Does that strike you as a strange question? Of course we want big churches because that will mean more people know and love the Lord Jesus Christ. That may be true, but not in all cases. Let us not forget Jesus’ warning that Satan can grow the church or fall into that trap that equates attendance with faith. I have written other posts exploring whether pastors should be passionate about numerical growth, and I have offered a few cautions about the role of metrics in ministry. In this post I hope to explore the pastor’s desire for a big church. This desire is surely in many cases a healthy and prayerful longing for evangelism and conversions. However I think that we are deceiving ourselves if we deny that mixed motives may lie behind it. Pastors are, after all, sinful, limited and self-seeking human beings. It is this darker side of the pursuit for big ministries that I hope to address below.
As with many of the things we make into idols the thing desired may be morally neutral, and in many cases positive. A large as well as healthy church is undoubtedly an honourable aim and God-honouring ambition. But this means that it easily becomes a noble idol, similar to a happy family or success in the workplace. Pastors can very easily slip into desiring something good over and above God, which is a decent but limited definition of idolatry. Surely if I can make something as ostensibly God-given and wonderfully satisfying as marriage into an idol I can do the same with growing and pastoring a large church. In many ways this point will underpin the rest, which are struggles that I believe show we are bowing to the idol of a big, successful ministry instead of the God who grants us the privilege and task of ministry.
Linked with the above, Iain Duguid describes idols as things we demand from God in order to give us significance. It is not hard to see how being at the helm of a big church could lead to locating your meaning and even your identity in that, instead of Christ. I imagine this temptation develops the longer one is in ministry. After years of faithfully teaching the Bible, caring for God’s flock and making the many sacrifices involved in full-time ministry the hunger for recognition must cry out. Other pastors less gifted than yourself are enjoying success and growth. As you compare your own work to others you become racked with insecurity that insists you deserve recognition. This will only happen if your significance has shifted from Christ to being the leader of a big and successful church.
Similarly to the point above, perseverance in ministry can quickly give way to discontentment with the church God has given you. Make no mistake: the church you pastor is God’s treasured possession bought with the blood of his Son and entrusted to undeserving men and women to lead. In his Institutes, commenting on sin in Genesis 3, John Calvin writes, “Ambition and pride, together with ungratefulness, arose, because Adam [was] seeking more than was granted him” (2.1.4). Adam spurned God’s great bounty. Like our first parents who were far too easily persuaded that God was holding something back from them, pastors grow discontent when their churches remain small. Ingratitude causes many pastors to overlook the glorious gift of God’s church – and their responsibility to it – in their longing for a bigger one.
Failing to accept your limitations
It is ironic how proud those in service of the crucified Christ can become. Pastors speak about growing churches, assuming that they will be able to cope with its compounded pressures and demands. The proud pastor forecasts numerical growth as if he is in control and without accepting that he may not be gifted and godly enough to manage that growth. There are two problems here: the first is that it is God alone who gives the growth, who begins and finishes his work in people while using weak and often unwitting humans in the process. Secondly, being aware of his own failings and limitations, his very humanity, the pastor should recognise that the reason his church has not broken the 1000 barrier is simply because God in his perfect wisdom knows he will not be able to lead a church that size. God can grow a church despite its pastor in the same way he can keep growth from those who seem to have all the gifts necessary in leading a megachurch. The point is we do not determine that. However grand our vision for church growth we must face reality: God grows his church and we do not. Furthermore, our limitations do not limit God’s action, though in his kindness he may prevent your church from growing to a size that will crush you.
Seeking comfortable ministry
When I was heading up a youth ministry a few years back one of the teens told me that his aim was to become filthy rich, so thathe could be really generous to gospel ministry. Despite not knowing the hearts of men – much less teenagers – I asked him if his desire was not simply to be rich and comfortable. Recently I have wondered if the desire to pastor a big church, the goose that lays the golden egg, is little more than wanting to be comfortable in ministry, the pastor of an affluent church. IX Marks recently published an excellent book that highlights an uncomfortable pattern: churches are typically concentrated in middle to upper-class areas. Obviously I am not suggesting we swing the pendulum but merely that we recognise the self-preserving tendency we all wrestle with. The desire to pastor a big church can be the veil for desiring a plush position in a wealthy church, just like my teen’s intention to be generous towards gospel work was most likely a mask for his desire to be rich.
If you have enjoyed any of the points made in this post and would like to think more about church size I highly recommend Karl Vaters’ blog, Pivot. If you are going to read just one of his posts then I would urge you to make it this one: 11 Advantages Of Having 50 Churches Of 100 Instead Of 1 Church Of 5,000.
If you enjoyed my post there are a few more in this series: