water the seed, “but” (not “and”) it is God who gives the growth. What Paul did care about was the love the Thessalonians had for Christ, for one another, and their holiness, which depended on their faithfulness to Scripture (cf. 1 Thess 1:3-8; 2:13-14).
Simply put, you don’t need big numbers, a big building, and a big budget to be a healthy and fruitful church. Big numbers may be a sign of revival and God’s blessing, but they are not necessarily the signs of health and success. In fact, faithfulness and holiness are not even required to have numerical growth, multiple campuses, and a worship experience that rivals the Grammys. But you cannot have a healthy and successful church in God’s eyes without them.
Scripture shows us that faithfulness to God’s methods and concern for God’s metrics do not always produce guaranteed and measurable results. Even Jesus’ own ministry drove thousands away (John 6:1-66). Large numbers of people and dozens of daily “decisions for Christ” do not necessarily indicate a healthy, growing, successful church.
Beloved, let us disregard business metrics and worldly standards of success. Let’s be content with what Scripture has to say about the health and success of our church. Regardless of numbers, may we continue to focus on being faithful to Scripture, exalting and treasuring Christ, growing in holiness, and making disciples by the grace of God and the power of the Spirit.
- John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 81-83.
- See The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace, by Jared C. Wilson.
Mitch Bedzyk serves as a teacher and worship leader at Elmira Christian Center. He received his Master of Theological Studies from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and works in IT for the NY Office of Mental Health. He and his wife, Sarah, have two sons, Oliver and Micah, and are foster parents. In his spare time he enjoys reading, coffee, guitar, following the Bundesliga and MLS, and playing fantasy soccer. You can follow him @mitchbedzyk