Jesus said he would build his church, and we are to make disciples. His part is building the church, and our part is making disciples. He won’t do our part for us, and we can’t do his part for him. Numbers of disciples are important. The book of Acts is filled with references to how many disciples were following Jesus. Why numbers? Why count the number of people who choose to follow Jesus? Because it’s a way of assessing if we are obedient and effective.
People tend to either put too much emphasis on church numbers, or not enough. They err by being enamored by numbers, or they discount them altogether. Both extremes are wrong.
For a healthy church, numbers are a good way to measure obedience to the great commission and the great commandment. Numbers allow us to measure obedience and to discern plateaus in growth and disciple making. If by numbers we are measuring the number of people saved, baptized and who are growing in their faith, it is a helpful measure of health. If by using numbers we can track how many abandoned babies are rescued and how many orphans are cared for, or not cared for, then numbers are invaluable in measuring our effectiveness. In my conversations with church planters and pastors, there are important questions about how to grow one’s local church, or the church planting movement they wish to catalyze. Below are values that I have learned through the years, and like to pass on to men and women who are serious about growing and reproducing churches filled with disciples of Christ.
Principles for church growth:
1. BEGIN WITH THE END IN SIGHT = The principle is to know what kind of church or movement of churches God is calling you to build, whether a cell church, house church, community church, Sunday school church, or church planting movement. Know the model and know your strategy.
Values are transferable to any model of church and any size of congregation, as long as the values are never compromised for the sake of size or growth. Values are like ingredients. It’s not the size or material of the mixing bowl when you bake a cake; it’s all about the ingredients you put inside the bowl.
Not only know what model of church you are going to build, but know what size of church you can effectively lead and manage. What is your long-term vision for your church? Numbers matter. They allow you to track and asses your effectiveness, or lack thereof. The early church was large and it grew fast. That seemed to matter to the early believers. Those numbers are recorded for us in the book of Acts.
By beginning with the end in sight, you are choosing how you want to make disciples and what kind of process you will follow to do that. True enough, you actually don’t have to worry about a strategy or model to plant a church, you can just take it as it comes. That may work for you, then again, it most likely won’t work, but you won’t know that without a clear vision of how you want to go about things.
The model of church makes a difference. I encourage the leaders I coach to “dream big, but build small” because we focus on catalyzing rapidly reproducing church planting movements in restricted access regions. That means catalyzing small, simple churches that “fly under the radar” so to speak. This model fits the cultures and political environments we work in.
The size of church doesn’t make a difference, it’s the values that matter. A small church is not a better church simply because it is small and organic. And a big church is not better because it is mega-big.
Resting comfortable in a small, non-growing church is not an option if we want to see people know Jesus, have their lives transformed and go to heaven not hell. We can build small churches and be biblical, if we dream about building many churches that see lots of people’s lives changed.
Approximately 95% of all the churches in the world are less than 350 people in size. There is no shame in being one of those churches. But there is shame if we have no vision or we have not reproduced more disciples for the kingdom.
There is nothing wrong with being a big church if we stick to our values and everyone in the church is relationally connected through a cell group or house church. Being connected through personal discipling relationships is what makes any size church, big or small, a good church.
Not every leader/pastor has the capacity or gifts to build a big church. Know your strengths and build on those strengths. Lyle Schaller, one of the more influential church consultants in North America, states in his book, The Very Large Church, that the two most comfortable church sizes are under 45 people and under 150 people, likely making them two of the hardest thresholds to pass through.
Many pastors would add that the next hardest number to break through is the 800 mark.
In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell says 150 is the largest number of people someone can meaningfully relate to, which explains why many people do not like bigger churches. Understanding the social and relational impact of the size of a church community allows us to appreciate group dynamics and the challenges each stage of growth has on people. There are significant challenges and changes that come with each stage in the size growth of a church. Being clear about what size you want to be and what model you want to grow allows you to prepare for growth and to anticipate the challenges you will face.
2. THE LARGER THE CHURCH, THE MORE COMPLEX THE ORGANIZATIONAL SIDE OF THE CHURCH BECOMES = The principle is to anticipate what is needed at the next level of growth. To grow numerically without anticipatory planning will cause conflict and unnecessary growth pains.
For a church to grow in size does not imply it must cast off it’s theology or abandoned it’s values, but to grow in size without planning could cause the church to compromise those things unintentionally. You don’t have to choose compromise deliberately for it to happen, but it probably will happen to you if you don’t think through the challenges of growth.
As a church community grows, the values and vision should remain the same, but the organizational complexity doesn’t stay the same. Different sizes of local churches require different structures and management processes. Size affects the lines of communication, leadership structure and layers of leadership, accounting practices, how people access senior leaders, provision for families and children, facilities management, etc.
Church size does matter for how a church is run, just like a married couple who discovers life is a lot more complex with three children instead of one, or with twelve children instead of three! The number of children means a family cannot organize their life as simply as they did with their first child.
