Is Church Growth the Highway to Hell?

June 6, 2006 by

Start talking about church growth and things can get ugly. Eyebrows raise. Tempers flare. Comments explode. Just ask any blogging pastor who has broached the subject. It’s as if growing your church is taking the on-ramp to the highway to hell.

This is the first in a multi-part series on the supposed evils of church growth.

Churches Should Grow
The bottomline is that churches are supposed to grow.

“No matter what size you are, there should be growth happening.” -Tony Morgan, author of Simply Strategic Growth, from the Simply Strategic Show, “Numbers are People Too”.

“I don’t think anyone who is intellectually honest can say that God isn’t into the church growing.” –Perry Noble, pastor of New Spring Church.

“Since the church is a living organism, it is natural for it to grow if it is healthy. … If a church is not growing, it is dying.” -Rick Warren in his book The Purpose-Driven Church (16).

The New Testament church grew daily (Acts 2:47). I think it’s hard to deny that the purpose of the church is to grow, to bring in new people and increase numbers.

Pesky Numbers
And perhaps that’s the rub. Some people are concerned with motivation or focus, thinking numbers have suddenly become supreme. Others wonder if a successful church always has to be growing. Others ask if it’s ever healthy for a church to be declining. Some might just be jealous.

It’s a critical—and foundational—question as we talk about marketing strategies. If you think the church shouldn’t grow, or are more perplexed with how the church grows, marketing becomes futile.

So we’re going to spend some time looking at church growth and numbers. We don’t know everything and haven’t read every book on the subject, so please share your thoughts in the comments, or feel free to step up as a guest blogger and offer your perspective.

Stick around and journey with us:

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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24 Responses to “Is Church Growth the Highway to Hell?”

  • Bill Hutchison
    June 6, 2006

    I wish that I could remember where this was from but…
    – How many successful McDonald’s never sold a hamburger
    – How many successful Starbucks never sold a coffee
    If the church isn’t winning people to Christ and therefor increasing in numbers, then how can it be considered successful?
    If a church is growing in numbers, but not winning people to Christ, then there is another church out there that is dropping in numbers.

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  • kevin
    June 6, 2006

    Hey Bill, that was from us back in March: Churches That Don’t Grow

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  • Bill Hutchison
    June 6, 2006

    Thanks, I remembered reading it somewhere, but I couldn’t remember where.
    It’s a great point, that’s for sure. (I am biased though as I am a full time volunteer with a missions agency.)

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  • ssj4Christian
    June 6, 2006

    The church should focus on numbers according to Matthew 28:18-20, but like all things when MAN is in charge and not the Spirit church growth becomes “EXTREME”. Church leaders must stop looking at what the other guy is doing and focus on what the Spirit of God is saying concerning the ministry responsibility placed before them. When this becomes reality all the previously mentioned concerns will disappear and Jesus will come and I can go on vacation.

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  • Gene Mason
    June 6, 2006

    Matthew 28:19-20 clearly tells us to “make disciples of all nations.” Disciple-making is growth-oriented. We should constantly be seeking to reach the lost.
    Acts 2:42 shows the church devoted to four things: the apostles teaching, prayer, fellowship, and breaking of bread (which is often interpreted as communion or worship). The verse following says “God added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
    If we are functioning as the church was designed to function, growth is the natural result as God gives the increase. So while our focus should not be “on growth,” but rather on our core calling and function, we should see growth as one result of that.
    I’m with many evangelicals on this topic: a church is either growing, or dying.
    And to our churches in America, wake up! There were 360 million new believers on the continent of Africa in the 20th century, and the church in China is estimated now to be the largest in the world–and it’s totally underground. It seems God does not really need HD video screens, mass mailings and websites after all. Let us not be so arrogant in this country to think we have the corner on church growth.
    Oh, that we would develop the faith and knowledge of God’s Word that supercedes our image and gets to the core of what the church was meant to be. “Why is my church not growing?” is the wrong question. We ought to be asking, “What is God really challenging us to do, and are we doing that like our very life depended on it?”

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    • Coree
      August 16, 2010

      Mathew 24:14
      And the good new of the kingdom will be preached through out the entire inhabited earth for a witness to all the nations and then the end will come.
      Who dose this? These are the true God’s people.
      So who comes knocking on your door to read you a scripture and give you a magazine and offer you a free bible study?

