I had a friend — I’ll call him Bill — who would work out at the gym every day. Whenever we got together, he liked to flex his biceps and say, “Greg, feel this!” Sure enough, Bill’s muscles were rock hard.
Then one day, I heard the terrible news: Bill had died of a heart attack. Even though he appeared healthy and strong on the outside, his heart was diseased. Inwardly, as it turned out, Bill was a weakling.
I am reminded of Bill when I think about the church today. Outwardly, a ministry can seem to be going well, and everything looks promising. But the reality shows a much different story.
What makes a church body grow big doesn’t necessarily make it healthy.
Over the last two decades, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of large churches, including “megachurches” (congregations of 1,000 or more), around the country.
The Lord has certainly blessed Harvest Christian Fellowship, the church that I pastor, with great success and growth. As a result, I’m frequently asked about the methods we’ve used. Is there some kind of church-growth formula that we follow? Can what we do at Harvest be applied to any church, anywhere, with similar results?
I understand these questions and the motivations behind them. Pastors would rather preach to people than to open spaces. And let’s face it, something would be terribly wrong if Christians weren’t interested in seeing churches grow.
But it’s time to take a hard look at what church growth means.
In a magazine article titled “The Myth of Church Growth,” David Dunlap cites some troubling statistics. During the boom period for megachurches, the percentage of Americans who claim to be “born again” has remained constant at about 32%. But Dunlap said that up 80% of the growth in these megachurches has not come from new Christians, but from transfers⎯people moving one church to another.
Dunlap went on to quote C. Peter Wagner, one of the leading spokesmen for the church-growth movement, who admitted, “I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with the church growth principles we’ve developed . . . yet somehow they don’t seem to work.”
I would suggest that one reason why church-growth principles don’t always work is because they tend to treat church as if it were a business. For example, some church growth experts have told pastors that their “customers” no longer attend to commune with God, but to “consume” a personal or family service.
A survey of 1,000 church attenders asked the question, “Why does the church exist?” According to 89% of the responders, the church’s purpose was “to take care of my family’s and my spiritual needs.” Only 11% of them said the purpose of the church was “to win the world for Jesus Christ.”
Those attitudes are a big red flag to me and many others. A business-driven strategy to growing churches will only make things worse. If we train Christians to be consumers instead of communers, we’ll end up with customers instead of disciples. It might fill up a sanctuary or auditorium, but it will never turn the world upside down for Christ.
Now, the last thing I want to do is discourage any person or ministry from heeding God’s call, or cause division in the church. But we need to be careful about limiting the ways God can work, and we also must be aware of how our strategies—even the well-intentioned, statistically valid ones—can actually take us off course and off our real mission⎯reaching the world for Christ.
Over the next few posts, I want to talk about some popular strategies for church growth and how they can actually hurt a church’s health when they are misused.