Most church leaders I know would love to see their church grow. As a pastor or pastoral leader it is very gratifying to experience growth. At the same time, there is often criticism and complaint directed toward churches that are actually growing. A pastor I know recently commented on a growing “mega-church” in his region as a “threat” and “the enemy.”
This is polarizing to the Body of Christ, and no attitude to hold onto if you ever want to grow your own church. It is also lazy thinking. If I can blame some other church for “stealing” my parishioners, then I don’t have to take responsibility for my own declining numbers.
Another insidious attitude that many Catholic pastors I know hold is that the “mega-churches” are attracting parishioners by dumbing down the message of the Gospel and offering only entertainment instead of authentic worship. This is so offensive and obviously untrue in most places that it hardly needs refuting. The transformed lives of many post-Catholic Evangelicals is the most compelling argument. It is cynical and nonsensical to think that success is a sign of inauthentic or unorthodox church leadership.
Instead of excuses and recriminations we should be about identifying what it means to be a healthy, growing church.
Here are five points I’ve freely adapted from my friend Carey Nieuwhof.
- Healthy Churches Grow But Not All Growing Churches Are Healthy.
Healthy things usually grow but not all growing churches are healthy churches. Just because a church is growing doesn’t mean it’s healthy. And maybe that’s where some criticism is justified because we all know at least some growing churches that are not healthy.
- There Are Many Different Ways a Church Can Grow.
There are small and mid-sized churches who are thriving and healthy even though that isn’t currently translating into growth in weekly attendance. They are growing in other ways: discipleship, giving, serving, missions.
- An Outward Focused Church Creates the Healthiest Insiders.
There are many contributing factors but an outward focus is essential for health because it creates the healthiest insiders. Why is that? An inherent part of the Christian faith is death to self and selfish preferences. Your church needs to be about the community and the world or it will drift toward selfishness and consumerism.
- Healthy Leaders Produce Healthy Churches.
I’ve been pastor for 20 years. We have grown from 1200 a weekend to our current attendance of about 4,000. That growth has not been incremental. Most of it has happened in the last 6 or 7 years. And not coincidentally, I’ve probably been at my strongest and best during this same period. We’ve also build up a really healthy leadership team and grown our staff with great additions in these recent years (while saying goodbye to some problems). Growth is the fruit of our staff health.
- Decline Can Happen For A Season In a Healthy Church.
Like any living organism, churches go through seasons. Sometimes that means a healthy church will stall out or even decline. That can be because of a leadership change, the need for systems to catch up to where the church has grown, and sometimes, for no clear reason at all.
Oftentimes, it is a question of demographics: the community around you has changed. If your church’s season of decline has no end in sight, it’s not a season. And it’s the job of leadership to boldly face the new reality. I know a Presbyterian church in our region who finally admitted that their decline was irreversible and have since agreed to donate their church facility to a start-up (and growing) church that had been meeting in a movie theatre. That is God honoring, going where God is blessing. Good for them. Now they’re a growing church again.
For more on this check out careynieuwhof.com