Most of us want to see our churches grow. And why shouldn’t we? When our churches grow, more people come to faith in Christ and grow as disciples. When our churches grow, they expand their volunteer ministry force and can better impact the surrounding community. When churches grow, the church benefits from increased generosity to better fund its work.
Jesus’ last words in the book of Matthew, better known as the Great Commission, have provided the marching orders for Baptist churches (and others) for generations: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” God’s Plan A for “making disciples” has always been the local church. If we’re fulfilling the Great Commission, our churches MUST GROW.
But not every church growth experience is the same. Not every effort we make to grow our churches comes from a healthy place. The reality is we can grow our churches without making disciples. But what’s the point?
Church growth without church health isn’t helpful and isn’t biblical. So don’t do it. Here are five unhealthy church growth choices Baptist churches make that they should stop right away:
1. Focus on attracting people from other churches
We see this all the time. A church upgrades its music, and a flood of new people show up in the following months. A church gets a new dynamic preacher and attendance doubles. But dig a bit deeper and you realize that most of the new people are simply transferring from another church.
No one is suggesting you should turn these new people away. But here’s the question your church must grapple with: What message are we sending out when most of the new people who come through our doors are from other congregations? Do you make it clear on a regular basis that your church is designed to reach people who don’t attend anywhere else, or are you catering to other Christians with your ministries, preaching, and music?
The problem with growing your church by simply snagging people from other congregations is that you’re fooled into believing you’re fulfilling the Great Commission. You’re fooled into believing you’re making a dent in lostness. Then you stop trying to reach new people.
Worse yet, you begin to forget the mission. You start replacing your evangelistic efforts with multiple ministries designed to pacify the already saved. Sooner or later, you forget the desperate spiritual condition of those dying without a relationship with Jesus.
2. Fail to disciple new Christians
It’s easy when you’re seeing an influx of new believers to lose sight of discipleship. You get excited about the harvest of souls who are stepping into the Kingdom, and you push your resources (volunteers and finances) into evangelism but ignore the need to make disciples.
Remember, the Great Commission doesn’t stop with baptizing new believers. We’re called to “make disciples of all nations.”
Church growth without discipleship not only leads to a congregation without spiritual depth, but it leads to a church that ultimately can’t care for its members. If you add 50 new Christians this year but only effectively disciple five of them, you’ll have 45 people sucking resources and volunteer time from an overwhelmed church body. It’s a recipe for disaster and, ultimately, failure.
The only antidote to this kind of unbiblical and unhealthy growth is a thought-through system that teaches new believers what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Depending on your church culture, this could either be highly programmed or mostly organic, but you need something.
3. Don’t communicate the value of church membership
We live in a consumer-driven world, where even Christians like to base their decisions on “What’s in it for me.” The growth in church shopping and shuffling over the last few decades has largely been a product of cultural shifts that have highlighted individuality. Few would say these changes have been good for the church or individual Christians.
Now, I recognize that church membership isn’t explicitly described in scripture. You’d have a tough time making the case that the early church had any sort of church membership that looks like what Baptist churches do today. (I would argue, as would most of our Baptist forefathers, you can make a compelling implicit argument for church membership from within Scripture though.)
Yet there’s never been a time in the history of the church when providing opportunities for new believers to make commitments to local churches have been more important. Churches that can’t make a case for committing to a local body of believers will find new believers leaving their congregation when they find a “better deal” elsewhere. If someone plays better music, has better preaching, or provides more meaningful community, most new believers will be gone.
You must create an expectation of commitment within your congregation. You must be able to hold the value of membership high in your congregational context. Share testimonials. Preach about church commitment. Help new believers understand the value for them when they commit long-term to a local church.
4. Depend upon a lead pastor’s charisma to grow the church
Much of what passes as effective church growth these days can be tied to the charisma of a church’s senior leader. No one can doubt the singular importance of a church’s leader in bringing in and discipling new believers. But to rely upon that kind of evangelism is ultimately unhealthy.
Someday a church’s senior leader will retire, die, or move to another church. It’s why few churches can point to consistent church growth over multiple generations. Most growing churches haven’t taken the time to properly prepare for the transition when a charismatic leader moves on.
5. Rely on either attractional or missional approaches to the exclusion of the other
Most churches have a preferred way to grow. They either depend upon the church’s ability to draw people into an evangelistic worship service, or they focus their efforts on training congregants to share their faith and enter into discipleship relationships with new believers. Books have been written on both sides of the spectrum. Conferences have been launched to promote each perspective. Baptists have been particularly divided over this issue.
But the truth is you need both.
Churches that grow in healthy ways develop an invitational culture that mobilizes members to share their faith and gather people for gospel proclamation.
Why? You can’t reach everyone with one or the other. Some people respond to the gospel better through individual presentations. Others want to slip into a worship service and hear a more structured gospel argument. Healthy, growing churches provide both opportunities.