10 Old Wives' Tales About Church Growth

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Have you fallen for one of these superstitious church-growth myths?

There’s a lot of discussion that goes on about church growth: what causes it; how to generate it; prepare for it; launch it; build it; cultivate it and even, to some degree, manufacture it. Many of the discussions are helpful, but there are a number of subtle beliefs that still creep up that aren’t healthy. In fact, they’re downright superstitious and, at times, dangerous to the church.

I’ve collected these myths over many conversations, coffees and lunches with church leaders and I’d like to share them with you.  

10 Old Wives’ Tales About Church Growth

1. If You’re Not Growing, Something’s Wrong

If growth and a bigger crowd is “always” the result of obedience then some of the OT prophets will have some serious explaining to do.

Of course, if you’re not growing—or you’re declining—I think it is cause to evaluate what you’re doing, but it’s not a given that something is always “wrong.”

Don’t Miss

God could be doing something different—more Jeremiah and less Peter.

Also, while we’re at it, let’s stop using the Acts 2 passage as a normative prescription for every church today. It’s an amazing description of something special God was doing in history to launch his church, but it’s not a church growth manual. A casual reading of the NT will show churches of all different shapes and sizes, and never once is there a declarative statement that the church should be growing faster than it was—more obedience, yes; helping the poor, yes; staying true to the Gospel, yes; practicing the Lord’s Supper and baptism, yes.

2. The More You Grow, the Healthier You Are

We would love to believe this one. It certainly feels good to have a bigger crowd. There’s a built-in justification for ministry leaders when more people show up, I know. However, just because your church has more people attending doesn’t mean your church is completely healthy. In fact, it might be cause to closely evaluate the message the crowd is hearing.

Growth can be healthy, and it can be a very good thing—it’s just not an automatic four-stars for healthy spirituality. Large numbers are no more an indicator of health than great wealth is an automatic indicator of wisdom. You can be wealthy or impoverished and still be wise or a fool. The same goes for church growth. You can have a lot of people or a little and still be healthy/unhealthy. Health deals more with what’s going on below the surface. Growth tells us something’s going on, but whether it’s good or bad, that’s another issue. 

Brian Orme Brian is the founding editor of ChurchLeaders.com and Faithit.com. He works with creative and innovative people to discover the top stories, resources and trends to equip and inspire the Church.

More from Brian Orme or visit Brian at http://www.brianorme.com

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  • Scott Dossett

    These are all good points as long as churches shouldn’t use them as an excuse not to *try* to reach out to people. Considering church growth over recent history, I do think it deserves notice that many churches *do* seem to grow based on the personality of their pastors. I’m not convinced this is a good thing, however. Personality cults are not particularly helpful to the larger body of Christ. Not all church growth is good church growth. Not all church growth is healthy church growth. And if your church is growing exclusively (or nearly so) by drawing people out of other churches, you might consider whether you’re doing more good or harm.

    • Draylogan

      Are you unemployed?

      • Scott Dossett

        Ouch! ;) Actually, yes. I resigned from my last ministry position three months ago – though I do have a regular job.

    • Ken

      and when the personality in the pulpit leaves by choice or is asked to leave for cause then watch the line form at the exit… a caring pastor directs the focus to Jesus and intentionally avoids building a fan base…

      • Scott Dossett

        Ken, I agree 110 percent.

      • Haraldeg

        It can also be a God thing that people leave when the pastor does. I have “had to leave” two churches, where a line formed at the exit. God used that to take people from being abused to churches where they could really serve him. The focus was on Jesus, not the pastor, which took them to other churches.

    • Peter Mahoney

      Scott, spot on.

  • ServantHeart2012

    My experience has been this; Churches that are laser-focused on a mission to lead people to Christ and to grow them in their faith, (however you want to word it) and that cast that vision continuously seem to experience growth. Those that don’t . . . don’t. Ironically, if a church is doing those two things consistently it tends to either avoid or manage the things that deter growth.

  • Peter Mannering

    I enjoyed this very thoughtful breath of Biblical reason in the muddled wateres of “hey, I just wrote this new book on church growth”. I especially took joy in #4.
    Thank you

  • Bill

    any more excuses you may have for not growing a church? it seems like an apology for all those who fail in living /reaching out and just wants to be a cosy family orientated church

    • Drew

      Jesus never said to the 7 churches in Asia Minor, “This one thing I have against you, you didn’t grow your church.” The letters to the churches in the NT and Jesus letters to the 7 churches emphasize sound doctrine, holy living, and loving one another. No where is any church chided for not growing; in fact the two smallest and less significant churches of the 7 in Revelation, Jesus had nothing against. It was the assemblies that thought they were rich and significant Jesus warned (food for thought).

