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.
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.
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.
4. DECLINE CAN HAPPEN FOR A SEASON IN HEALTHY CHURCHES
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.
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.