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  • Mike
    June 6, 2006

    What is pesky about this whole thing–and let’s be honest this is one of those topics that get’s talked and debated to death, but risking that let’s go on…
    What is pesky is that we only usually count what is easy to count: butts in seats and dollars in dishes. And, let me add, that just because they are easy to count doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable or we shouldn’t count them. Real sacrificial giving is a very mature discipline. That is one form of good “growth” in your congregation. As can be attendence, (but let’s be honest it is also the easiest thing you can do at a church)but that is usually only an indicator of “breadth” growth, not necessarily “depth” growth.
    The rub for me is that long-term, genuine evangelism, as a life-style is a very, very mature practice for a Christian (unless you have that particular spiritual gift in which case if it breathes you are probably sharing your faith with it–we all know the type and thank God for them!).
    So congregation wide, genuine, on-going evangelism is the product of good discipleship. Real, solid, well formed discipleship that comes from being a student of the Word, rich fellowship (that somehow avoids turning inward), authentic worship (Romans 12: 1,2 kind not just music–really important distinction!), and relational discipleship that comes along side to encourage and help.
    Here’s my point…how do you count that kind of critical growth? You find a church doing that and I’ll show you a church growing numerically as well. I’m all for counting–let’s figure out how to count the right things in the right ways.
    Oh, yea, this type of discipleship growth is the only kind that will also innoculate a congregation against “triumphalism.” Which is the creeping pride of “look at our size, numbers, creativity, (fill in the blank here…) aren’t we doing a great job for God!
    True maturity sees all those numbers and the growth and properly gives thanks that the church or individual had the privilege to be apart of that process. That’s real growth! Let’s count that.

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  • ssj4Christian
    June 6, 2006

    “What is God really challenging us to do, and are we doing that like our very life depended on it?”
    Great statment Mr. Mason

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  • ssj4Christian
    June 6, 2006

    The leadership at my church believes “it’s not about the numbers”. Maybe a better statement would be “We should be concerned about our numbers. If we are not growing we must be open to the spirit and change. Our goal is not to become an extreme mega-church with a 5 story-parking garage like pastor X. We grow to see lives changed as Jesus changed ours.

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  • Jeremy Scheller
    June 6, 2006

    Churches should grow.
    How they grow is somewhat important though.
    We’re a three year old church that ballooned to 700 in weekly attendance 7 months ago…now comes the growing pains…
    We had so many people coming and we were always so behind in terms of having effective and translatable ministries that people could plug into, that our numbers have plummeted in the last few months to about 400-500 in weekly attendance. All the while, in about two years, we never saw any significant increase in attendance to mid-week classes/activities/events.
    So I really started to try and map who was coming to church on Sunday. We did 4 weeks of surveying and found that anywhere from 40 – 65% of our people were college students from local christian colleges.
    Growth was clearly latteral not vertical. We have done a great job attracting Christians to the big show, but we haven’t done a great job getting unchurched people in the door and bringing them to Christ.
    Somewhere the mission got lost, and now we’re trying to stop in our tracks and create an actual (praise God) marketing plan and overall strategic plan for the next several years. Included in this is obviously issues related to growth, but more importantly we’re going to be focusing more on living out our brand values and purpose with the hope that the people who come in our doors will be there on purpose, not just because we have the hottest worship team in town…
    So I ask the question is it more important for our church to grow, or for THE CHURCH to grow? The two aren’t necessarily the same…

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  • Brandon Meek
    June 6, 2006

    Church growth shouldn’t be about a specific number, but more about seeing more people come to Christ.
    For many people, I think their problem is in the pursuit of a number, not in seeing growth.

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  • Eric Jaffe
    June 6, 2006

    I too think churches should grow. Numbers represent lives and if a church is healthy and life giving then those lives represent lives changed for Christ.
    We have been blessed to grow to just under 1000 in 3 years. I think much of that growth was due to the seeds of prayer of those who came before us. Making the harvest ripe for such a time as this.
    We use every available means to MARKET the church believing that God will use water bottles, flyers, simple acts of christian kindness, tv, web, radio, print and more to draw people unto Himself.
    I agree with Warren and others that organisms that aren’t growing are dying.
    How awesome it is to see the church growing!

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  • Jeff
    June 6, 2006

    Talking about “the church growing” seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse. The emphasis ought to be on saving souls; if that happens, the church *will* grow, but it’s an effect of what our real goal ought to be, not an end in and of itself. To me, that’s something that seems to get lost in discussing “church growth.”

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  • Josh
    June 6, 2006

    I agree about the emphasis on evangelism to the lost as the primary method of church growth but…
    we also need to remember discipleship, otherwise our new friends are going to walk past our convienient signs and friendly greeters and right out our nicley pained doors. we have to offer christ and him alone. the other is just that.

