Jesus and Church Growth

Jesus and Church Growth

Ever since the advent of the modern church growth movement (in the 1950s), pastors and local churches have been under increasing pressure to do something to facilitate church growth. The current movement was founded primarily by two people: Donald McGavran and Robert Schuller.

Donald McGavran wrote The Bridges of God in 1955. Peter Wagner claims that this book “launched the Church Growth Movement.” Robert Schuller started his ministry in California at what became the Crystal Cathedral. (I can still remember attending this church once when I was a preteen living in southern California.) Later, in 1970, Schuller founded the Robert Schuller Institute for Successful Church Leadership, where he has trained many key leaders in the Church Growth Movement.

The movement has spawned some highly visible “successes,” such as Willow Creek Church and Saddleback Church. Nevertheless, in spite of fifty years of training thousands of pastors, weekly church attendance in America has not risen in terms of the percentage of the population.

Church growth advocates often cite the figure that 80% of churches are declining or are in a state of plateau. Seminaries use that figure to support the need to learn church growth principles. Since the movement has yet to reverse the trends, another way of interpreting these figures is to know that, if you accept the definitions of the Church Growth Movement, 80% of all those going into the ministry are failing.

The great missionary statesman, Leslie Newbigin, writes in The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, “Reviewing, then, the teaching of the New Testament, one would have to say, on the one hand, there is joy in the rapid growth of the church in the earliest days, but that, on the other, there is no evidence that numerical growth of the church is matter of primary concern. There is no shred of evidence in Paul’s letters to suggest that he judged the churches by the measure of their success in rapid numerical growth . . . [Nowhere is there] anxiety or an enthusiasm about the numerical growth of the church” (p. 126).

This was my experience in a rapidly growing church in Michigan from 1990-2013. It was a lot of fun (at times), but it also caused me to think a lot about church growth vs. church health.

Recently, in reading through Luke’s Gospel, I came across an interesting comment that Luke made about Jesus and the increasing numbers attending to His preaching: “As the crowds increased, Jesus said, ‘This is a wicked generation'” (Luke 11:29). Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the church growth movement. So it’s fair to ask: was Jesus in favor of sharing the gospel, loving the church, seeing it grow? Absolutely! He makes the claim that “He will build His church, and the gates of Hell will not stand against it” (Matthew 16). Jesus clearly loves the local church and predicted its expansion around the world. Having said that, does Jesus automatically equate an increase in attendance in a local church with church health? Clearly not.

An increase in attendance may indicate health, but it may not. It depends. Healthy churches often do grow—a lot—and sometimes for long periods of time (i.e. 20-25 years!). But healthy churches also plateau, decline, and receive pruning from God’s hand, and there are lots of reasons for this. Congregational size is simply not in our hands; size is in the camp of the Sovereign One. Just like our personal evangelism, our role is to communicate a message; it is God’s role to bring increase or not. Gary McIntosh writes in his book, Taking Your Church to the Next Level, “Normally, churches that remain vital for long periods of time experience not one single life cycle but several life cycles of growth, plateau and decline” (p. 33).

Our job is to keep a church healthy by focusing on correct doctrine, biblical preaching, God-centered worship services, choosing mature leaders, practicing church discipline, loving our flock, caring for the hurting, and sending out workers to the nations. Who knows why a church suddenly “starts growing”—or suddenly “stops growing”? Sure, sometimes it’s not to difficult to figure it out. But other times, if we were honest, it’s a bit baffling. Knowing that non-stop growth is not expected of us is a relief for the pastor trying to cope with the numbers fixation of western culture. “Success” in evangelism, missions, and church size is simply not in our court. It is up to the Holy One of Israel.

by Jay Childs, Senior Pastor