Many pastors don’t really want their churches to grow in numbers. They have seen the results of the seeker-sensitive movement: sermons light on actual Bible teaching, pastors who function more like CEO’s than shepherds, and people who may be attracted to a cool experience but aren’t actually formed into disciples. But growing a church in numbers is actually important for a number of reasons.
- If you don’t grow in numbers, eventually the church will decline and die. It’s just basic math. Each local church is aging all the time. If the church does not replenish its numbers, eventually it will have to close its door. When a local church closes its doors, the universal church across the globe should lament because that it one less church proclaiming the gospel in the world (unless the church is sinful and dysfunctional, then it should close!).
- The trajectory of the Bible is to value growth. The first command is for Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). Reproduction and adding numbers to the family was God’s intended design. Parents would marry, have offspring, who would in turn marry others and have offspring. The people of God were to expand and be sent out and fill the earth. With the entrance of sin, God adds a spiritual, missional component to his people. The new covenant community expands, not through biological birth but through spiritual rebirth. Paul saw the mission of the church fulfilling the original mandate given to Adam and Eve when he wrote in Colossians that the gospel was “bearing fruit and multiplying” (Col 1:6).
- A church which increased in Sunday morning attendance should (theoretically) have more opportunities to share the gospel with unbelievers who are attending the service. This would mean more people hearing of Jesus and escaping the wrath to come. At the very least, it would mean more Christians being able to be “velcroed” to the church, discipled, and sent out to bring the good news of Jesus to others.
- While many other spiritual disciples (like daily Bible reading) are to be commended, they are not commanded. But gathering together as a local body of believers is commanded (Heb 12). Moreover, believers gathering together for “large group” teaching is also the consistent pattern of the church in the book of Acts (chap. 2, 13, etc.). Therefore, Sunday morning services are absolutely essential to the life of a local church.
While their are compelling reasons to desire growth, it is also important to take into the “shadow” side of growth and what an overemphasis on numerical growth can do:
- It can lead to anxiety in the pastoral staff and wider church body. If you are judging your “success” by the numbers, it can drive you to be anxious about whether or not you will hit the numbers. Furthermore, many pastors can feel like failures because their church is not a certain size. While the Bible does speak about the outward trajectory of the gospel, it also does not explicitly use numerical size as a indicator of success. Jesus evaluates the churches in Revelation 2-3 primarily on how well they love God and others, how pure their doctrine is, and how they persevere under trial. Such criteria should be the primary influence on how we are judging ourselves.
- It can lead to a Sunday morning as performance, rather than as worship. When too much emphasis is placed on the Sunday morning gathering, the quality of the gathering becomes an end in itself. But the end is making disciples, not putting on a quality service. While, I would argue, high-quality services are important for making disciples; we must not become enamored with a service. Services are supposed to serve something: in the case of the local church, the mission of making disciples.
- It lead to a watering-down of the gospel. If the Sunday morning becomes all about reaching unbelievers, pastors can be tempted to preach messages which would “appeal” to them, rather than presenting Christ. Some hard edges do exist in the gospel message. The very response t0 the gospel–that we must receive Christ by faith–is a hard edge because it means we cannot save ourselves. We must down our claim to our lives and come under Christ’s Lordship. His Lordship also demands our repentance, turning from the sin we are in love with.
So how can we seek to grow the church in numbers without sacrificing biblical and theological integrity? It begins by having firm convictions about why we want to grow and what role numbers play in the church. Here are our convictions:
- We want to be courageous in holding lines, not merely drawing them. It doesn’t matter how much we say we value the gospel, or good doctrine, if we don’t actually teach it and fight for it, it doesn’t matter what our view of numerical growth is. It is interesting to me that doctrinal decline typically leads to numerical decline (see the statistics concerning the decline of mainline churches). So we can say that we’re all about not sacrificing the gospel for the sake of relevance and numbers, but that doesn’t mean anything. What matters is actually doing it! It begins with a firm resolve that we will not water down the gospel or grind away the hard edges of the gospel.
- We measure impact through sending capacity, not seating capacity. We want to be a church which sends others out on God’s mission. This could mean sending missionaries oversees, pastors into new churches, or the congregations back to their workplaces. However, we still must seek to use some kind of numbers to measure our sending capacity, because if we are not sending anyone then we are not being faithful to the mission! The question concerning numbers isn’t primarily, How many are attending on a Sunday morning? Rather, the primary question is, “How many have we sent out?” This requires A) we know what someone being “sent” means and B) we know who we’ve actually sent out!
- We want more people to attend LBC because that means more unbelievers have the opportunity to hear the gospel. The mission of LBC is to REACH, EQUIP, and SEND. Part of reaching Monmouth County with the gospel is preaching the gospel in every message and hoping that God will use it regenerate the unbelievers who sit among us. We Furthermore, the more believers we have attending LBC this means the more people we can develop into missional believers who will take the gospel with back into their families, jobs, and workplaces. This too means that more unbelievers will hear the gospel.
- We want to grow through primarily conversion growth, not transfer growth. The goal is to reach Monmouth County with the Gospel. The ideal scenario is that somehow an unbelieving person would be coming to LBC, hear the gospel, repent and believe. We would then equip this person in the gospel for the work of ministry. As they are being equipped on Sundays and through various ministries, we are sending them back out into the world to LIVE SENT–move toward others with the gospel in love and compassion. We do understand that sometimes people who are already Christians may attend and even join LBC. For example, a believer may move into the area and choose to check out LBC. Or other believers may be in a toxic church environment and need to leave. We understand those situations. What we don’t want is to create a culture in the church where we are “competing” with other churches for how many awesome services we provide. We do not want people to come to LBC merely for “what they can get out of it.” In fact, we should actively discourage consumerism. This means walking a fine line of trying to assimilate people into the church in an effective way while simultaneously giving people space to make an informed decision about LBC.
- We want to do a good job not because it is attractive to an unbeliever. We want to do a good job in everything we do because it glorifies God. Motives matter. Do we want good quality worship music and preaching? Yes, because a good job honors God. Unfortunately, it can be hard to discern one’s motives for doing things. We can preach an “excellent” sermon for a wide-variety of reasons. One pastor may do so out of honor to the Lord. Another may do so to build his own platform. On the outside, both messages look the same, but it is the motive which matters. However, not working to the best of one’s ability is not honoring to the Lord. So the tension we must walk is doing everything unto God’s glory, but not allowing such efforts get to our heads.
- We want people to invite their friends to church, but for the purpose of pointing them to Jesus, not mere church attendance. The end goal is not having more people in the room. The end goal is to preach the gospel, hoping that God will use it to save sinners. The end goal is to make disciples. Disciples are not merely made by sitting and listening to a sermon, although that is definitely the foundation of discipleship. But foundations are meant to be built on. Inviting others to church, then, is not the end goal, but one of the means to the end goal of making disciples.