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.