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  • Scott Andreas
    June 6, 2006

    Though I’ve since moved to a new area, I spent two years with a church that had a very interesting goal:
    It grew to split.
    Today, this congregation is about ten years old and numbers only 350. Yet it has spun off four or five new congregations in the surrounding area (and one in South America).
    A few interesting notes:
    – This church lies in a small town of ~8,000 people.
    – This church’s web site has been “offline for maintenance” for several months.
    – The banner hanging above the front door is a Rick Warren / National Ad Council mashup of white text over a black background saying “got purpose?”
    My point here is that Christ reaches people without slick, original marketing, too. Though the bulletin employs both Comic Sans and enough exclamation marks to excite Ben Stein, they still “manage” to live out the missional journey of a life with Jesus Christ guided by his Holy Spirit quite well.
    I work in cross-media design to help brand churches and their ministries. I don’t care for church signs that employ puns. But I love my job. And I always get excited when I hear about people who have become interested in a church I’ve worked for as a result of a promo piece.
    But I’ve spent most of today designing a DVD cover and running proofs through a finnicky printer. And I spent a good portion of this evening with a young woman who has vision difficulties but a beautiful heart. The logo doesn’t mean anything to her, but the Spirit of God has touched her life through the community in a profound way.
    There’s a part of me that longs for the simple days of MS Word and a B&W copier.
    Let’s just remember what “marketing” and “growth” are for: to help communicate effectively the good news of Jesus Christ, and to add to that number of communicators.
    But which is more important? That the gospel is lived, or kerned?

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  • Jim from
    June 7, 2006

    Be careful not to paint the opposition as being “anti-growth”, when really they are anti-synthetic-growth. I’ve never met anyone who was really against churches growing, so it’s important to not make that strawman and then slash him to shreds.
    The real questions are, what methods are being used to achieve that growth. And do those methods involve a message of biblical half-truths and worldly compromises in order to achieve growth. We want to follow the pattern of Acts 2 in which God causes the growth, not man’s clever ingenuity.
    Number counting is fine, so long as it isn’t the end all indicator of God’s blessing on methods. The Catholic church, Mormonism, and Islam all have “numbers”, so I would say that this may be a very inaccurate way to judge God’s approval.
    Thanks for allowing me to post this.

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  • Monty
    June 7, 2006

    This is such a slippery slope for church leaders. Fail to affirm numbers and you are labeled as lazy, ineffective, not biblical, or a self-absorbed leader and church. Focus on numbers and you can be tempted with the “anybody at any cost,” mantra to feed the bigger barns and programs being built/added to handle the swelling numbers. In a day of “consumer” Christians it seems many churches are simply swapping church shoppers. Sincere reasons for changing churches aside, I don’t think you can biblically support church hopping, shopping and swapping at the levels it seems to occur in American churches. You certainly can’t let it pass for biblical evangelism.
    I’m glad someone mentioned Starbucks as an example in the discussion of numbers. I’m a major fan. According to USA Today (5/19 under “money and food”)they are adding stores globally (currently 11,000+ with a goal of 45,000 total!)at an alarming rate. They have broadened their bread and butter coffee base and now sell their own music, are looking at publishing books,and market films as they extend the brand. Someone said, “Starbucks is the new McDonalds.” In my marketing career days I remember the clout McDonalds carried back then as a leader in food, franchising and branding. However, as McDonalds extended and extended it lost its market dominance or lustre. It will be interesting to see in the next 20 years if SB’s rush to broaden their retail base will dilute the very cup of coffee that started it all and crack their market hold. Perhaps CEO Howard Schultz remembers the McDonalds fall and will temper his leverage against the company’s profit margin. However, “Market Ego” (being number 1 continually) can often be a tough master when it comes to winning at all costs. We can only hope and pray that America’s large churches will not lose sight of our shared biblical mission and purpose for the sake of filling offering plates, or maintaining their “market hold” on published church growth statistics, or to establish their own publishing arm.
    I guess when it comes to mega churches I’m more impressed with those who can say 70% or more of their membership comes from people who came to Christ as a direct result of their ministry. I think Willow and SB used to be in that category, but I don’t know what their current membership statistics are. I know Wayne Cordeiro’s church in Hawaii can make that claim. I hope Willow and SB still can too!
    Those of us in far lesser-sized (by thousands, ha) churches need the mega churches to set the pace in reaching people for Christ. We need you to set the banner in discipleship and foster growth fields that produce spiritually formed Christ followers who can help us grow, minister and reach the communities we’re called to serve through their own relocation, books they ultimately publish, how they live out their faith in their vocational context, and the people they will in turn disciple who will branch out to start new churches, or serve on foreign fields, etc.
    How refreshing it is to see large churches starting churches and “letting go” without trying to control everything the start church does and simply trying to make it a clone of the home church, or try to pass off a weekly satellite message as one coming out of the local context and personal experience of serving that local body. Kudos to those who help, mentor, train and encourage local, hands-on, men and women in leadership.
    A wise man once said to me, “there’s no such thing as a small church, only small minded Christians and ministers.” After serving 13 of my 17 years in large contexts, and now the last four in a start from complete scratch, I appreciate that statement. Hybels said, “Sometimes God calls you to hard places.” He’s right and f or some it’s not a metro, or area that’s receptive to something new, etc. However, if those servants are giving out of their giftedness and genuinely ministering where God has called, they will see growth. Maybe not in numbers, or bodies but they will see growth. Mars Hill wasn’t a mega response for Paul, but there was a response and He simply did what God called him to do. May we be found so faithful!

