By Tyler McKenzie
Church growth shouldn’t be the crowning pursuit of success among leadership. And yet, we’ve framed the pursuit of growth as natural and celebrate its attainment as health.
In part one of this article, I shared four concerning trends I’ve observed in American evangelical churches/ministries that can be explained (at least in part) as a consequence of the idolatrous pursuit of the gospel of growth. In this conclusion to the article, I share four more trends that may be indicative of that pursuit.
5. A Culture of Competition over Church (big C) Unity
Sometimes I question if this is what really drives the multisite movement (cough-cough . . . my church has two campuses). The mindset can become, “We do church in such a uniquely compelling way that planting these new franchises will reach more people! Where do we already have a critical mass of current attendees that can financially sustain this, preferably over a 15-minute drive away? OK! Let’s go there!” What can happen is a potentially healthy new site is launched, but smaller churches—even healthy ones—can get cannibalized. They can’t compete with the bigger church’s facilities, talent, or menu.
It makes me wonder . . . If we really feel called to a certain community, should we do a capital campaign to support the healthy sister churches already there?
6. The Normalization of Consumer Christianity
As we grow bigger, we feel the pressure to keep expanding our footprint, attracting new people, and improving the entertainment quality of our gatherings. If we aren’t intentional, we can slowly compromise in the direction of soft prosperity, competitive multisiting, and extravagant services. Many of our people are subconsciously discipled to choose a church based on consumer appeals rather than actual health or locality. I’ve been guilty of fuming when someone leaves because the church down the road offers something better. Perhaps we have created the consumer mindset that fuels church-hopping and church-shopping.
It makes me wonder . . . What sort of disciples are we making when we win them with convenience, entertainment, and perpetual optimism?
7. The Mental Health Collapse of Church Leaders
All this pressure for bigger and better has led to tremendous strain on pastors over performance metrics. When the growth metrics decline, as they have for many of us through COVID-19, it can feel like failure. It can be identity crushing. Most of us got into ministry because of our heart for pastoral care and faithful preaching. Before we know it, we find ourselves exasperated and we start to think, “I didn’t sign up for this.”
It makes me wonder . . . Would the attrition rate be as high among clergy if we were measured primarily for our pastoral care and faithful preaching?
8. The Weakened State of Ongoing Discipleship
The most tragic part of this is that we can end up losing any real vision for ongoing, lifelong discipleship . . . that “long obedience in the same direction” that Eugene Peterson wrote about. People have a preacher on Sunday, but do they have a pastor who knows them? Do they have a spiritual family? Do they have a burning passion to see their lives conformed to Christ until the day they meet him? This highlights the importance of some sort of healthy small groups system that nurtures pastoral care and leadership in larger churches.
I was at the grocery recently when I saw a lady I’d never met. She knew me. “You’re my pastor!” she said. She seemed starstruck to finally meet the person she had watched on stage for two years. “It’s like meeting a celebrity,” she commented. I was friendly but uncomfortable. In the car on the way home the situation broke me, “I’ve been her pastor for two years and this is the first time we’ve met.” This wasn’t the first time something like this happened. My prayer is that she is known and loved by other congregants in leadership at our church.
It makes me wonder . . . If we had a nameless picture album of every person who calls Northeast their church home, how many people could our pastoral team call by name?
I could go on, but I’ve already filled two columns with my thoughts. I don’t want to be a cynic, but I approach the “church leadership industry” with a healthy dose of skepticism. My problem isn’t with leadership, it’s with what the industry promises. It usually goes something like this:
1. The problem? Churches are shrinking.
2. The solution? Adapt our leadership formula.
3. The promise? Shrinking becomes growing.
There isn’t much room here for faithful ineffectiveness. What if faithfulness in a generation doesn’t lead to growth at all? Is there room for leaders like Jeremiah? Is there room for models like St. Benedict’s Rule (prayer, work, study, and leisure) or Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (Christian community in a time of persecution) where the solution is a community of resistance? Is there room for a generational remnant or must it always be a generational revival?
I would love any of your thoughts on what might be added to this list or if you connect at all with what I’m saying. It’s an area of great conviction and concern for me. How do we promote growth without being taken by it?