Counting Heads or Changing Hearts?

by Justin Lonas

One of the primary factors that defines who we are at Pulpit Helps is our focus on small churches, implicitly or explicitly. It's what makes us unique.

In truth we shouldn't be as unique as we are; small churches represent a massive demographic that is largely untapped by the Christian publishing industry. According to a 2003 Barna Group poll, approximately 60 per cent of American Protestant churches have fewer than 100 people in attendance each Sunday (while only 2 per cent attract 1,000 or more), and just over 40 per cent of American churchgoers attend those small churches.

In an era where numerical (and financial) growth seems to be the driving force behind most churches' development, however, small churches are often viewed as inferior, unsuccessful, and even unspiritual. Because they lack the programs and services of larger congregations, they are often stereotyped as irrelevant. This is, more often than not, an untrue indictment. Still, many churches (large and small) have taken it to heart, leaving many small churches thinking that they must grow or die.

We need to ask ourselves why our first instinct for a church or ministry that starts and begins to fill a successful role is to expand it. As a society, we feel as though anything that is not growing is automatically receding. While this may be true in terms of business and finance, the same measurements cannot be applied to dealings with people.

Think back to the Great Commission. Christ's command was to make disciples. As I brought out in an article in the February issue ("Remembering the Great Commission"), the sense of the command is that it is a process, not an event. We can't allow a focus on church size to supplant our true mission. There is a great temptation to focus on rapid and highly visible numerical growth instead of the gradual and internal nature of disciple-making. When we hold up growth as the higher goal, we believe it's somehow better to reach a large number of people at a cursory level than it is to reach a few very deeply and effectively.

The small church is uniquely equipped to make a move away from prevalent "dog & pony show" methods of growth and focus on cultivating a Christian community that builds real disciples.

Numerical growth can be a good thing, too, when it happens for the right reasons. From 1998-2006, I attended a Christian & Missionary Alliance church in North Carolina that grew from around 250 to 1,200 in weekly attendance in a matter of 3-4 years as the pastor made a decision to be less focused on "doing church" and more focused on sound, exegetical, expositional preaching and missions. The church never did anything specifically directed at "growth"-the pastor faithfully preached the Word and people came in the midst of the spiritual growth of our members.

Such Spirit-directed growth should be our only desire in terms of church size. Any growth pattern aimed simply at increasing a church's numbers instead of a comprehensive focus on the spiritual health of the body can lead to stagnation and a loss of vision. People that come to a church that's reaching out to them won't stick around if the "advertised product" isn't delivered. Sustained growth requires a commitment to the Word and to the church community.

We need to let that pattern of growth in Christ determine our outreaches, programs, services, etc. How we understand the importance of church growth will ultimately determine how we approach many areas of the Christian walk. If missions is about head-counting, then we don't need to be actively involved when we hear encouraging reports from the field. It's enough to give occasionally and pray when we remember to. If evangelism and discipleship is about head-counting, distributing tracts, street preaching, and big-tent meetings ought to have conquered the world for Christ long ago.

Unfortunately, that's not the case. We have to be committed to Christ and let our numbers rise and fall as He moves people. If we are faithful to His model of disciple-making, our numbers won't matter.

While I do want to encourage our readers in small churches, we also have to remember that just because a church is small doesn't mean it's fulfilling its role as a community of disciple-makers. Whether your church has 50 members or 5,000, the success of your ministry has to hinge on how well you're following Christ's example (i.e.-how the fruits of the Spirit are worked out in your congregation). Is your church going to be in the business of counting heads or of changing hearts?

This is the first in a series of articles discussing some of the differences between "doing church" and being a church. Look for next month's column to cover small groups and the congregation dynamic.

Justin Lonas is publisher of Pulpit Helps.

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