In many ways it still seems like numerical growth and size is the most important measurement for defining a good church and successful ministry. Right or wrong, I understand why. When churches are growing then it certainly appears like they are evangelizing and ministering among their communities and that in turn speaks well for the leadership of those churches… leadership which likely prioritizes mission over above tradition. And frankly, there are usually reasons why other churches are in decline that point to problems such as unhealthy conflict, sin, and so on. So there are good reasons why size and numbers are used as a measuring stick.
There’s also good reasons for wanting churches to grow. I don’t know how big is big enough but practically speaking, a larger church is able to organizationally support more mission and ministry initiatives. Whether a church is sending out a team of church planters or the church is partnering with other organizations to fight the growing problem of human-trafficking, it’s usually a church of some size. This is one reason why I pray that the church I serve, the Columbia Church of Christ, will start experiencing growth again.
Having said all this, I still believe churches set themselves up for a big fall when numbers and church growth become the driving force. To my knowledge, we never read of Jesus or the apostles counting beans like some churches and pastors have done. Numbers are not their goal. For instance, the Apostle Paul describes the goal of his ministry saying in Romans 15:15-16:
“…I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave to me to be a minister of the Christ Jesus to the Gentiles. He gave me the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”
I mention what Paul says here because I don’t here a lot of talk this passage and what it has to do with Christian ministry. However, this passage certainly has something important to say about how churches are measured and what church leaders regard as the goal.
So while numerical growth is desirable and commendable, it’s not the end goal. The goal must always be churches who learn to live as faithful and mature disciples of Jesus set apart for the glory of God (my appropriation of Paul’s stated goal). That involves teaching the church how to live as imitators of Christ; as people who walk by the Spirit rather than the flesh; as people who honor their marriages and families; as people who can speak the truth in love; as people who model such virtues such as humility, compassion, and forgiveness; as people who meet the needs of others, and so on.
So where does that leave the desire for church growth? Well, there’s nothing wrong with the desire to see a church grow numerically but it must be kept in perspective. Whenever numerical growth of a church outpaces the spiritual formation of the church as a people sanctified by the Holy Spirit, problems are bound to rise. This doesn’t mean that numerical growth isn’t important… in fact, we should welcome such growth. However, let’s not sacrifice the spiritual formation of the church on the altar of church growth.
So if we must count beans then by all means, count beans but at the end of the day a plentiful crop isn’t worth much if it’s not a healthy crop!