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Why Is “Growth” a Dirty Word in the Church?

It’s our passion to ensure that the church is growing in influence and has the resources needed to fulfill its mission. So it’s interesting that we’re always getting comments like these:

“If God and the Holy Spirit cannot even motivate people to give all year round, why do they still hold out hope that all the other things He promised to do will come to pass? Seems like a very human organization that needs this book.”
“We’re waiting for you to offer How to Grow a Mega Church—seriously though, enough already!”
“Yeah, cause that’s what God and Jesus and church is all about….mo’ money….you ghouls….”
“Increase giving? Really? Show me scripture where Jesus said to ‘increase your giving’.”
“Our focus should not be on man-made tactics to grow a business. The Church is not a business, it is a Body. The Church will naturally grow if you follow the Holy Spirit, and let go of your agenda. God wants you blessed more than you want to be blessed. It’s really not that complicated. If you do it God’s way you will get His result.”[sic]

When it comes to topics related to “growth” and “money” in the church, maybe you feel the same way. Perhaps you were nodding your head as you read these comments. That’s completely okay: Lots of people would agree.

Let’s look at why “church growth” is such a hot-button issue.

What Is “Church Growth” Anyway?

The way people generally respond to the words “church growth,” you’d think it is just about creating megachurches. But that’s just not true. Church growth is about churches reaching more people with their influence and ministry. It’s also about increasing the resources they have to make that happen. If a church of 75 becomes a church or 150, that’s “church growth.”

Believe it or not, Paul’s epistles are sprinkled with church growth advice. Consider his advice to the Corinthians in his first letter:

“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:20–22).

Paul is basically sharing a technique he uses to build a rapport with people so they’ll be more open to hearing the gospel. Does it work all the time? No. Paul says it only saves “some,” but he holds up this approach as an example the Corinthian church should emulate. And if they’re able to add to their numbers by learning to identify more closely with the people, they’re experiencing church growth.

My “Church Growth” Experience

I completely understand the emotional reaction some people have to the words “church growth.”

Throughout my twenties, I served as an associate pastor and worship leader in many different churches. The largest one was about 500 people. In my thirties, I pastored a church plant that eventually closed after five years because it wasn’t able to sustain itself. Over time, I found that I’d developed a pretty dim view of large churches.

There was a time when I would have read the comments at the beginning of this post and nodded my head in agreement, too.

But after spending some time attending Willow Creek Community Church and doing some consulting with some churches that had 5,000+ members, I had to repent. My negative outlook didn’t stack up with my experience. For the most part, these churches were staffed by focused and spiritually mature believers who simply wanted to reach more people.

They were completely aware that the percentage of people truly following Jesus was considerably smaller than the number of people who attended, but they knew they had a better chance of influencing them if they came to the church than if they didn’t. They had programs with the sole intention of turning believers into disciples, and they were always hard at work building relationships that could turn attendees into Christ followers.

So I feel like I can empathize with the critics of large churches while having experience that has changed my perspective of church growth.

Why Is “Growth” Such a Dirty Word in the Church?

Is there a way we can seriously address concerns about church growth while advocating for the value of offering growth advice? I think so.

Here are some reasons that people bristle when the topic of church growth comes up:

1. “Megachurches are portrayed as the standard.”

Think about the way that the media standardizes female beauty. You’d think from reading ads or watching movies and red-carpet events, the standard for beauty is often judged by size. The skinnier you are, the prettier you are.

This emphasis creates what’s commonly known as “body shaming.” When this standard is consistently reinforced, normal women who are healthy and beautiful are made to feel ashamed for not matching a certain cultural expectation.

The same is true in ministry. In fact, megachurches are the supermodels of churches. All the celebrity pastors attend huge churches, and publishers flock to large-church leadership to create content and produce books.

When my denomination met for annual conferences, the speakers were always from huge churches—even though the average church size was only a couple hundred people. They’d talk about some of the things they were doing to grow, and we’d all rush back and try and implement them. When we didn’t experience any significant changes, we’d feel worse than when we started.

The standardization of size as one of the most important indicators of church/pastoral health, instead of faithfulness and service—has set up unreal expectations and solidified the weary cynicism of an entire generation of pastors.

Gaining perspective:

It’s entirely inappropriate to set up a humongous church as a standard. That said, healthy churches aspire to grow. They don’t have to grow to a specific number, but they should be growing.

In Matthew 25:14–30, Jesus shares a parable about three servants entrusted to care for different amounts of money. With wise investing, two of the servants increased the money they were given, while one hid and saved it. When the master returned, the wise servants who grew the master’s investment were applauded. The last servant, who was able to return everything the master gave him, was condemned. Why? Because he didn’t prioritize the master’s interests.

