This week I was reading the tale of a pastor in which he compared his time of pastoring a small congregation with little to no numerical growth to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The idea was that God was putting him to death, crucifying him, through this experience of staying small despite his sincerity, intentions, and work. Implicit was that God held back growth for the purpose of accomplishing the crucifixion of his life. If his church had grown through the various strategies and innovations that he's tried through the five years, he would have missed out on the suffering that is pastoring a small church. This death included the financial difficulties that would threaten him with secular work, while pastoring, what some call being bi-vocational. He is crucified by the crushing disappointment of a small gathering of people. He took all the books by church growth gurus and tried to implement them, and when they didn't work like they were supposed to, this was personally hurtful to him.
Many men quit their pastorates over small congregation size and slow to non-existent growth. If they don't quit, they function with frustration that often leads to anger and depression. Much to most of these bitter consequences could be avoided with a change in thinking, to believe different about evangelism, discipleship, church growth, and success. Most negative emotions arise from unmet expectations, which produce different kinds of discontentment. Discontentment is another word for covetousness. Men covet something God doesn't promise and it slowly destroys them. It comes from a disordered love -- instead of loving God, loving popularity, position, power, prominence, that is, self.
The Bible reveals what to expect from ministry and explains church growth and its relation to us. On the other hand, wrong viewpoints with this regard have infiltrated, then grown, and finally haunted churches for awhile, even as manifested by the story of the above pastor.
Over the years, I've heard people say that a church might not grow because the pastor isn't ready to lead a large congregation. Fathom the thought of God punishing a pastor by not saving people where he lives. The people not getting saved, who will go to hell, are getting the worst end of the stick in that deal. It's an interesting idea that is nowhere in the Bible. It's mere speculation. Is it true that the big churches are those God can entrust to the man who leads them, and the small ones are some kind of punishment or chastisement or path to maturity to men who aren't ready? That's not what scripture says.
Someone asked the exact question that we're talking about with this post in Luke 13:23. In the next verse, we read Jesus' answer: "Strive to enter in at the strait gate." People are not striving to get in. Men are not seeking the Lord while He may be found. That answer fits with the parable of the soils. Hard hearts, superficial hearts, and worldly hearts will not receive the saving message in a saving fashion. And that answer fits with what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:7: "Neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase." The ones planting and watering are nothing. You are irrelevant to the results -- you just sow and water. So if you sow and water, and you don't have someone striving to get in, if you don't have someone wanting to find it (Mt 7:14), then it's not going to happen. If you faithfully sow good seed (the seed is not one of the differentiating factors in the parable of soils), you might not see any growth. Jesus Himself was not welcome by entire villages or towns.
Zero actual church growth or real conversions occur because of natural charisma, good looks, business savvy, and dynamic or magnetic personalities. None. The one sowing and the one watering are nothing. Paul said it had nothing to do with those natural circumstances in 1 Corinthians 1-2. My church is not smaller than someone else's because of some innate ability that another guy has that I don't have. I could be a more interesting speaker and a better leader, but those are not the factors for a church being small. We've got to get over that.
I recognize that the bigger churches and those who pastor them get the most attention. People want to know "how they did it." They want to find out the key or keys. They want to study them. Rick Warren says that is what he did. He got the formula for what he did from studying other mega-churches. Many churches that exploded with numbers were led by men who studied under Jack Hyles and the Hyles church manual. People buy the church growth books written by men with big churches. They do not seek the books on church growth written by men whose churches haven't gotten big. Despite all of that, the Bible tells us everything we need to know to get as big as we're ever going to get.
Are there are any factors that we can control that could change the size of our church? I don't expect any Calvinist or reformed guy to say "yes" to that. He shouldn't. God has predetermined that. I believe there are factors that "could." I said "could." Even if you have every one of your most favorable factors working on all cylinders, it still doesn't guarantee anything. If you go to a town where zero people are seeking, and they are all hard, thorny, or stony soil, you can try everything and there won't be any growth. That's why Jesus said you do in fact dust your feet on entire towns.
There are two factors that could change the size of your church. One, your church boldly evangelizes more people. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation, so the more people that hear it, the greater possibility of people being saved. In the techniques of modern church growth advocates, bold preaching is a turn-off, and many of their churches got bigger by not evangelizing boldly, but exercising a timid, mitigated strategy. I know our church gets to more people with the gospel than any other in our area, and yet our church is smaller than several. Some would interpret that as meaning bold evangelism doesn't work as well as other means of church growth.
The second factor is obedience to God. When a church obeys all of the Bible in a consistent way, that could affect the size of the church. As many people as would receive Christ would be discipled. The congregation would hear a lot of scriptural teaching. The church would be pastored. Purity would be maintained. All of these strengthen the Christians to do greater ministry for the Lord. Disobedience hurts true church growth. Obedience helps it. As much as I believe that, the bigger churches will be more disobedient to God than many smaller churches. You can't relate size of a church to obedience. We just know by faith that obedience is more helpful than hurtful to all good results for a church.
I understand a pastor wanting his church to grow. If you evangelize your entire community and keep trying to talk to every person, you are giving your church the best opportunity to grow. That doesn't mean that it will, because the one variable is the condition of the hearts of those you preach to. You can't control that. You can't change it. God has to change that. If you go to a town and preach to everyone and end with a small church, then that is your church. We should rejoice in the task of pastoring that church, if we have it. If we don't, that's not our fault either.
All things being equal means all things being biblical and God's Word being practiced to the same extent. So, all things being equal, a church will be bigger because of the condition of the hearts of the hearers. Period. It's sad today that people think the key is man's ability. That only gives glory to man. And that is in fact what the discouraged pastor himself said, that is, that church growth comes because of natural ability. It's not true.
For instance, some will say, "If you start a bus ministry, that's the key to church growth." Or, "what kind of music you use will most greatly affect the size of a church." Or, "being conservative doctrinally and liberal culturally will cause your church to get bigger." None of those are true with relations to biblical or actual church growth. You might argue that they do. I don't believe it. Why? It's not what God says about it in His Word, and I just believe Him. If you will walk by faith, and please God, you've got to trust what He said.
Even if a church has more people, it doesn't mean that church is even bigger. They might have a high percentage of unbelievers in their congregation. They might have less saved people in their church than you do. Just because a church uses a particular method, and then gets bigger, does it mean that church is bigger because of that method? No. It might be bigger through compromise or some humanistic technique or strategy that doesn't and will not glorify God. We just can't judge some things. We can't always answer why. We've got to be satisfied with what God said and how He taught us to do it. That is living by faith, which pleases God.
I'm not saying that men even with the right philosophy of pastoring won't get discouraged or disappointed with how big their churches are. However, if they do, it's not based upon anything other than the kind of selfish desire that Baruch had in Jeremiah 45:5, to which God said: "Seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not." Our disappointments come because we are seeking great things for ourselves. God commanded, "Seek them not."