My idealism as a young parent was severely challenged as our personal family grew. We went from no children, just Sally and me, free to drop things on the spur of the moment and take off for weekend away, then one child, then two, and my idealism gone! The growing number of suitcases, bags, toys, equipment, etc., shattered my image of the simple life! I cannot imagine what it is like to run a home with five, seven or twelve children, much less travel with that many kids! I think many young pastors are the same. They live in la-la land when it comes to the challenges of managing a growing church family.
For further consideration on this point, I have outlined five stages of growth of an apostolic church/movement found in the book of Acts at my blog site www.floydandsally.com in an article titled Five Stages of Growth of an Apostolic Movement. 3. DON’T WORSHIP YOUR METHODS OR YOUR MODEL OF CHURCH = The principle is God has designed churches to go through natural stages of growth, just like he has designed people to experience natural stages of human development.
A healthy church will change its methodology or it’s model as it transitions through different stages of growth - if it will help reach and disciple more people.
Growth doesn’t always equate numbers, but it does equate fruit, and fruit means reproduction of disciples. If a church can make disciples, it can reproduce leaders, and if it can reproduce leaders, it can reproduce churches. That means growth.
Church growth means stretching our faith. Faith never plateaus. By its very nature, faith leads us to trust for more of God and more of God’s blessing on our efforts to be co-builders with him of his church.
A healthy church changes as it matures and grows. In fact, for a church to mature, it must change. The vision and values and sound doctrine don’t change, but the church itself does.
What kind of change? Change in structure, change in program, change in church government, and change in methodology. What doesn’t change are the values. So the test is about keep true to values, not staying fixated on methodology or model
If a church is unwilling to change to reach and care for more people, then it is guilty of method-worship, what one person calls method-olatry. Method-olatry results in confusing unchanging biblical principles, our values, with changing methods or models, what we should be open to changing. Method-olatry is just abhorrent to God as other forms of idolatry because it means we are giving our methods a place of devotion that only God deserves.
4. DON’T ATTACH MORAL VALUES TO THE SIZE OR THE MODEL OF CHURCH = The principle is we should be devoted to our values, but not to the model that allows us live out those values. There is an old ditty that goes something like this,
Methods are many Values are few Methods always change Values never do
I have spoken and written much about simple church, a particular model for doing church. But many people who hear me speak or read my books wrongly attach moral value to the model of church I present, without understanding the values that make the model effective in reaching and transforming lives.
I am passionate about the simple church model because it allows us to reach people who won’t participate in a more traditional church model, not because it is a better way of doing church. I have learned the hard way not to attach moral value to the way I do church.
Don’t attach moral value to church size, which will ultimately lead you to stagnate in your spiritual life and be disobedient to the great commission. The question is not whether you like the size or model of your present church, the question is whether it is effective in leading people to Christ and discipling them to be effective world changers.
More importantly, it is not about whether you like it or not, like a brand of toothpaste to be tasted and tested like any other consumer product, but whether God has called you to that church family. Get over “taste” as a way of choosing church. God doesn’t really care about your church “taste’ preference. He cares about your obedience, your character, and your obedience to the great commission and the great commandment.
I have pastored small and large churches. And I have spoken in countless churches in between on six continents, and I can assure you, size does not guarantee anything, whether a church is small or large. In fact, I know many large churches that do a better job of making disciples and caring for people than small churches. Many simple church members, especially those who value intimacy and close relationship with others, tend to overlook or even deny the importance of change and church growth. They judge large churches as “traditional” or “un-biblical”, as if the size means a lot to God. They seem to be more concerned about settling into a cozy set of familiar relationships than obedience.
5. IF YOU WANT TO GROW A LARGER CHURCH, YOU NEED TO PREPARE FOR SIGNIFICANT CHANGES NOW = The principle is to see ahead into the future so you are not caught by surprise as your church grows from one stage of development to another.
In his article on church growth, footnoted at the end of this article, Mark Driscoll points out some of the changes you will face as your church grows – if you choose to grow a traditional church model:
• You move from managing workers, to leading managers, to leading leaders.
• Your focus will shift from a survival-in-the-present mode to a success-in-the-future mode.
• Your expectations will move from informal leadership dynamic to more formal structure (elders, deacons, and members).
• You have to change from making decisions by general consensus to a handful of people making decisions.
• Your communication will become formal and written rather than informal and oral.
• People’s roles move from general responsibility to specialized responsibility.
• The church moves from being one community to being many communities (e.g. multiple services, small groups, etc.).
• The senior leaders shift their focus from being primarily caregivers to making sure people are being cared for by raising up leaders.
• The senior leader shifts from working in the organization to working on the organization.
• The members move from being connected to the pastor to being connected to other leaders.
• The focus shifts from drawing people through relationship to drawing them through events and dynamic Sunday services.
Admittedly, I struggle with the shift of focus from relationship to event as a way to draw people to a larger church. But I realize this is a matter of culture as well as personal preference. Some cultures, like middle-class America, prefer big meetings. And of course, some sub-cultures in America do not.