When it comes to the church, we, too, need to be concerned with multiplying what has been entrusted to us. This doesn’t mean that we need to build a megachurch. In fact, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to add more bodies to your church. But you do have to consider how your church can be increasing its reach and effectiveness.

2. “The way growing churches spend money is disgusting.”

I remember the first time I walked into Willow Creek Community Church. I probably looked like an Amish kid in a Best Buy. I didn’t know what to make of it. It was unbelievably huge. As my wife and I made our way to the sanctuary, I remember turning to her and saying, “We’d better run, or we might miss our connecting flight!”

When you talk about church growth, people instantly make a megachurch connection. The next connection they make is about money. The aversion people in smaller churches feel toward seeing the extravagance in some large churches makes perfect sense. It doesn’t help when some churches make news trying to raise funds to get their pastor his own private jet.

So anytime you offer advice related to increasing a church’s giving, hackles go up. The instant response is: “All church people care about is money. This is all a big scam to empty our wallets, and if you really trusted God to provide you wouldn’t need to talk about this.”

Gaining perspective:

Let me be frank: It costs money to run a church. It costs money to maintain whatever level a church is at, and it costs more money to grow. There’s just no way around it.

I know so many smaller churches who struggle simply to stay open because they can’t keep their cash flow at a consistent level. A lot of that is because even though it takes money to fund the church services and programs congregants attend, they’re not moved to give regularly.

To address the issue of giving doesn’t display a lack of faith. Paul addresses the same issue with the Corinthians when he says:

“Now it is superfluous for me to write to you about the ministry for the saints, for I know your readiness, of which I boast about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year. And your zeal has stirred up most of them. But I am sending the brothers so that our boasting about you may not prove empty in this matter, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be. Otherwise, if some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready, we would be humiliated—to say nothing of you—for being so confident. So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction” (2 Cor. 9:1–5).

Paul’s been bragging to the Macedonians about the generosity of the Corinthians. Now he’s sending some workers ahead to ensure that the monetary gift he’s promised the Macedonians is ready. After talking up the Corinthians, he’s kind of worried that he’s going to get there with a contingent from Macedonia and be humiliated by their lack of preparation.

Is this a sign of Paul’s a lack of faith in God’s ability to supply the Macedonians needs? Of course not. It represents Paul’s appropriate sense of responsibility. God’s provision always fills in the gaps of our best efforts. God might feed the birds of the air, but He doesn’t throw the food in their nest.
It’s likely that God is supplying the needs of struggling churches, but people aren’t being as generous with His provision as they should be. It’s not inappropriate to address this.

Every church is responsible for the resources God has provided. And while a coffee shop in a church annex might feel like an extravagance to a smaller church, it might represent a strategic plan for a larger church to keep people engaged and involved after a service.

There will always be some who, like the disciples, say, “How can you spend money on that extravagance when the money could be given to the poor” (Matt. 26:8–8)? But in the end, Jesus will judge the work of every church. If a church feels strongly about giving to the poor, they should work hard to raise as much money as possible to do so.

3. “Discussions about church growth make me feel inadequate.”

This frustration makes complete sense to me. With huge churches being held up as the standard, it makes everyone faithfully serving in smaller churches feel like complete failures—even though they might have incredible and powerful ministries.

It doesn’t help when celebrity pastors of large churches say things like Andy Stanley did in a recent message:

“When I hear adults say, ‘Well, I don’t like a big church, I like about 200, I want to be able to know everybody,’ I say, ‘You are so stinking selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids [or] anybody else’s kids’….If you don’t go to a church large enough where you can have enough middle schoolers and high schoolers to separate them so they can have small groups and grow up the local church, you are a selfish adult. Get over it. Find yourself a big old church where your kids can connect with a bunch of people and grow up and love the local church. Instead, you drag your kids to a church they hate, and then they grow up and hate the local church. They go to college, and you pray that there will be a church in the college town that they connect with. Guess what? All those churches are big.”

This instantly caused some anger and hurt in the smaller church community. And, to Stanley’s credit, he immediately issued an unequivocal apology:

“The negative reaction to the clip from last weekend’s message is entirely justified. Heck, even I was offended by what I said! I apologize.”

Not only do small church pastors frequently hear comments like this—they sit through discussions about church growth as if it’s a process that anyone can replicate. The inability of small-church pastors to duplicate this growth is seen as a professional failure. The constant struggle to grow creates a deep exhaustion and animosity to church-growth discussions.

