Saturday, October 22, 2011

Does Growth Indicate a Healthy Church?

I was asked the other day by a ministry-colleague whether growth is a necessary sign of health i.e. if a church is healthy, then it is growing? Or again, if a church is growing, does it mean it is necessarily healthy?

This is a great question. First, we have to ask what growth is. Is growth numerical? Is growth something deeper? Well, in biblical terms, both are growth (nice rhyme). Ideally, the church overall and an individual church is adding numbers to it, the growth of the body in quantitative terms—through converts of course, while not losing believers out the back door. Ideally too, a church is growing through the maturation of its people, qualitative growth. Eph 4:11–16 seems to me to speak of both types of growth, as the leaders of the church including pastors, evangelists and others, equip the body which grows to maturity, likely both qualitative and quantitative. So, you could have a church that is really growing qualitatively, but there are no new people coming in. That is, the people are growing in maturity in Christ, becoming more solid in their faith, more committed disciples, more prayerful, more loving, more worshipful, more holy or even more evangelistic, etc, i.e. more committed to the things of God, but not growing numerically. This does not mean it is an unhealthy church, it may be a very healthy church, and more healthy than the one down the road that is growing quickly. Hopefully, part of this growth will be a passion to share the faith. But this does not guarantee converts—it may lead to resistance, persecution and even the breaking up of the church in some contexts.

Secondly, what about numerical growth, is it a sign of health, and conversely, a sign of lack of health. Well, I would say it depends. For example, is it a sign of health that a church is growing when the people are coming because of the great light show, music, entertainment and preaching, even if the preaching is pop-preaching that is more like spiritual junk-food than a real hearty spiritual meal? Is it healthy when a church is growing quickly, but when you dig deep there are great issues of spiritual immaturity, lack of unity, contention, spiritual abuse from autocratic leaders? Is it healthy when the people have left the church down the road because of a split and have come because they like the style of the new one? Is it healthy if many are going to move on again within a few years, going to the next 'cool' church out there? Is it healthy when a church is growing but heresy is being preached? Or not even heresy, but an imbalanced gospel say, preaching health, wealth, and prosperity if you follow Jesus. I don't think it is. Not all growth is good growth. On the other hand, if people in the church are out preaching the gospel and people are coming to Christ, and the church is growing through new converts, then it is a sign of health.

Thirdly, a church can be static numerically despite great efforts. There are churches where people are active in prayer, evangelism, discipleship and worship, and yet there is little numerical growth. One of the flaws in many Christians thinking is that if we do a, b, c, and d, then growth will necessarily occur. I disagree. The gospel when preached can often repel. It can lead to persecution, rejection and hatred. It is the aroma of death to the perishing. If we are in an environment which is resistant, and many people today and over history are and have been, proactive and authentic Christianity can be offensive and can even dwindle, recede, or be driven under-ground.

So, growth is not necessarily a mark of growth. It may be, it may not be. It all depends. We seek growth and seek to nurture, but the work is God's. Paul puts it best when he says, one plants, another waters, but God makes it grow. In my thinking, growth involves human volitional response and we cannot control this. What we seek to do is be faithful to the best of our ability to the gospel and pray for growth, qualitative and quantitative. Then it is up to God. We need to stop judging one another and ourselves on the basis of growth—be faithful and let the Lord of the harvest be the judge.


Howard Carter said...

hey Mark

good question as the Northern Presbytery are being invited to adopt a vision staement 'connecting to grow churches, in Christ' which of course is not simply about numerical growth.

In the PCANZ disciption of healthy congregations the last indicator states

"Newcomers and numerical growth. Healthy congregations are more likely to be attracting and holding newcomers, retaining young adults and growing numerically. For congregations whose mission is in the many places/contexts in which its members live through most of the week the indicators of health include the outcomes of their activities and the ways the local congregation provides support.

It idicates that healthy congrgations are likely to see growth, to attract people and maingain them... that this is an utworking of the healthy spirituality of their people and activities.

I have been challanged by Leonard Sweet's indicators of a ehalthy church which is beyond the metrics of ABC (Attendance, Buildings and Cash.... rather it may have to do with the number of butts in the carpark rather than bums on seats... Do non churched people attracted and accepted. Not the number of relationships in a church but the depth of those relationships. Not the budget of the church but the bredth of the compassion budget of the church.

In the end you are right it is Giod who brings the growth.

As you are aware time with studentsoul has come to an end simply because there hasn't been the numerical growth hoped for, realistically or not. Not becasue of the lack of depth of ministry.

Anonymous said...

Good question and a good answer Mark. I would maybe throw in that we are called to bring Christ to the world not the world to church (tho one should lead to the other but as you say the two may not be in sync). Also a church that may be static in numbers, or even declining because it is not seen as 'relevant' may indeed as you say be growing in quality, it may be growing in prayer, it may be growing in witness in the work place etc due to the people digger deeper into God?

I guess it may be hard for people (and I think I am being harsh) as it is human nature that 'denominations' want to evangelize the lost, as long as they sign up for the right 'brand'?

Howard Carter said...

A quote from Thomas Merton that I think is relevant and poigniant "Perhaps the most insidious temptation to be avoided is one which characteristic of power structure itself: this fetishism of immediate visible results'

Howard Carter said...

A quote from Thomas Merton that I think is relevant and poigniant "Perhaps the most insidious temptation to be avoided is one which characteristic of power structure itself: this fetishism of immediate visible results'

Anonymous said...

Greetings all,
Is not the great commandment, "to make disciples".
Does this not have a numerical growth imperative in it?

Even underground churches grow numerically, and often faster than ones "above ground"

Anonymous said...

A well balanced article Mark. Thanks :) Reminds me again that if the focus is on numbers it is so easy to start to forget to look to and at Jesus (which eventually starts to influence our preaching and evangelism). In my experience I find more and more that if I look to Jesus and the cross these other things fall into place by themselves. Love how you included in the definition of growth with individual and collective spiritual growth.


Mark Keown said...

Hi Constant. I reckon if we look to Jesus and do everything right it will lead to qualitative growth but guarantees nothing in terms of numeral growth.It may see some believers move on because it is not their cup of tea. It may lead to persecution. It may lead to a smaller church. Nothing guarantees numerical growth except that the Lord blesses our efforts and grows his church. If we do the things of God whole-heartedly, we give the gospel its opportunity though, and that is what we must do.

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