By Rodney Shaw
During the course of our building program we sold our existing building to a school with a leaseback provision. Over time, the school began to occupy more parts of the building until finally we were left with only the sanctuary. For one year we had no offices, classrooms, fellowship space, kitchen, prayer rooms, or baptistery. To accommodate the Easter crowd that year, we had children’s church outside on the parking lot in a tent, and we had a sunrise service to make room in the eleven o’clock service. Sixty-seven people had confirmed they would attend the sunrise service—more than two hundred showed up! It was a fabulous yet simple service with classic resurrection hymns and only a keyboard. We served Communion. We followed our typical format in the eleven o’clock service.
Although our plan to relieve the crowding was successful, the eleven o’clock service was totally flat. We had great music and children’s ministry, and greeters were posted everywhere, but I was caught off-guard by what happened that day. Not only did we lose the participation of those who did not return to the eleven o’clock service, we had grown accustomed to having the children and children’s ministry staff in our worship service. Having all these people out of the service created a huge void. But more importantly, many of the people who did not return to the eleven o’clock service were seasoned, mature saints, and their absence changed the spiritual climate in the eleven o’clock service.
We had great attendance for the day, but I don’t know that much was accomplished spiritually. It was a stark reminder that filling a building with people is not the same thing as growing a church.
There is a danger in merely attracting unconverted crowds. I am not saying there is a danger in converting large numbers of people, but there clearly is a danger in attracting large numbers of people who remain unconverted. If the attendance of a church outpaces the conversion rate, at some point this will change the complexion of the church. It will affect worship, spiritual warfare, giving, and the overall culture of the church. Not only so, but if our priority is to merely make a church bigger we easily fall prey to gimmickry, and in worst cases, apostasy.
The primary question is not how do we make our churches grow, but rather, how do we make our churches healthy. Health leads to growth, but growth does not necessarily lead to health. The implosion of countless megachurches testifies to this. A body that grows too quickly due to a physiological imbalance will have skeletal issues. Fruit that grows too fast will burst or will likely lack flavor. A tree that grows too quickly will break and even fall over. Now this is not an excuse for a stale church, and neither is this to say that churches cannot grow quickly. The early church grew extraordinarily fast in the early days, but beginning with Pentecost, they reported converts, not attendance. (See Acts
1:5 cf., 2:4; 2:41, 47; 4:4; and 5:14.) Growth was determined by converts not crowds, giving units, constituents, or volunteers. I am not opposed to tracking these things, and indeed I graph everything I possibly can. However, if our attendance increases but our conversions do not, we are not experiencing true church growth. We are planning Easter now, and I hope the house if full. However, Easter attendance shows the reach of a church, while the Sunday-after-Easter’s attendance shows the strength of a church. I hope we are strong.
So how do we make our churches healthy? This is the crux of the matter and will require more articles to fully answer, but I think it is important to remember that true growth follows other things: church growth follows proclamation of the gospel (Mark 16:20); church growth follows a demonstration of the power of the Spirit (Acts 1:8; I Corinthians 2:4); church growth follows a steadfast commitment to the apostles’ doctrine (Acts 2:42-47); church growth follows the exercise of spiritual gifts (I Corinthians 14:24-25; Ephesians 4:11-13). We can do very little to make something grow. I cannot make my church grow any more than I can make a peach grow. But, I can strive to make sure the tree is healthy, and when a tree is healthy, it will grow and bear fruit.