5 Hard Truths About Healthy Church Growth

by Carey Nieuwhof

Most church leaders I know would love to see their church grow.

Similarly, most leaders I’ve met want their church to grow for what we might call the ‘right’ reasons: they sincerely want more people to encounter the love of Jesus Christ.

That’s amazing.

And yet there’s a strong reaction against growing churches by many leaders.

For some reason, many people love to take pot-shots at growing churches and large churches.

Some are categorical denouncements.

I don’t know what to do with those. Sometimes I sense that underneath the anger are jealousy and resentment on the part of leaders whose churches aren’t growing.

Conversely, I also know many church leaders of small and even stuck or declining churches who don’t define themselves by attacking other churches that are growing. There’s a beauty and a grace in that kind of security.  Someone else’s success should never make you feel like a failure.

Other times, I sense the critics are those who have been hurt by an unhealthy growing church. I have a lot of empathy for that. Read on below.

Inevitably, someone in the discussion will say what we need are not growing churches, but healthy churches.


But in the midst of it all is a polarized and often unhealthy conversation about church growth.

So here’s my bias: when you see baptism after baptism and hear life-change story after life-change story, it’s hard to be against church growth. Why would you stand against the expanding mission of the local church?

And yet the emotional debate continues.

As you plan ahead for your church, here are 5 hard truths to keep in mind about healthy church growth. The discussion is nuanced at times, but I hope the nuance is worth it in the end.

I imagine some church leaders can’t even have a  simple conversation with some of their staff, volunteers or elder board about church growth without it becoming volatile.

Externally, most of us have colleagues who have strong opinions for or against. It can lead to a very frustrating dialogue. Or none at all.

I hope these truths will hopefully help frame the discussion in less emotional, more realistic terms and hopefully help your team and your colleagues get closer to the same page.

Maybe we can agree more and better work on the mission together.


You’ve heard the line before “Healthy things grow.” Fundamentally, I believe that’s true.

But even as someone who wants to see every local church thrive, I would agree that not allgrowing churches are healthy churches.

I think that’s where the conversation gets messed up.

Yes, healthy churches do grow. But not all growing churches are healthy.

I want to be careful what I say here because I don’t want this taken out of context, but sometimes unhealthy things grow too; like cancer.

Just because a church is growing doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

And maybe that’s where the funk in the conversation comes from. We all know at least one (or more) growing churches that are not healthy.

But just because that’s true, it doesn’t mean all growth is unhealthy.

The key here is to not make the exception the rule.

There are thousands of small, mid-sized and larger healthy growing churches which are largely unknown that serve their communities well. Their leaders’ names aren’t household names, but they are doing the hard work of bringing grace into a broken world every day, and they have the thrill of seeing life after life, family after family and person after person discover hope in Christ.

Those kinds of healthy churches do grow. And sometimes, they become churches that are better known or whose pastors are better known. Most often they don’t. But those leaders do amazing work.

Not all growing churches are healthy, but healthy churches do grow.

If your church is healthy over the long haul, it will reach more people.


There’s also a thread of this discussion that suggests churches should stay small.

The challenge is it’s hard to stay small when you’re reaching people.

Sure, you can break up into smaller campuses and locations, or plant multiple venues. But the reality is that a healthy church over time will continue to grow.

And if they do stay small, it’s often because of an artificial cap.

Maybe you’re losing as many people as you reach, in which case you’re treading water. That isn’t optimal health.

And sometimes the barriers that keep a church from reaching its potential stand in the way.

More often than not, those barriers are structural, not spiritual. And they can be passed. (That’s what I coach leaders and their teams through in my Breaking 200 course.)

Accomplishing your mission means reaching people, and reaching people means growth.


So what creates a healthy church?

Many factors, but outward focus is non-negotiable.

It’s a bit of a paradox, but an outwardly focused church ultimately creates the healthiest insiders.

Why is that?

An inherent part of the Christian faith is death to self. And that also means death to selfish preferences.

In an insider-focused church, no one sacrifices anything for the sake of others, because people believe others ought to sacrifice to please them.

If the church exists to make you happy, why wouldn’t people sacrifice more to make you happier?

In outsider-focused churches, the opposite is true.

Insiders sacrifice for the sake of outsiders. They realize that when they give, others live. That when they decide the church isn’t about them, they find a joy that is so elusive to selfish people.

Externally focused churches realize that sacrifice for the sake of others is a pathway to joy.

When you die to yourself, something greater rises.


So does being a healthy church mean everything is always up and to the right?

No, it doesn’t.

Like any living organism, churches go through seasons. Sometimes that means a healthy church will stall out or even decline for a season.

That can be because of a leadership change, hitting a new growth barrier, the need for systems to catch up to where the church has grown, and sometimes, for no clear reason at all (some of this truly is mystery).

But healthy churches recover from that plateau or decline, adjust the sails and continue on with their mission.

You may be in decline for a season, but seasons have beginnings and endings.

If your church’s prolonged season of decline has no end, it’s not a season. You’re in decline.

This is the case for a lot of churches. If that’s the case, it’s best for a leader to name reality and admit that there are deeper issues that have to be addressed.


I’ve been leading in the local church for 20 years. We’ve had seasons where we’ve seen 30% growth year after year, and seasons where it’s been flatlined.

Over the last two decades, we’ve gone from a handful of people to over 1200 today (plus more online), with a new location launching this month. Most of the people who come to our church for the first time self-identify as having no regular church attendance background.

When I look back at almost 23 years of leadership, I see a trend. When I wasn’t healthy, neither was our church.

Even in seasons where our church was growing, that growth wasn’t the healthiest (lots of turn over) when I wasn’t the healthiest.

Unhealthy leaders can’t lead healthy churches. Not over the long haul.

If you think your church is unhealthy, look in the mirror.

As hard as it is to admit, you reproduce who you are, not who you want to be.

But this is also true. As I’ve grown healthier, so has our church. So has our growth.

One of the most difficult things a leader can do is look in the mirror and face the truth. I’ve had to do that again and again.

The more ridiculously honest I am with God, with my team and with myself, the healthier I get.

I’ve seen counselors over the years, hired coaches, read books, gone on retreats and done whatever I can to become more emotionally, spiritually and relationally healthy. And like every leader, I’m a work in progress.

But here’s the good news.

Leaders, when you get healthier, your church gets healthier. So do whatever it takes to get you and your team healthy.

www. careynieuwhof.com. 

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