I love the church. That’s why I would like to suggest that pursuit of church growth by some leaders has reached an idolatrous level. Growth has become synonymous with health and success. It’s why we invest so many resources in the weekend gathering. It’s why we platform the leaders we do.
Having led a large congregation for a decade now, I’ve experienced some of the lusts and obsessions in my own heart.
Growth shouldn’t be the main thing. Tim Keller wrote in “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics,”
Out of necessity, the large church must use organizational techniques from the business world, but the danger is that ministry may become too results-oriented and focused on quantifiable outcomes (attendance, membership, giving) rather than the goals of holiness and character growth. This tendency should not be accepted as inevitable.
We’ve gone beyond reluctantly accepting it as inevitable. We’ve framed the pursuit of growth as natural and celebrate its attainment as admirable.
I’ve compiled a list of several concerning trends I have observed in American evangelical churches/ministries. I’ve elected to share those trends that can be explained (at least in part) as consequences of the idolatrous pursuit of the gospel of growth. Let me be clear: Growth in a church is not bad, but crowning growth as the king metric is notgood. I humbly ask you to let down your guards and consider my list. I’ll share eight trends total—the first four in this issue and the final four in the September/October issue.
1. Institutional Cover-Ups and Moral Failures
In May, a Southern Baptist Convention report detailed a pattern of sexual abuse and cover-up at the highest levels of leadership. This is just one of many examples of church leaders—including Ravi Zacharias, Jerry Fallwell Jr., and Mark Driscoll—implicated in sinful behavior. Those responsible for the accountability of the leader often offer the same excuse: “But look at the fruit! They were doing so much good!” By this logic, the justification for covering up serious sin (like abuse, financial impropriety, or sexual immorality) is “the fruit.” By fruit, they mean size, impact, and scope of influence. How does this definition of fruit align with John’s exhortations (Luke 3:9-14), Jesus’ teachings (John 15:1-17), or Paul’s writings (Galatians 5:22-25)?
It makes me wonder . . . How many of my “lesser” sins have been excused by coworkers, elders, or congregants because of the “fruit” I’ve helped lead my church to produce?
2. Calculated Apathy/Silence on Pressing Issues
We all know that certain topics will provoke people to leave. As we’ve led through the past few years, which have been especially polarizing, I’ve listened as leaders speak privately about their strong convictions but then make calculated decisions to remain silent with their church. Are the sheep leading the shepherds? A preaching mentor once said, “Whatever the preacher isn’t allowed to talk about, that’s what you talk about because that’s the idol.” That’s terrible advice for maximizing church growth, but I believe it’s some of the best advice I’ve ever been given. Every context is unique, so every preacher must take a different approach.
But it makes me wonder . . . If I honestly spoke the entire truth to my congregation (keeping in mind we all have unique contexts) without concern for offering or attendance loss, would I say more about racial injustice, the sexual revolution, Christian nationalism, sexual abuse, the sanctity of life, and other issues?
3. The Popularization of Soft Prosperity
Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, is one of the leading historians on the Prosperity Movement. In her book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, she says there are basically two kinds of prosperity theology—hard prosperity and soft prosperity. Hard prosperity is what most of us roll our eyes at. “If you have faith, you can throw away your blood pressure medicine! If you’ll just give $100 today, God will throw open the floodgates and give you $1,000!” Bowler argues that hard prosperity has become more of a fringe phenomenon today while soft prosperity has become mainstream.
Soft prosperity is that unspoken expectation inside us that if we go to church, donate, and live morally, God will bless us with a good life (that is, physical, emotional, relational, and financial well-being). Nowhere does God promise that, but people desperately want it to be true. “Here’s how to find financial freedom!” “Here’s how to find balance in a busy world.” “Here are five steps to better relationships.” Practical teaching can be powerfully transformative, but it always must be grounded in Jesus’ cross-shaped way and the exhortations of Scripture that are often offensive.
It makes me wonder . . . How often do I choose and bend sermons toward self-help topics that will draw an audience to the exclusion of the unpopular message of self-denial and self-sacrifice?
4. Evangelical Resistance to Social Concern and Justice
I was teaching other church leaders about serving and developing relationships in our community and an influential megachurch pastor cornered me afterward. He said, “Who cares if we feed a poor woman on the other side of town if she ends up going to hell?” That sentiment, though not as crude, is baked into our organizational scoreboards. The assumption is that unless a ministry results in conversion and congregational growth, it cannot be truly pleasing to God.