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Thursday, December 08, 2011

Church Growth Planning

On the Huffington Post of all places an article appeared titled, "How to Shrink Your Church". Pastor Tim Suttle argues that success in Church is not the same as success in business. While nearly all churches are aiming for "bigger and better", Suttle claims that the aim of the Church is not more people and more money, but faithfulness. The goal is not a greater reach, but to call people to godliness. That, he assures us, will not likely draw crowds. The double-edged error of the modern church, he says, is sentimentality and pragmatism. We are quite sure that the job of the church is to make people feel better, to affirm their lives, to grow, so we go with "what works". On the contrary, he says that the church is designed to die.

The Bible is full of contradictions. Not contradictions to itself, but contradictions to normal human thinking. "If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all" (Mark 9:35). "If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (1 John 2:15). "To you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake" (Phil 1:29)."I die daily" (1 Cor 15:31). "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Gal 2:20). "I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ" (Phil 3:8). These are things that we would call "counterintuitive". They appear contrary to common sense. We like when Jesus says, "I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly" (John 10:10), but can't figure out how to lay that beside things like "He has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.' Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me" (2 Cor 12:9). "Wait, wait ... which is it? Abundant life or 'boast in weakness'?" We like all those happy "joy" verses, but how do we align them with the "suffering for Christ's sake" stuff? We are really looking forward to the blessings, but can't figure out how "Those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives" (Heb 12:6) fits in. So we hope to waddle, fat, rich, and happy, into the presence of God and do our best to encourage everyone else to do so.

The call from God, however, is not for our temporal pleasure. It is not for "good", but godliness. We are not called to comfort, but self-sacrifice. We aren't called to be "whole" but to be holy. Ours is a "peace that passes understanding" rather than the far more common blind peace the world offers that doesn't see the storm behind it. We are called to "the joy of the Lord", not a passing fad of pleasure or comfort. To some, even suggesting a life of sacrifice and obedience is tantamount to Phariseeism and the ultimate evil, but it's not my suggestion.

Pastors, try this. Preach consistently "I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service of worship" (Rom 12:1) and see how your church grows. Practice the Matt 18 (Matt 18:12-17) kind of church discipline and see what happens to the numbers. Urge your congregation to embrace suffering, appreciate discipline, work at discipleship, bear one anothers' burdens, count all things as loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ, aim for total surrender and genuine obedience and see if your membership swells. I suspect that two things will happen. First, numbers would tend to dwindle. We are promised "they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths" (2 Tim 4:3-4). Preaching the whole counsel of God including the "less savory" parts will not likely increase your numbers. It might decimate your church. Second, however, is that those who remain will be a different breed of Christian than our standard model today in America. Not nearly as wide, but far deeper, these would be used of God in ways that today's shallow "I want to be whole and healthy" version couldn't imagine. Against such depth the world has no defense.


Jeremy D. Troxler said...


What might also occur is that following the pruning new growth will take place, and with a deep well of godliness already in place that is taking nutrients from the Source for nourishment the new growth will have the resources necessary to blossom and flourish as well. Possibly never to "mega-church" size numerically, but a complete body with depth that bears much good fruit.

Great post and a great challenge for all of us (make a personal priority godliness, not goodness).

Stan said...

Yes, holiness, not "wholeness". Depth, not width.

Craig said...

As someone wiser than I am once said, "Healthy organisms grow". It seems that if your church is healthy then there should be some sort of growth happening. Whether that is numerical, spiritual, or otherwise, growth should be a good thing.

Stan said...

I think far too much emphasis is placed on numbers and "success" as measured by such things as corporations. The biblical measure of success is not the same as the world's version. "Growth", according to Christ, is "bearing fruit".

Miklós said...

I think growth is also related to the environment and not only to health. A healthy organism placed into a hostile environment may decay. This world is a hostile place for Christians as far as I understand things, and it is a miracle of God keeping us standing. We may fail in the eyes of the world sometimes, or even completely, as Jesus failed in their eyes, but who we really are is decided by God and not by the world. I don't say I understand these things, how these work, but very interesting and exciting topic indeed.

Craig said...


I would agree that numbers are not always the best measure, yet that does not preclude the numerical growth of a healthy spiritually balanced church. Nor would I suggest that a church that was not growing numerically was not healthy. You are right about the biblical measure of success, yet the first part of Acts commends the numerical growth of the early church. I see it as both and, not either or.


In general I would agree, yet we see some phenomenal growth (both numerical and otherwise) in some areas that would seem to be hostile to Christianity. I have certainly seen a vitality and depth of faith in the third world church that puts us Americans to shame.

Stan said...

Certainly not "either/or".

I gave this illustration to a pastor once who was concerned about "success" at his church because the numbers were dwindling:

"I know of a church awhile back. Tell me if you think it was a success or a failure. It started with one dynamic leader. He had a small following with a central core of a dozen or so men. As he continued, the numbers grew quickly. First a dozen, then tenfold, then it was a megachurch. The pastor was teaching thousands at a time. People came from everywhere to hear him. After a couple of years, though, he started making some disturbing statements that shook some of his listeners. They started dropping out. He ran into a problem with the law and more started dropping off. After three years or so, this once huge following was back to the core group. When he was arrested, they split up, too. Was that a successful church?"

"No," my pastor friend answered, "obviously."

"That, dear friend, was the first church. The pastor was Jesus. And I can't imagine calling that a failure."

My point? It's not about the numbers. They may or may not be there, but it's not about the numbers.

Miklós said...

If we look the parable of the sower, then hostility is: "19 and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful." (Mk 4).
So besides that open physical hostility might be a problem in the third world, yet the poverty and simplicity of life they have may keep them a better soil. The sentimentality and pragmatism in rich countries, which sneaks into the souls conformity to the world, might be a much more dreadful threat.
Besides of course the presence of God feels good, and the Word of God is practical, just not the way the world works...
Really "gowth should be a good thing" I am not opposing here.

Stan said...

Miklós, I have been convinced for many years that one of the biggest impediments to the Gospel and genuine Christian living is comfort and "tolerance". The "tolerance" of which I speak is "You go ahead and believe whatever you want ... as long as it doesn't really affect your life or mine." Or, modern American society.

Joni Eareckson Tada, a remarkable spokesman in a wheelchair for God, told of a woman she met in Uganda (I believe). She lived in a box and had horrible physical maladies. The woman was so excited to gather with the people of God and serve the Lord. Joni asked her why. "The people of America are normally not nearly as enthusiastic as you are about it," she said. The woman answered, "Maybe they don't need Jesus as much as we do." Sad, but likely true.

Miklós said...

Yes, I believe so.
"7 A satisfied soul loathes the honeycomb, But to a hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet." (Prov 27)
"tolerance" = truth not spoken,
it is amazing how rough (from today's perspective) the speeches were from Peter and Stephen in Acts, especially if we think that they were speaking to authorities in court.