What Does Healthy Church Growth Look Like?

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At the recent Healthy Church Conference, Philip Brown presented three pictures and the audience voted on the one they felt best conveyed a healthy church. The first picture was a sanctuary filled with worshippers, the second picture showed a small group of believers sharing their lives together in prayer and Bible study, and the third picture featured a group of Christians working together on a building project.

As I reflected on that question, a slightly different one came to mind: What does healthy church growth look like? Just this week an advertisement popped up in my Facebook feed claiming to have a winning strategy for taking a church from 200 to 2,000 in a relatively short time. Having just sat through Philip Brown’s session, I was most captured by the picture in the ad. It featured a cool-looking, young, and charismatic pastor speaking to a large audience in a modern church. What does that picture tell us about growing a church from 200 to 2,000? Is that even the goal of being the Church? I decided to peruse through some of the comments (there were over 7,000 of them). The comments were merciless and made it apparent that the ad was failing most of its audience.

But, still, the question remains: What picture would I use to convey healthy church growth?

Over twenty years ago when I studied church growth in Bible college, I established a few beliefs that have remained. In fact, I’m more convinced now than ever that these three principles are true of healthy church growth:

  1. Healthy church growth begins with dedication to a painfully long process.
  2. Healthy church growth requires training our children to love Christ and His Church.
  3. Healthy church growth occurs when the unsaved are born again and united with Christ and His people.

Much more can be added to this list. In my mind, these three points entail much, much more about what makes a church healthy. But let me expand on these three.

1. Healthy church growth begins with dedication to a painfully long process.

My ten-year old boy is excited about and impatiently awaiting adolescence. We’ve talked a lot about it. He doesn’t know that it’s supposed to be confusing, frustrating, scary, and all of that. He just knows that his body will start preparing for physical growth, and he’s excited to grow bigger and stronger. Already he is experiencing some of the muscle and skeletal pain of a growing and stretching body. It’s necessary for healthy growth. Healthy church growth is also painful, often scary, frequently messy, but exciting.

It is far easier to grow a congregation numerically than it is to grow a congregation spiritually.

We should run away from “grow-quickly” strategies as fast as we run from “get-rich-quick” schemes. One pastor in a mega-church outside of Atlanta, Georgia, commented how much easier it was to grow a congregation numerically than it has been to grow a congregation spiritually. This is a challenge in a growing congregation of any size, 50 or 5,000. This particular pastor had employed all of the quick-growth strategies until he realized that most of the congregation was merely an audience looking for some Sunday entertainment. When he and his elders got serious about church health, they changed their strategy and lost several thousand people in the process. That was thirty-some years ago. They haven’t returned to the number they had, but a few thousand growing Christians are gathering in the same building where the platform is no longer a stage for headliners. But it didn’t happen overnight. It took decades (recall Eugene Peterson’s definition of discipleship as “a long obedience in the same direction”)

2. Healthy church growth requires training our children to love Christ and His Church.

No ministry is more important than the church’s ministry to its children. Jesus prized children with extraordinary love. And he protected them jealously, threatening the equivalent of a free ticket on Titan II if someone offended such a little one (Matthew 18:6).

If we can’t keep our children, what makes us think that we can keep someone else’s children?

The first question a church should not ask is: What outreach program should we start? Forget outreach if you’re not doing inreach well. What does it profit to gain the whole world and lose the souls of your children? If we can’t keep our children, what makes us think that we can keep someone else’s children? A person who does not manage his own household well is disqualified from pastoral ministry (1 Tim. 3:4-5). Paul asks, “How will he take care of the church of God?” I often ask our leaders, “Exactly who do we expect to take our place if we’re not training our children to love Jesus and His Church?” While we’re praying for more laborers in the harvest field, we should be training our own children to be laborers.

Training begins in the sanctuary where our children learn how to express praise and gratitude to God by imitating adults. Children learn to belong when they are included in the main worship services. They will learn to love the church when people are kind and when the building is a happy and safe place to be. Young adults (about age 13 and up) normally have identifiable abilities that are useful in the church. They shouldn’t have to wait until someone dies or becomes incompetent to have a place of ministry. I use a simple, home-made assessment tool to help church members, especially young adults find their ministry alongside experienced ministers in the church. 

3. Healthy church growth occurs as the unsaved are born again and united with Christ and His people.

There is no safer place for a sinner to run than into the arms of Jesus. Sadly, the arms of His disciples have not always been so comforting. When a broken person is strong-armed by the church, they’ll go somewhere more inviting. I recently took my wife to the emergency room. It was a large hospital in downtown Indianapolis. We had to go through security to get into the parking lot then through a metal detector to get into the building. It seemed like it might be a rough place. But once we got into the ER, the staff, nurses, and doctors were amazing. They were kind and gentle. Although my wife was in unbearable pain from a Lisfranc injury, she was comforted by their exceptional care. 

There is a hospital two minutes away from where I live. Unless someone is dying, most people I know will drive nineteen minutes farther down the road to another hospital. Why? Because the local hospital has spent decades earning the reputation of offering poor care. Just a few years ago it was purchased by Indiana University. IU Health is the largest and most prestigious healthcare system in the state. They tore down the old building, built an entirely new, beautiful campus, and replaced the staff and administration. Guess what? People keep driving past it on their way to a more reputable hospital nineteen minutes farther.

Christ gives both healing and preventative care through His church.

The metaphor of the church as a hospital is far from complete. The church, among other things, is a place of spiritual healing. But when we visit a hospital, we intend to leave; not so with the church. Christ gives both healing and preventative care through His church. There we learn to be disciplined disciples: receiving or giving instruction; being corrected or offering correction. It is notable that 40% of the “one another” commands given to Christians in the New Testament concern restoring or keeping one another from sin. The church is for sinners to be revived and the saints to grow stronger.

Conclusion

Researchers say that most church growth today is caused by church attenders moving from one congregation to another. There are good and bad reasons for a person to switch churches. Whatever those reasons are, they are beyond these most certain truths of healthy church growth. I never paid the fee to find out what church growth strategies the Facebook ad proposed. If I could take a picture of a church that is experiencing healthy church growth, it could be a sanctuary filled with worshippers, or a small group Bible study, or a group of believers working together. Any of those images would work. Would I see old and young working together? New converts and seasoned saints studying together? A worshiping congregation composed of people who would never come together except for Jesus Christ? I believe those are sure indicators of healthy church growth.

David Fry
David Fry
Senior Pastor at the Frankfort Bible Holiness Church. PhD in Systematic Theology (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). MDiv in New Testament Theology (Wesley Biblical Seminary).