Thomas Merton declared, “The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.” If your church has plateaued in its growth, ask yourself what has caused you to settle for status quo instead of status grow. In this article, I share three temptations to avoid when trying to grow your church.
1. Focusing only on one kind of growth.
The first temptation to avoid is to focus exclusively on one type of church growth. Donald McGavran, father of the church growth movement, identified many types of church growth, including biological, internal, transfer, and conversion growth. George Hunter expanded on McGavran’s types by identifying catalytic and proliferation types of church growth.
If many types of church growth exist, why do we often limit ourselves to one? Unfortunately, some churches exist to take care of themselves—focusing only on internal growth through well-developed programs that take care of the converted to the exclusion of programs that serve the needs of lost people. On the other hand, some churches focus so much on conversation growth (people finding Christ for the first time), that they don’t offer any ministries that serve the internal, spiritual growth needs of long-term attenders.
I faced that temptation when I planted a church. I wanted to reach lost sheep rather than take care of the sheep already in the pen. If your church “insiders” are lacking in grace, love, and forgiveness, they won’t be able to give it to unchurched outsiders. God will probably not attract lost people to a spiritually unattractive church. Not all types of growth are healthy growth. Oncologists know this. Some churches are wise to focus their church growth efforts by mothering new indigenous churches or launching satellite campuses. Perhaps the church’s greatest need in this area is for informed leaders who lead with a balanced strategy for church growth.
2. Focusing only on your friends and family, or people like you.
The second temptation to avoid is focusing only on the two groups/one location strategy. The two groups I speak of are your friends and family. These are the folks most like you, the people you know and love. You feel safe around them. After weekend worship, you have them over for dinner. You’re comfortable focusing your energies on reaching them. If they aren’t Christ followers someone has to reach them, you say, so why not me? Your church receives the most visible benefit to reaching those closest to you in terms of its weekly attendance and finances. Avoid at all costs the temptations to be a Jerusalem-only church.
Jesus, however, has a better way. He wants to expand your horizons beyond the friends and family plan. He pitches a world-encompassing strategy for church growth in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirt comes upon you; and you shall be my witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Some leaders read it and feel overwhelmed. Others read it and think, “What an exciting opportunity!” Which leader are you?
Notice the power of the “and” in this passage: Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth. We start in Jerusalem and go all the way to the world. There is almost nothing as motivating as challenging your church to get a vision to impact the world!
Let’s lift up a Samaria church growth strategy by considering ways in which God is calling you to grow your church by reaching out to your Samaria. In Jesus’ day, the Samaritans were known to the Jews as half breeds, and Jews always steered clear of them. Jews went around Samaria, not through it. Along comes Jesus who casts this vision to be a witness in Samaria. I like to think of Samaria as that location that is culturally, ethnically, socially, or economically different from your church that is without a viable witness of the transforming power of the gospel, and also a ministry group that needs compassionate ministry. What groups in your community or region do people avoid? How is God calling you to grow your church by reaching the ends of the earth? Short-term mission teams and career cross-cultural workers can be sent to plant churches and reap a spiritual harvest for the kingdom. And you church will grow. So, don’t ever give in to the temptation to adopt a church growth strategy that includes only your friends and family/one location. Perhaps the church’s greatest need in this area is for informed leaders who lead with a balanced strategy for church growth that involves local, regional/national, and international.
3. The temptation to quit.
To introduce the third temptation to avoid in trying to grow your church, I’d like to draw an analogy from the world of baseball. As any batter knows, the last words he wants to hear the umpire say are, “Strike three! You’re out.” And when a batter strikes out, he’s forced to retreat to the dugout in defeat. For church leaders, we face the daunting task of moving our churches forward in making disciples and seeing the church grow. When you’ve stepped up to the plate to try to lead your church to growth yet nothing’s working, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to retreat in defeat and despair to your office and work on next month’s sermon series. So, the third temptation to avoid when trying to grow your church is the temptation to quit.
Jesus faced the temptation to quit. On that ominous night in Gethsemane when He was to be taken before his accusers to be crucified, Matthew records three instances where Jesus went away and prayed to His Father for deliverance. He was going to die at the cross for the sins of the world, and it’s understandable that in His humanness He was tempted to resist, to ask for a way of escape. I find it fascinating that Matthew writes that Jesus “went a little farther.” Three times he persevered in prayer to complete his mission. It an example to all of us to “go farther” in leading our churches to grow.
I’ve identified three temptations to avoid when growing your church. There are others, and I hope you’ll look into your own heart to see what other temptations you might be wrestling with in leading your church to growth, and avoid them at all costs.