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There’s Growth… and then there are Growths

June 26, 2008


You probably hear this word tumbling down from the pulpit a lot. Preachers seem to toss ‘growth’ out there almost as often as ‘grace’ and ‘tithe.’ It’s especially popular if you go to a small or struggling church:

“How can we encourage growth?”

“We need growth in this church!”

But… what do they mean by growth? Usually, the term refers to simple attendance. How do we get more people into the pews on each Sunday? How do we hit the “top score” and out-do the Methodists down the street?

Growth is defined as “development from a lower or simpler to a higher or more complex form; evolution.” Also, “an increase, as in size, number, value, or strength; extension or expansion.”

Another definition is “an abnormal mass of tissue, such as a tumor, growing in or on a living organism.”



We’re presented with three types of growth: Empirical growth, or growth to numbers; essential growth, growth to essence or spiritual growth; and finally cancerous growth, the destructive sort.

I was visiting family a few weeks ago, and after church on Sunday the topic of conversation turned to their home church and how they have been trying to “encourage growth.”

They tossed around all the things they’d been trying.

Youth activities.



As I sat and listened to this, I began thinking. Their definition of growth is increased attendance, not based on a healthy Christian environment, but on getting young people to come for the games. It seems to be what most churches are after. They want a bigger congregation, so they’ll get bigger tithes, so they can move to a bigger building and say they’re ‘reaching more people.’

This where we get Super Churches, congregations so bloated with ‘growth’ they need to purchase arenas to meet in and sustain operations budgets larger than the military expenditures of small countries. This model is quite contrary to the first “churches” were groups of friends who met in houses, fellowshipped together, prayed together, and went out into their community to share the gospel and minister to those in need. When the group got larger, they broke off a new small group to reach a new area.

Super Churches often exemplify cancerous growth, especially when the only focus becomes numbers, numbers. The only way to sustain such a large congregation is to keep them all happy. The only way to keep them all happy is to weed out the parts of the message that will make the casual constituents uncomfortable. So, all those bits about ‘dying to self’ and self-sacrifice and ‘crucified with Christ’ and ‘to live is Christ and to die is gain’ get left on the wayside for the Prayer of Jabez and ‘fasts from wrong thinking’ and the whole ‘health and happiness’ set.

This Super-Mega-Vente-Colloso McChurch then becomes the role model for smaller, struggling churches. They want to have those sorts of crowds, that sort of witness. But, isn’t that the opposite of the mission Christ set for the church? My memory may be failing me, but it seems the command was “go and make disciples,” not “Go and host a potluck and hope to experience ‘church growth.’”

The church is not an inward-focused organization. Our purpose is to get Christians out among the lost, not draw more Christians in to the church building on Sunday. I mentioned to them that maybe expanding their ministry base would be an effective way to grow as a church. Get involved in the community, and more people will want to be a part of what you’re doing as a vibrant living-out of the mission of Christ.

I was told, “Well, we do that… we have a food pantry. It’s unadvertised, though, or else we wouldn’t be able to keep people away.”

So… you don’t tell anybody about your food pantry…

…because people would come to it?

I believe I am beginning to see the problem.

You are afraid to let the needy know you have a program to help them, because they would come and take advantage of it. And you don’t know if you could (or don’t want to) support them. But, if you are doing God’s work, don’t you have faith that he will ensure his people are taken care of? So, if the demand begins to stretch your means, God will expand your means. He will bring you more supplies, more donors. But, you’re afraid- you don’t think it would happen. You’re afraid that you will be left with a line of hungry people who you cannot help, and then you will be disappointed in God. And you’re afraid of that most of all, because your faith is not strong enough for such a disappointment.

Or, perhaps, you just don’t want all ‘those’ people coming to the church, because there is always a chance they might like ‘your’ church, and come again… and then become a regular… and that just wouldn’t be good for the image.

Growth is obviously needed in many churches. But, not the increased attendance they look for; without first experiencing spiritual discipleship and having a foundation for a larger congregation to live on, that congregation will become cancerous, a body of death that exists only to preen and feed itself on it’s own existence.

Mars Hill Bible Church is one “super-church” that has got it right. The main congregation only meets on Sunday for a shared message, but then meets in small, intimate “house churches” throughout the week to disciple one another, build on Sunday’s sermon, and reach out to the community. The church has a powerful presence in the community of Grand Rapids with ambitious programs like the XYZ Initiatives to end childhood poverty first in their city, then their state, and finally the world. This is the sort of ‘growth’ that the Church should strive for.

Rather than keeping an unadvertised food pantry for a few needy friends, throw the floodgates open. Let your faith run wild, and trust that God will reward impossible faith with impossible faithfulness. Invite every man, woman, and child in need to come and get some food. When those in the community see your generosity, they will want to help. You will find people you never imagined would help, giving donation upon donation. But don’t settle for just this!

Church buildings are such a waste of money. Congregations raise money for years to build a $50.23 million complex with classrooms, basketball gyms, fellowship halls, ‘multi-purpose rooms,’ coffee bars, and maybe a sanctuary. This building… is used two days a week. Members only. Occasionally we’ll sell tickets to a chili supper for Thursday night. In my mind, the perfect Church building would never be closed. Every single day, the doors are open. The homeless, the hungry, the poor, the lost, the drug addicts, if they are walking down the street at 9:34 pm on Tuesday, they can see this building that represents the presence of God in their community, and go in for prayer, a change of clothes, a sandwich.

The church building is not the “clubhouse of the saved.” It is the sanctuary for the lost. It is the jumping-off point for the Lovers of God to grow the Church out of the building and into the streets. Churches complain about ‘growth,’ but… what have you planted? If you plant it, it will grow. If you build it, yadda yadda yadda. If your church is more than a fancy building for saved people, if you reach out to people that you may not want in ‘your church,’ God will be able to plant the seeds of real, essential, spiritual growth in that Church, that body of believers. You will grow so far and so fast, so in-touch with the heart of God, that you’ll need to buy an abandoned shopping mall just to hold all the people that want to hear your message.

When “Church Growth” stops being about getting more people in, and more about giving more of yourselves out, you will notice a wonderful attribute of God in action. God loves to flip the world upside-down. If we are in the world, He is in the ‘bizzaro world.’ The first shall be last, the lowest is highest, and those that break themselves open and pour themselves out, will be filled and whole and flourishing. The church that reaches out and empties itself into the lost and hungry and hurting, will grow so much they won’t know what to do with themselves.

Stop looking in, because that is not where we are called. Don’t strive to grow your numbers, because God only asks for two or more to be gathered together. Simply open your heart, test your faith, and let God do a great work in you so that you can truly grow.

I’ll leave with the words to a song from The Man of La Mancha, the tale of a man called ‘crazy’ because he dared to do what was thought impossible and live a life of honor and selflessness:

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause

And I know if I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. barefootelegance permalink
    June 29, 2008 4:17 am

    I like this…there’s a lot of good stuff here! Keep saying this stuff, it’s what others are afraid to say, thinking that they might be alone in they’re thoughts…but they’re not.


  1. There’s Growth… and then there are Growths « A Distant Window

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