  • Sharon

    Thank you Brian for this encouraging article. My husband and I pastor a church on Long Island, New York. The vineyard is tough, but God is so faithful. Our church is not large, but we are a group of great people serving God as best we can. Would we love to see huge growth? yes, We have certainly tried all the church growth principles, and some have worked to a small degree. I have come to the conclusion that God is saying to us, “Be faithful.” that’s all we can do. Hoping though that He builds His church. Would love to see more people come to know Christ.

    • Mike

      Well said Sharon. As a pastor, the only words I want to hear from my Savior’s lips are “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

  • Drew

    Very good article. As a youth pastor, many people think that a growing, thriving youth group is a sign or a necessity for church growth. However, we can provide pizza, basketball, urban assault, cool music, and a very short ethical message and we can have 50 to 100 kids every week. But if I want to teach the Bible, I mean really teach the Bible, disciple, and not blow the church’s budget on pizza, 20 is about all we will run in our small rural community. But these 20 kids are awesome and we add to our group one or two souls here and there. Who knows? After a couple of years we may have 50 kids again, but it will be through discipleship and not pizza. The ark was not built in a day and God is not in a hurry, although we usually are. Most teens drop out of church after highschool because they were in it purely for the pizza and entertainment. We are no longer wasting our energy and resources upon those who are there for the wrong reasons. We attract those who are looking for real answers through God’s Word and we have some fun too. There are those who give a 15 minute lesson to teens and they think they are teaching God’s Word because they used a Scripture verse but that is not it. You cannot cover the complexities of this life, the significance of God’s Truth, and the war between our culture and God’s kingdom in 15 minutes. Our teens minds need to be washed by the water of the word and sometimes they need a good scrubbing, lol. Youth Pastors today are so afraid to bore teens or lose teens they’re teaching is like hovering water over there minds and that’s it. And we wonder why we’re losing the teens after youth group? Irronically, teens leaving church after youth is the opposite of growth and they have been so conditioned for entertainment and light weight teaching when they do go to church, that is the kind of church they look for. Pastor and Youth Pastor alike “preach/teach the Word!”

    • Richard

      Drew, you are looking at the pizza and paintball as an end in themselves. They are not ministry, but a part of youth ministry. After 25 years as a youth pastor in a very conservative denomination I know that the “buttons and balloons and baloney” are necessary to find people to build relationships with and move those who want into a deeper level of commitment. Nothing is wrong with games and fun. They are still kids by the way. What is wrong with your non-churched kids going home and telling their family, ” I had fun.”? That means they will be back. There is more to discipleship the filling in blanks in a book. OR, do ;like one youth leader did. The “real committed” kids were the ones who came on Wednesday night to his high school biblical Greek class!

    • ken

      Drew, Amen and AMEN! Keep being faithful to your calling to teach/preach the word and have some fun too-the dessert to a solid nutritional meal of solid truth. I have watched Youth Groups try to function over the years as you have described and budgets bulge with no increase in real results, lives changed- oh, and don’t forget to fake the numbers attending to justify the expense…

  • Dan Thornton

    Thanks for the warning against assuming that the “anointed” pastor always leads to church growth. (That lie parallels the one that assumes someone had to sin to result in the man born blind.) If that lie became gospel, then churches would start hiring (and paying) lead pastors like major corporations hire and exorbitantly pay CEOs. Paul was clear – God not only gifts men, and leads them with the same Spirit, but he also determines where the growth happens, and when.

  • ariel

    A realy good balanced article. Appreciated the thought that went into it. The only thng I didn’t like was the title – ‘old wives’ tales’ – that irked me but I read it anyways and was glad that I did. Blessings.

  • sinner saved by grace

    Doing what Jesus said to do, i.e. keeping his commandments, causes people to gravitate to a believer or a church fellowship. Any growth which is not the result of the Holy Spirit’s work and influence is artificial. Personally, long ago I grew weary of the various modalties employed to grow churches. Your article makes sense mostly because its true.

  • Min. Kimberly Winn-Elliott

    Although this article is mainly sound, I could not help but notice that point #4 contradicts the substance of point #1. By your own reasoning, if we are willing obedient, giving, partakers in both word and deed, the resulting “byproduct” is God adding to the house as He sees fit.

  • Barbara

    After four years in a large church that emphasizes growth, I find it difficult to make real connections and experience community. Yes, I am a member of a small group, have participated in various events, and served in several places. However, the people I meet I never see again because the church is so large. I long for a smaller church were people know each other. By the way, I notice that when pastors contribute to this blog the size of their church is always mentioned, and it is always large or growing rapidly. Does this give them greater credibility?