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  • [rhymes with kerouac]
    June 7, 2006

    “The New Testament church grew daily (Acts 2:47).”
    The New Testament church lived in communes. There is absolutely no-way a valid comparison, in any way shape or form, can be drawn between a group of believers who have walked away from friends, family, homes and business to live in common with one another and with Christ. We just can’t draw a comparison between the new testament church and the 90 minute, one day a week feed-me fest that gets passed off as Christianity.
    Should a church grow or not grow is an entirely inane question, just one more rabbit trail crossing the road to an irreducible level of irrelevance in the world. All those buildings, all those parking lots, all those PowerPoint lyrics and carpeted auditoriums – what if there was no actual building to go to on Sunday morning? What if we really were in the world, but not of it, instead of, well, somewhere in between? What if it was time to start over?

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  • Slice of Laodicea
    June 8, 2006

    Debunking The Strawman:
    “You People Want Tiny Churches”

    This is a common misrepresentation by leaders of the Church Growth Movement of their opposition. Those who speak out against “synthetic” (man made) church growth are often portrayed as wanting tiny churches. One church growth marketing website this wee…

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  • Jeremy Curry
    June 11, 2006

    I’m not sure if this has been said, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing for Churches to grow, or that it will lead to “Hell”. But I think it’s a healthier form to split the Church once the attendance start to exceed 126.
    If you have ever read The Tipping Point, it’s interesting to note that once a group of people grows beyond 126, there begins to be a disconnect.
    I’ve also always found that smaller churchers are more personable, and more effective, if they aren’t focused wholly on who’s already there.

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  • Mike
    January 28, 2007

    Can you could say that I am dying, for there is only one of me, and I am no longer multiplying the number of “me-s” on this planet? Or is the size of my waistline the indicator that I am living as intended?
    An inane comparison I know. But the point of an organic body is that it is active and not stagnant. Organic life is in a constant flux of dying & rebuilding. The key indicator is whether the thing is continuing to fulfill its purpose.
    Some on this board believe the church’s one foundation is Evangelism. But I have known a number of “quick-growth” churches that were full of spiritual neophytes that came and went as it felt right.
    Compare that to the country church where the same 50 people gather semi-weekly to pray and study and support one another’s SPIRITUAL growth as they all prepare themselves for the day when they meet Jesus face to face. They give freely of their meager earnings to pay the pastor and to give to missions and to help the neighbor going through hard times. They rejoice with good news and bear one anothers’ sorrows.
    And they pray. Ever heard an old farmer (or factory worker) pray when he’s spent a lifetime studying the King James? It’s as if they’re talking to the fellow in the next chair at the kitchen table. They make requests like they expect them to be answered, though not always today.
    So what is the value in a church that doesn’t grow to a thousand members in its first six months? What is the value of a church sees a new convert once a year, if that often?
    Micah 6:8 says that what the Lord requires of us church members is “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with (our) God.” We are to gather as community to care for one another, to “love one another” John 10:10, and to keep the church functioning as a “house of prayer.” (Ia 56:7, quoted in Luke 19:46)
    Leave the rest to God.

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  • fritz swakhammer
    April 26, 2007

    What a nightmare for you poor fellows!
    I thank God I’m Eastern Orthodox!
    With you I see it’s all about the demographic, a percentage of the population. How many attended this week? How many this week?
    With us it’s different.
    Our priest will serve liturgy even if only a token amount of people
    come, or if no one comes. If times of war and revolution come,
    he will stand and be killed at the alter, if need be, after the many examples in our 2000 year history shows us, most recently in Russia. I’m not claiming perfecting for our Church, no one can do that; We’re merely practicing Christian’s, after all. It’s all for the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If it’s not, it won’t work. Our church grows every year, not alot, but always upward. Besides, if you understand the communion of saints, you realize we cannot do anything but grow, as we
    always commemorate are members who have gone on. They are all members of the body of Christ and will ever be with the Lord.

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  • Jake
    February 22, 2008

    Interesting comments by Mike the Eastern Orthodox! I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, and although I no longer hold the same beliefs, I find myself longing for the days of the liturgy. I now serve in the evangelical church and sometime long for the consistency, stability and overall reverence for God and only God. I left the business world to dedicate the remainder of my life to serving Christ, but sometimes it seems that I have only changed “business” careers! I firmly believe that we (evangelicals) are cutting off the nose despite the face. We can learn a great deal from the liturgical church. I can hear the gasps!

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  • Rob Adcox
    February 6, 2011

    When churches care more about the contents of your wallet than they do your soul, it’s time for churches to go belly up.

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