Recently, I’ve had several conversations about church growth. The contrarian, “fly in the ointment” side of me is always tempted to say, “Well, WHAT KIND of growth are we talking about? Numerical? Spiritual? Because spiritual growth is JUST as important as numerical growth.”
I really do believe that spiritual growth is just as important as numerical growth. I believe that at the end of the day, as a shepherd, I owe God an answer more for the maturity of my flock than the size of my flock. If a church entrusted to my teaching and leadership is “a mile wide and an inch deep”, then I haven’t done my job well. While I have very little control over how many new people walk through our church’s doors, I am responsible for doing everything within my power to make our church a place that is conducive to spiritual growth for those already here.
But if anything, I’m sometimes guilty of swinging the pendulum too far in that direction, and not focusing enough thought, prayer, and energy in the other direction: numerical growth. I could certainly afford to get out of my comfort zone a bit and consider what I could do to make PVCC a more welcoming and attractive community to more people. While I deeply love the unique atmosphere and strengths that small churches offer, I should be careful not to fall TOO in love with the idea of a small church at the expense of more people hearing the good news about Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.
So what can we do to see PVCC grow numerically?
We could up our production game and put on a bigger, grander, more spectacular show on Sunday mornings – but I’m not sure that’s healthy or sustainable. We could send out TONS snappy-looking flyers – but I’m not sure that’s very effective, and our budget is only so big. I could start dressing much hipper, telling more jokes, and lose a few pounds around my waist – but that probably wouldn’t work either. We could go deep into debt, taking the Field of Dreams “If you build it, they will come” approach with a massive new building project – but I’m not convinced that’s wise stewardship. We could avoid the difficult texts in the Bible, sidestep everything Scripture says that flies in the face of popular cultural opinion, and hope that gets us more butts in seats – but historically that hasn’t worked for other churches and denominations, and even if we did somehow gain the whole world, we’d end up losing our soul somewhere along the way.
Spoiler alert: we aren’t going to do any of those things (especially the part about me losing weight).
So if we aren’t going to do those things, what can we do to see our church grow numerically? There’s something to be said for simply doing what God calls us to do, and letting him take care of the rest (this is often called the “faithful presence” approach). But we’re also called to obey Jesus’s command to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19a), rather than just sitting back and hoping they eventually come to us.
So allow me to suggest that the biggest tool we have at our disposal – the best resource God has given us to see more people come to our church – lives in your mirror. The old wisdom still applies: the single best way to get someone to visit a church for the first time is a personal invitation.
I don’t write this to say, “It’s YOUR fault our church isn’t bigger – not mine!” I need to do this too; this is an area where I need to grow myself. The house behind us just sold, and we should be getting new neighbors any day now. And while I may not invite those people to church in the VERY FIRST conversation we ever have, I shouldn’t be content to live next door for four years, and never build a strong enough relationship for them to know – with certainty – that I’m a Christian (as may have been the case with the former owners). I’m a pastor – a “professional” Christian – and I too can be guilty of hesitance (or even cowardice) to share my faith with others and invite them to church. I get it.
And of course – going back to my more natural area of emphasis – I’d argue this is where the other side of the “growth” coin comes in: spiritual growth. If you aren’t growing spiritually yourself, you’re less likely to invite others to be a part of it. If you aren’t growing spiritually to the point of living out your faith in visible ways, others are less likely to take your invitation seriously. And if we aren’t growing spiritually as a church, we’re less likely to be a place that actually “makes disciples” – even if we’re REALLY good at inviting and accumulating bodies.
So consider this post a challenge. As we enter a new phase of our church’s history, I challenge you – and myself – to think not just about PVCC’s spiritual growth, but about our numerical growth. Who can you invite to worship with us? Who in your circle of influence has not heard the gospel? Which friend has heard about Jesus, but hasn’t believed in him? Which believing neighbor doesn’t have a church to call home?
Again, at the end of the day, I believe my primary responsibility as a pastor is to shepherd the flock God entrusts to me. But I also pray that God, through his Word and his Spirit, would give us an earnest desire to see more people come to know Jesus, and the PVCC flock grow for his glory. And he can use something as small as a simple, thoughtful, friendly invitation from people like me and you to do it.
Then (Jesus) said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore earnestly pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38)