    • disqus_lOoXzYA3gT

      Even in a small church you will not know everyone. There is always a core of ppl who do know each other and its nice to have a church family and special ppl you can go to for prayer and be transparent with.

    • Changed for Good

      I felt the same way some years ago and left a “large church that emphasized growth” for a small church. I found out rather quickly why that church was small. It was because the members wanted it that way! The core group, which included most of the deacons and elders, were a disgruntled bunch who had split from a larger church to form this one so they could “serve the Lord” according to their own wishes and convenience. The only reason we were accepted initially was because we were invited by a member of the “inner circle.” We routinely saw first time visitors ignored, regular members shunned for listening to the “wrong music,” and educated, gifted women pigeon-holed into baby sitting and other minor roles based on literal interpretation of scripture. The “teaching” was heavily weighted to constantly shame and remind the flock of their sinful nature and unworthiness rather than being balanced with God’s grace and the hope of Christ’s victory over death. Truth without grace was the norm.
      Long story short; We got ourselves out of that place of despair and back into a ‘large church that emphasizes growth” again. The difference was that our “new” church emphasizes SPIRITUAL growth rather than numerical or financial growth. Women are celebrated and honored as equals rather than second class citizens, and truth is blended with grace in equal portions. We welcome all people regardless of their physical appearance, their stature in the community, or the baggage they may bring with them. This is just my story, but I truly believe it applies to many folks out there in some way . . . and by the way, I am not a pastor.

  • AMOS8

    Good article, but unfortunately you left out “WWJD?” [What would Jonah do?]

    No one had more success (numbers and percentage wise) than Jonah, so that is why we all need to have our church go through the latest trendy book “The Jonah Plan for Church Growth.” We will learn how to run from God, rebel against God’s Word, put the lives of others in peril, to be directly or indirectly responsible for the destruction of the property of others, to cause great stress in the lives of others (so that they abandon their old ways and come to the real God), to not only be swallowed by a great fish … but to be vomited out on to dry land, to preach only 8 words …8 words of doom (with no hope of redemption), etc. But perhaps the most important part is learning to be upset when unbelievers repent.

    If your church really wanted to grow then why not follow the greatest evangelist ever?

  • Paul Atwater

    Good stuff Brian. There are probably several other wives tales about church growth that you could add if you decided to write Part II. Perhaps your readers will give you enough for a series.

  • disqus_lOoXzYA3gT

    Spread the gospel and let God be God.

  • Robertt

    You are right. They are old wives’ tales. I study and lecture in church growth (up to post graduate level) and Church Growth principles never teaches these tales. Church Growth principles encourages us not to be lazy but to look for the most effective strategies to grow the Church – all with the understanding that it is God who causes growth through His grace and enabling.

    • http://www.cyberbrethren.com/ Paul T. McCain

      Robertt, I’m glad that you may never teach these things, but I have been through numerous church growth training events and even a two-year long intensive church growth training program and each of the myths was very clearly taught and advocated as the “key” to growth, all couched in the most pious sounding explanations, of course.

  • Pastor Jack

    Well said. Thanks Brian.

  • Steven Leapley

    An Old wives tale I hear being manipulated throughout churches is that evangelism = discipleship. They are clearly two different concepts, although they do go hand in hand. I believe that many churches make the mistake of trying to disciple their evangelistic crusade instead of allowing them to compliment each other. The Great Commission defines three separate but uniquely combined elements…..kind of like the Trinity…….

    Thanks Brian! I enjoyed this reading.

  • mathman_12345

    Thank you for this article. I hate to admit it, but I have fallen victim to a lot of these “old wives tales” as a first time pastor. I have gone through some extended periods of frustration and depression because our church is declining in numbers. Thanks again! I needed to hear this!

  • akdeni

    Brian, thanks for your lucid, concrete and pungent exposition. These have gotten me troubled in time past. But like you rightly said, I have grown to understand that I may plant, and Apollos may continue to water; increase is of the Lord (1 Cor 3:6). If we want the church to grow today, we must continue to preach the word, in season and out of season, irrespective of the odds. The church today must not settle for just addition of mixed multitudes, but candidates for heaven. We have to depopulate hell, thereb causing the heaven to rejoice and the church of God to grow in spirit and in truth. May the Lord grant all those laboring tirelessly for His kingdom the privilege and the encouragement that comes through explosive growth brought about by true revival and the preaching of the undiluted word of God.

  • P. Juan Nikki

    This is a great article and I agree with 99% of it…not that MY approval means anything. :-) However, except in unique circumstances, I still agree with Rick Warren who wrote in the Purpose Driven Church, “Healthy things grow.” I must say that comparing New Testament mission and growth with the prophet Jeremiah is certainly not good exegesis though. Jeremiah had a totally different calling, lived in a different era and was not sent to gather a church but to call Israel to repentance…BIG difference. The “church” per se didn’t even exist in his lifetime. That being said. this is still a GREAT article!

