As a pastor (It’s been three years now since planting Church of the Cross, how long do I really hold on to the idea of calling myself “church planter”? I mean, I know it’s trendy and everything but we’re a self-sustaining, growing church, we’re not really a plant anymore, are we? But I digress), I’m constantly faced with pressure (mostly internal) to grow our church “faster” and “bigger.”
But we don’t dim the lights, we don’t have lasers, we don’t push all of our people to invite people to Sunday morning, our gatherings are pretty casual and we ask for interaction even during the sermons. We extend a lot of effort in making Sunday mornings feel more like a family gathering than a production. The truth is that we are (probably) not going to grow quickly. And we’re OK with that because, oftentimes, even in churches, slower growth is sometimes (but admittedly not always) more healthy than quick growth. In fact, I’ve heard from several pastors who have pushed very hard for fast growth and then complained about the problems it brings. But again, I digress.
Every local church has a personality and every local church is not for everyone. This is just a reality and it’s OK. But this realization requires discernment because, how do we know what’s a good fit and when we’re simply elevating our own preferences and being consumers, even when it comes to choosing a church. After all, how in the world did we even come to accept a phrase like “church shopping”?
I worry that much of the push to grow churches bigger as quickly as possible does little more than reinforce the consumer mentality already present in most Americans. I love the passion that many churches have to see people come to faith in Jesus. And we share that passion. We desperately want to see people come to know Jesus. But this isn’t always the same thing as wanting to grow a church quickly. In fact, when I look at Scripture, I sometimes see Jesus appearing to make it difficult for people to actually come and follow Him. Consider Matthew 8:18-22:
Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 21Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 22And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”
Or Matthew 16:24-28:
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? 27For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 28Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
I wonder how many of our churches are actively calling people to deny themselves in order to follow Jesus; in order to be part of the local church? Now please don’t read this as me saying that we do this well and that I’m criticizing other churches for not doing this? I’m not saying we do it well, though we are trying.
I wonder if the emphasis on growing churches big quickly actually means that we will often soften Jesus’ demands in order to grow? Will a call to deny self be as attractive as lights, music and invitations? Can they co-exist? It seems that many churches recognize this, so they make their “church membership” process quite difficult; making it long and intense. But does this really result in a life of self-denial? What might it look like if churches really told their people that to be part of that local church would mean an entire restructuring of life?
I suppose the deeper question is what kind of growth are we looking for in our churches? Does numerical growth lend itself to or hinder genuine spiritual growth? Instead of giving our church planters tips on growing their churches numerically, how many books are their giving tips about how to call people to die to themselves? What might look different in church culture if we focused more on calling people to deny themselves as much as we focus on numbers?