Black African cultures generally prefer big celebrations as a way of doing Sunday church, but on closer examination, big meetings in Africa and America have failed as a way of effectively discipling people. Relying on big events has left the church in Africa and America stunted in maturity and bereft of transforming impact on surrounding culture. Big worship events are not wrong per se, but they must not define church. When a church moves from defining itself as a once-a-week worship event, to a family that does mission together, that is an exciting church!
Big events can draw people, inspire people, even give a sense of vision and belonging to people, but they will never replace one-on-one relational discipleship. Programs and events cannot disciple people or produce genuine relationship. Only people can disciple people through personal relationship.
6. SEEK THE COUNSEL OF PASTORS AND CHURCH PLANTERS MORE EXPERIENCED THAN YOU = The principle is that there are others who know more than you do and you would be wise to learn from them.
I have sought the counsel of pastors and spiritual leaders at each stage of my personal pastoral experience, realizing there are others who have gone before me and know more than I do. Some of these men and women have become friends; most have mentored me through their conferences and books. I recognize I don’t need a personal relationship with most of the leaders who have gone before me to learn from them.
When I pastored a large congregation, I sought advise from those who pastored churches the same size and larger. When I planted churches, I did the same. I sought the advise of church planters. No matter where you are on the journey, seek the wisdom, prayer, and mentorship of those more experience and more mature than yourself.
7. DISCERN BETWEEN CONVICTION AND CONDEMNATION IN SEASONS OF TRANSITION = The principle is you cannot please everyone and you cannot be all things to all people. Know who you are and be at peace doing church how God leads you to do it.
Know your strengths and preferences, stick to your values, and don’t strive to be a “successful” church.
A pastor friend in the States told me, “I know my level of skill and emotional capacity is a church of 500 people. If we grow larger I want to spin off more churches, not grow a bigger church”. It is a wise man that knows himself this well.
There are many stresses and pressures with leading a local church, whether 60 people, 600, or 6000. God assigns each of us a sphere of influence. Stick with that sphere in your local church. Resist the successful church syndrome. Better to be faithful to who you are than strive to grow the church to be more than you can handle. Remember, you make disciples, and Jesus builds the church.
“Proverbs 29:25 says that fear of man is a “trap” or a “snare,” depending upon your translation. Fear of man causes us to live for the approval of our tribe and to fear criticism or ostracism from our tribe. Fear of man is a form of idolatry—living to please someone other than Jesus Christ. Ultimately, when you get to heaven, you’ll give account to Jesus for your decisions and actions as a pastor. Strive to be faithful to Jesus, not to the demands of people”. (Mark Driscoll, 8 Principles for Churches That Want to Grow).
8. MAKE DISCIPLES AND TRAIN PEOPLE TO MAKE DISCIPLES = The principle is that God wants local churches to grow through new salvations not through transfer growth. God wants you to grow healthy disciples not weak Sunday “attenders”.
Church is about creating a discipleship culture through a healthy discipleship process. Jesus commissioned his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, not to go and make disciples of “all churches”. For Jesus, disciple making was how he brought people to faith in himself. The Jesus style of church growth is discipling people to conversion, not converting them to disciple them. If discipleship is not part of the process of joining your church, you will struggle to keep them in the church.
Go out of your way to discourage transfer growth, that is, Christians joining your church because they are unhappy with their present church. Ask them to wait three months before joining you. Interview them to see if they are running from problems in their church. Call their pastor to see what he advises. Tell them up front what is expected of them. Don’t cater to uphappy church hoppers – or you will be the next church they hop from.
Stake everything on growing your church through new salvations. In this way, you will grow at a pace you can handle. It will be natural church development, not a forced, too fast growth.
To prepare for such growth, develop discipleship processes that can handle new salvation growth. If you will focus on making disciples who are properly equipped and empowered to make other disciples, then health and strength and growth will happen naturally.
Forced church growth is like an eleven-year-old teenage girl dressing like a 23 year old. It’s not natural, and probably is happening because her mother is rushing her, or allowing her to give in to the pressure of a worldly concept of “growing up”.
It’s that simple. You make disciples, and he builds the church. As your church grows, develop a simple, culturally relevant process of making disciples Define the pathway for growth and development in your church. Teach everyone the basics. Define expectations. Pursue those who obey and apply what they are learning. Build foundations in people’s lives. It takes time. It cannot be rushed or forced into a formula or package.
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I have adapted the above article from an blog entry by Mark Driscoll, “8 PRINCIPLES FOR CHURCHES THAT WANT TO GROW”, found at www.theResurgence.com
MORE ON MOVEMENTS: There are five stages of growth of an apostolic movement. I have written an article about these five stages that will help you discern the stage of development of your church and what ingredients are important to make your vibrant at this stage. You can find the article at my blog site www.floydandsally.com, titled “Five Stages of Growth of an Apostolic Movement”.
FOR FURTHER READING: If you would like to read more about building a disciple making church, I recommend Wiki Church by Steve Murrell, and You See Bones – I See an Army, by myself. Miraculous Movements by Jerry Trousdale is a great book about church planting movements.