The music thudded in my ears as I crouched in the church foyer, begging God to send just one family through the doors. This had become my Sunday routine. Our church plant wasn’t very well-established, but we had all the elements people said we needed for church growth—a cool name, a cool band, and a core of cool young people. But people stayed away in droves. And Sunday after Sunday, it became a kind of crisis of faith for me to endure another paltry turnout.
I knew how to talk a big game about pastoring who you’ve got, about not entrusting church growth to production gimmicks and pragmatic methods. But it still hurt that the Lord had not rewarded our faithfulness with success.
Or had he?
Fifteen years later, I’ve learned a lot more about the experience of church growth. I took that same shaky faith in the biblical conviction about “how to do church” into a pastorate in New England—into the least-churched state in the nation, in fact, where thousands and thousands of people stay away in droves from church, generally. In a context where cultural Christianity was not a factor, where people were largely ambivalent about Christianity (if not openly hostile), and in a church where we emphatically did not have the elements the experts said we must to grow a church, the Lord started sending many through our door.
Our building was the quintessential New England white-steepled church on the town green. The average age of our worship band was early sixties. We had an old pipe organ—and we used it to sing old hymns. When I got to this church, we didn’t have very many people and we had almost no young people at all. Our service was nearly two hours long. I preached expositional messages through books of the Bible. And people came. And kept coming. Our attendance increased steadily, we ran out of seats and parking spaces regularly, baptism numbers increased each year, our membership ranks grew.
But I never forgot those days in the foyer of the church plant, begging God to send just one or two more our way. I had learned a valuable lesson in the hard days of lack that helped me tremendously in the joyful days of gain—namely, that Christ isn’t really interested in how big my church is.
Aim for Faithfulness
You wouldn’t get that impression from the gurus of church growth, where faithfulness both equals and is proven by visible success. If your church is swelling in numbers, it is seen as verifiable proof you are doing something right. And, of course, we’ve also seen the depressing downside to this logic, as abusive and other disqualified leaders often maintain their positions because of the “proof” of their success. But I had to learn early not to tune my heart to the rise or fall of church metrics.
First of all, I simply couldn’t see that emphasis in the Bible. Sure, there are plenty of times God’s servants counted. They counted how many were added to the number of Christ-followers, they counted how many witnessed Christ’s preaching, etc. This tells me there’s nothing wrong with counting, and it tells me, in fact, that counting can tell me important things. But it can’t tell me the most important things. As Paul and the other apostles are instructing the churches and her leaders through their letters, we never find any approximation of the question, “How many are you running?” They seem entirely disinterested in it.
Secondly, the testimony of the Scriptures seems to be predicated on the idea that, while Christians are to remain faithful in evangelism specifically and the mission of God generally, the church is designed to exist as a kind of minority presence in the world. We should expect not to be popular.
Of course, some churches are more popular than others. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with a big church. You and I have likely both met faithful megachurch pastors in our lives, as well as faithless small church pastors. The point is this: size isn’t a reliable predictor of faithfulness, and it doesn’t work either way we want to run the logic—either against smallness or bigness.
No, what the Lord requires of us is faithfulness. And while it’s perfectly normal for every pastor to want his church to grow (again, don’t buy into the idea that either bigness or smallness proves faithfulness in themselves) it’s also idolatrous to marry our validation, our justification, our sense of okayness to our attendance, budget, or platform. This is a losing game.
Christ’s Unchanging Favor
As our New England church grew, many churches around us did not. We had all the visible markers of success that normal leaders want. And I got a lot of pats on the back for it. I got taken to a fair number of meetings where other pastors over coffee would ask me about my methods. They were usually disappointed in my answer because I said we just tried to remain faithful to preach the gospel, love each other, and love our neighbors. We did some outreach stuff, sure, and we did some evangelism training. But we weren’t following any of the church growth recipes for increase. We were planting and watering and trusting God to bring the growth . . . or not to.
While I enjoyed the growth and wanted my church to enjoy the growth, I tried (imperfectly, of course) not to take credit. My previous church plant experience also taught me this lesson: the extent to which you give me the credit for the growth is the extent to which you’ll give me the blame for lack of growth. Christ isn’t calling us to grow his church. He will do that. He is calling us to be faithful.
When you get to the end of your race, you will not be judged on how many people you shepherded. You will have to give an account for how you shepherded, of course—but not how many.
As you toil and trust, you can learn to cast this earthly care onto him. He can be trusted with the attendance of your church. He can be trusted with the limits of your personal leadership. He can be trusted with what he has entrusted to you. If you pastor long enough, you will likely see seasons of both waxing and waning numbers. You will have ministry periods that are full and some that are lean. That’s just the course of normal life. It will help your sanity—and your endurance!—if you will tune your affections not to “how the church is going” but to the unshakable foundation and irrevocable love of Christ the King. His favor toward a sinner like you cannot wax and wane. It is always full to overflowing.
Don’t get me wrong—Jesus is very interested in growing his kingdom. He will see without a doubt that his plan for the spread of the gospel and the expansion of his glory into every nook and cranny of creation will be fulfilled. And this might mean the growth of your church. But it might not. The question is: Can you be okay with that? Jesus is.