What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the words “church growth”? For many people, church growth is all about the numbers. They want to know how many new people are coming through the doors and nothing else. It’s all about the numbers for them, but let’s think about it: Is looking at the numbers really a good indicator of whether the church is growing? I say a loud “no” and rather look at other growth factors within the church to determine its growth. I also contend that growth in numbers is only a byproduct of true, genuine church growth.
We can see from Jesus’ final words before His ascension that it is each person’s responsibility to make disciples (Matthew 28:18–20). The church was formed after Jesus ascended as “all the believers were together and had everything in common” (Acts 2:44). We can conclude from this that the church was formed to be the vehicle that would train up people in the truth, encourage them in their daily walk and then send them out to reach new people. The responsibility to reach new people with the gospel and, therefore, begin the discipleship process lies with each individual Christian, not with the church as a whole per se. Otherwise, it would be easy in a church that was experiencing growth in numbers to have members simply going along for the ride and never making new disciples themselves, thinking that they get a free pass in their Christian duties.
So if we view the church’s duty as training, encouraging and empowering individual Christians to go and make disciples, that’s the qualitative data we must measure to see if the church is growing — its ability to train, encourage and empower the members. Outward growth in numbers is simply a byproduct of internal growth within the church body. We contend that there are three areas of growth a church body should focus on: growth in the maturity of the members, growth in the unity of the congregation as a whole, and growth in the level of favor shown to the church from the community it serves. When the church is growing in these three areas, it can be prayerfully expected that growth in numbers will happen. “And the Lord added to their numbers daily” (Acts 2:47).
Let’s inspect the first area of growth that needs to be measured: maturity of the members. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles” (Acts 2:42–43).
Becoming more like Christ is a process that all new converts to Christianity should desire. It is not expected that a spiritual infant automatically have the characteristics and heart values of Christ, but rather there is a gradual increase in resembling Christ as the young Christian grows. It is the church’s responsibility to create an environment where the young Christian will learn and experience how to be more like Him in every way. As the Christian grows more mature in his or her daily walk, he or she will naturally take on the behaviors of Jesus — reaching up to God the Father and out to others. Immature Christians who do not grow are like the seeds that were sown on the rocky places in Jesus’ parable of the sower in Matthew 13:1–9. They have no roots!
Before we measure growth in maturity, we must acknowledge that discipleship of church members does not happen during a worship service, but in the context of small groups that provide two important factors: intimacy and accountability. The environment of the small group must allow for each person to challenge and sharpen others. This intimacy and accountability must assist people in becoming more like Christ.
So how do we measure the growth of members’ maturity toward Christ? There is a simple equation that can be used to assess congregational maturity. Count how many individuals are actively participating in at least one small group, and then divide that by the total number of people in the congregation. (Total number can include all attendees or just members.) Multiply this number by 100 and you will be given the percentage of the congregation that is actively being discipled to more closely resemble the life of Jesus Christ. Understand that this percentage is simply a snapshot in time. You can take this same measurement every six months to identify growth toward maturity or a lack thereof.
The second mention of church growth that must be focused on is unity of the congregation around a common mission and vision. “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God…” (Acts 2:44–47).
This passage does not lead us to form a communist society; rather it shows us that all people were on the same page for the same reason. They were unified. The Apostle Paul explained to us the importance of spiritual gifts and that we all have different sets of those gifts. Since nobody, even pastors, possess all the gifts needed to see a church grow, we can easily conclude that God needs all people to work together for one central purpose. God desires that every local church be mature but also unified toward the goal of one central purpose – the church’s mission and vision.
Congregational unity can be measured fairly easily. Simply administer a questionnaire to the congregation asking them to state the vision and goals of the church. (This too can be administered to all church attendees or to just the members.) Assuming people know the vision and goals, this will provide at least a sense of how unified the congregation is to the central purpose of the church’s being.
The third factor in church growth that must be given attention is how well the community perceives the church: “and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:47) .
The church can be mature and unified as a body; however, if the community does not think very highly of the church, growth in numbers should not be expected. So many people have been hurt by this church or by that church, that many times each local church must work extra hard to make a good impression on the community. The favor of the community can be measured by any number of ways. Community surveys, door-to-door interviews and telephone interviews are all common means. Since all churches and communities are different, prior research should be given to each type of assessment in order to implement what’s proper for your church and community.
It is only after a church has focused on these three types of church growth that growth in numbers should be considered. The argument could be made that these three types of church growth are prerequisites to growth in numbers. “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). In your coolest “God voice” say these words, “It is my job to grow the church with more people. I only asked you to be careful stewards of the gifts I’ve given you.”
In 1 Corinthians 3:6, Paul stated, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” The church belongs to God, not humans. In a sense, it is the Holy Spirit who is responsible for any type of growth, but it is definitely God and God alone who is responsible for growth in numbers.
We as pastors, superintendents, board members, ministry leaders and churchgoers are simply spinning our wheels if we only look at church growth as a numbers game. In fact, if we didn’t look at numbers at all and wholeheartedly focused on measuring Christian maturity, congregational unity and community favor, it would be likely that growth in numbers would organically occur as God saw us as faithful stewards of the gifts He’s handed out through His grace and mercy.
“To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (Philippians 4:20).
Nathan Struble is the senior pastor of Pleasant Valley Free Methodist Church in Hillman, Michigan.
- What is the maturity level of most members of your church, and are members growing in Christ?
- Is your congregation unified around a common mission and vision?
- How does your community perceive your local church?