I had lunch with a good friend of mine from seminary the other day, and our conversation meandered into talking about what “success” looks like for a church. What makes a church “successful”? In essence, the conversation centered around being a Biblically faithful church; a church that is successful in God’s eyes is one that is faithful to “be the church” as outlined in His Word.
This discussion could have gone on for years, but one of the things that struck me was the stark contrast between what we felt were qualifiers the Lord might use to determine a “successful church”, and the qualifiers that 21st-century Christianity might use to determine a “successful church”.
Here are three of those qualifiers that our “Christian culture” might use to define a “successful church”….
- Impressive Facilities
- Lots of Ministry Activity
I’d like to address each of these separately, so I’ll tackle “numbers” today, and leave the other two for future posts.
The general impression is that if you are drawing a large crowd, that you are doing something right. In reality, the only thing a large crowd indicates is that you are doing something that is drawing a large crowd. A large crowd doesn’t mean that you are any more or less Biblically faithful as a church. You can have a Biblically faithful mega- church and a Biblically unfaithful mega-church. You can have a Biblically faithful small church and a Biblically unfaithful small church.
With regard to being successful in God’s eyes, do numbers matter?
I’ve heard all the arguments.
Numbers matter, because numbers represent people, and people matter to God
You will count what is important to you, and if you don’t count people, then people are not important to you
If you count the money in the collection plate, and not the people in the pew, then you’re saying that money is more important than people
I’m not saying numbers aren’t important. I’m saying that if we gauge our “success” as a church primarily by numbers then we are missing the boat. If all Jesus was concerned about was a large crowd, I think He would have told us as much. But He didn’t. He didn’t say “go and get a lot of people to come under one roof once a week”, He said, “go and make disciples”. Jesus didn’t call the Church to draw a crowd, He called the Church to make disciples of all nations.
Along these lines, I’ve also heard the refrain, “small churches are small churches for a reason”. One church growth expert is known for providing a number of reasons why a small church is small. Some of what he has to say is very helpful, such as some of these reasons:
- The church loses its focus on evangelism and turns inward on itself
- The laity starts running the church instead of inviting their networks.
- The pastor does not respond personally to every signed in visitor with 24-48 hours.
- Either the pastor fails to hand-off most ministries or the church expects the pastor to do the ministry and to care for all the people.
- The pastor either doesn’t learn how to hire, grow, and fire staff or a church committee does the hiring and firing of all staff.
- The church doesn’t see the need to hire more staff, especially a solid worship leader.
- The church members expect the pastor to focus on them now that there are enough people to sustain the budget.
Most of these are helpful words of wisdom for churches of all sizes to seriously consider and evaluate, but I would submit to you that this reasoning begins with the false assumption that “bigger is better”. Bigger IS better if you are buying into the definition of “success” that nominal American Christianity espouses. That definition of a successful church includes the three characteristics I mention above (large numbers, large facilities, and a lot of ministry activity). However, if you’re more interested in God’s opinion, then success is not defined in those terms, and bigger is not always better.
Yes, God cares about numbers, but He is building a Kingdom with a capital “K”. He is using the Bride of Christ (the church) to proclaim the good news of Christ (the Gospel), and through that means He is drawing to Himself people from every nation, tribe, language, and race. In partnering with Him, we must surrender our man-made dreams of our little kingdoms (with a lower-case “k”), in favor of being used in whatever means He wills to build His Kingdom (with a capital “K”).
Some might ask, “so is staying small the answer?” Again, that’s the wrong question. It doesn’t matter whether a church is large or small; either can be Biblically faithful or unfaithful. The size of the congregation is not a determining factor in whether a church is successful in God’s eyes. Not only does God’s Word not give us any indication that size matters, but the facts tell the same story.
According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the number of mega-churches in the US (defined as those with weekly worship attendance of atleast 2,000) has doubled every year since 1990. In that same time frame, the percentage of Americans who attend church on any given weekend has declined (source, “The American Church in Crisis”, by David Olsen). Can we say from this that small churches are the answer to the decline in the American Church? No, of course not. But neither can we say that the mega-church is the panacea for the decline in attendance.
So if a focus on growth in attendance is not something that will help us become a church that is successful in God’s eyes, then what will? Instead of focusing on church growth, how about focusing on Gospel growth? What if everyone in the church saw that their mission in life was to “make disciples of all nations”; to engage people relationally all around us and expose them to the Gospel regardless of where they are spiritually? What if the Church (that is, you and I and everyone else who has trusted in Christ alone for salvation) was all about proclaiming the Gospel to “the lost” and trusting God to being some to faith in Jesus, and proclaiming the Gospel to “the already found” and trusting God to bring growth in spiritual maturity and sanctification?
Wouldn’t that be a better way of ensuring that God is glorified, than just doing whatever we needed to do in order to draw a crowd?