    • arnoldgamboa

      Very well said.

  • Collateral Damage

    I take a very opposite opinion. In regard to church growth, you are lost in the ways of the thinking of proud men. The church exist to teach and encourage the membership in the knowledge of our Father’s Word and His love for us, our love back to Him and for each other. The church is the men and women attending. When your focus and absolute primary care turns away from them to programs and buildings, you have lost your footing. When you stay focused on mentoring and helping the members build a loving understanding and relationship with our Father and Creator, more than man can dream of will occur – not through proud leadership but through the development of relationships of all the members with our Father and each other. If the body of Christ at a church location grows old and begins to go home to the father – that is the absolute worst time to turn away from the membership for new blood – but it happens all the time and it is NOT Christian in most cases. If a church has served its purpose for the life of the congregation, that is a wonderful story and blessing. So what if the membership dies off to nothing – others churches will be created to serve those who desire it – man’s marketing campaigns are not in the bible. We cannot truly justify transitioning a congregation’s plan for Christian love and embrace of each other to the point of each going home to the Father, for a new movement to attract young blood for a twisted reason that forsakes the foundation of what the church’s purpose is all about. I take that back because I have seen it done – and I am ashamed of what I saw men do while representing themselves as Christian leaders.

    • nathan

      I strongly share this view with you. Not a marketing strategy makes the church to grown. God adds the number up when the fisherman uses the word of God as bait for would be Christians. Use the word to grow your church and not human learning and understanding

  • Paula Coyle

    I think you forgot “if your church is more than 80 percent full you can’t/won’t grow any more.” How many building projects were undertaken on that lie?

    • J. Dean

      Agreed. There are churches that would rather go in debt than do something more sensical such as going to two morning services, and that’s never made sense.

  • J. Dean

    I especially liked the point about contemporary worship (CoWo), in part because it turns into a “keeping up with the Joneses” fad-pursuit and in the process loses the historical connection with the body of Christ throughout history. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing to get new songs, it’s a shame that people try to throw out anything older than they are and introduce instrumentation that confuses emotional response and driving rhythm for the Spirit of God.

  • Putting it back together

    There is some great information written here. I agree that the main goal of any church is not the buildings, or the programs. It is helping (discipling) individuals to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

    I was married to a pastor for 25 years. In the two different churches we were pastoring, there was great growth, then when we left, both lost close to half of the members. It broke my heart. Then I realized my ex-husbands way of teaching was not only trying to lead them into a relationship with Christ but also a “do what I say, and follow me” church. So convincing that he left me and took another mans wife in the last church we were at.

    So no matter who we are, we need to have a strong relationship with God ourselves. Not “through” someone else. With a personal relationship it does not matter the size of the church, or the number of programs. The main thing is that we are living a life that is pleasing to God that leads others into a relationship with Him. And then help them find a church in which they feel God would have then attend and get involved there.
    To finish up here, I can say God is Awesome! He has blessed me more than I thought possible or I deserved.

  • Marvin

    Not to sound negative, but is any of this new? I realized all these things 40 years ago. Maybe Bible school actually taught the Bible back then. I guess what surprises me is that any of these points are actually considered innovative or worthy of an article.

  • Pastor Martinho Sander

    What is expected of the servant… but to be found faithful… The obsession with numbers is a nasty little derivative of the corporate world. The Spirit acts wherever and whenever He pleases. So, brother Brian, you are spot on!

  • Bill Long

    I think you missed it. Your article will be comforting to leaders who don’t seem to be trying to be active in the great commission but it misses the heart of why Jesus came and died–to save the lost. God is on a mission of reconciliation. Lets join him in that rather than being content to turn totally inward. He gave His disciples His mission. “Make disciples”

  • http://Rickenba.ch/blog/en Ralph M. Rickenbach

    I am glad that Jesus builds the church and not I. All I have to do is His will. If the church grows, fine. But sometimes it only grows in depth and not numbers. Who am I to judge.

    The revelation that Jesus is the Messiah is the rock, and on this rock Jesus will build the church after his special blueprint for each church.

    We are to build the Kingdom.

  • dingdong

    The prophets job was not to grow the church but to deliver often painful messages. Israel was disobedient most of the time and so she never reached her growth potential that God wanted – u cant use the OT as an example of slow growth. Anyway, if we did the percentages, they would be equivalent to a rapid growth religion in our day population wise. If you dont have sustainable growth, then something IS wrong. – sorry disagree.

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