Gaining perspective:

I have seen this weariness in both the pastors I have served with and in myself. When I’m honest, I recognize that a lot of my antagonism with discussions about growth stemmed from a sour-grapes mentality: I wanted it, but when I couldn’t achieve it, I had to convince myself that there was something flawed about it.

When people expect the church to grow and it’s not, you have one of three options:

  • Throw in the towel. Some pastors develop this deep sense of shame and give up. They don’t stop pastoring, or even wishing that the church would grow. They just stop pouring energy into trying to make it happen.
  • Turn the ship around. Some church leadership teams will never give up, and they keep plugging away at it, rejoicing at every step forward.
  • Make growth look less desirable. The third option is kind of strange. Some pastors go out of their way to make growth seem bad or unbiblical. It’s as if they’re trying to deflect anyone’s ability to blame them by making a virtue out of not growing.


4. “Church growth is a zero-sum game.”

I live in a smallish town with a lot of older, established churches. Many years ago, a larger church planted a campus here and there was an exodus of young people and families leaving their old church families and flocking to this vibrant new one. The animosity many churches felt toward this interloper was almost palpable.

This is why a lot of churches feel like church growth is a zero-sum game. For someone to win, someone else has to lose. From the perspective of many smaller churches, big churches are doing nothing but siphoning off believers from other congregations.

Gaining perspective:

I have lost my share of congregants to larger churches, and have felt this way myself. In fact, I once made a snarky remark about someone leaving my church to go to a megachurch once and the woman I was talking to said, “How come you never feel this indignant when someone leaves another church to come to ours?”


She was right. My frustration was because I felt like something was being taken from me, but it wasn’t. Maybe I could have made them happier and they would have stayed. Perhaps they left and it was an act of willful disobedience on their part. In the end, it might have been the best thing for them—and us. I need to trust that God sees these things clearer than I do.

The truth is that a lot of the growth in larger churches comes from people who are coming back to church after an absence and people who are brand new to Christianity. Large churches aren’t building congregations out of disenfranchised people from other churches. They’re just not.

Jesus reminds us that the fields are ripe for the harvest. Don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of feeling like there are only so many people to go around. It’s ridiculous. If someone leaves your church, praise God that you have an empty seat to fill with a new or growing believer.

5. “I don’t want to lose what makes our church unique.”

Growth requires change. I find old photographs of my kids as toddlers and it makes me incredibly sad and nostalgic. As much as I miss that time in their life, I would have been more concerned if they remained toddlers forever. Children are supposed to grow into adults and, hopefully, churches grow, too.

There is a legitimate fear that as your church grows, it will start to resemble every other huge church. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I know of huge cell churches that only meet as one large church once a month, and the rest of the time they meet in smaller gatherings of 2–4 cells in smaller venues the rest of the month. Your church can grow to reflect your values—you just have to be intentional.

Gaining perspective:

As a church grows, it goes through various cycles. Some of them are wonderful and some of them are extremely trying. Of course, you look at the salad days and think, “I wish it could be like this all the time.” But trying to hold onto those moments is a slow drift away from maturity.

Decide what healthy growth looks like for your community. And start aspiring to see that growth materialize. As you grow, it’s important to pull off at some rest stops, relax, and enjoy the scenery. But you can’t decide to live there.

We Still Need to Talk about Growth

When Jesus gave us the Great Commission, it wasn’t “go into the world and create a disciple.” It was “go into the world and make disciples (plural) of all nations” (Matt. 28:16–20). A church’s work is never done. You want to grow your church, not because everyone who comes to your church is going to become a disciple, but because you have more of an opportunity to get involved in their lives and influence them in that direction.

Think about it. The whole Book of Acts and the Epistles tell the story of how a tiny spark of a religious movement grew into a raging fire. Your church is part of a story about the ever-growing kingdom of God. That’s exciting, right?

Growth Affords You Opportunities

The 80/20 rule states that only 20 percent of any organization is doing 80 percent of the work. Obviously, if your church is 100 people, that’s only 20 people doing all the work. But if your church is 1,000 people—that’s 200 people doing work. Sure, it might still be 20 percent, but the amount of work getting done is growing exponentially.

Think of it as a flywheel. Getting from 200 to 500 requires so much intentional effort, but once you get that flywheel turning it starts getting easier and easier. The good you are able to do continues to grow.

Get Enthusiastic about Growth Again

I believe every church has the capacity for growth on some level. There are things we can do to facilitate more growth, and there are attitudes and behaviors that can stunt our growth. While we can’t recreate the exact experience of large churches, there are definitely ways we can learn from and adapt elements that have helped them grow.