Church Growth: A Response

Recently on Rekindle, Graham has reflected on church metrics. What I’m posting here was originally written as a comment on this post, but I’ve decided to move it to a post of its own, because I feel the topic is important enough to (try) keep the conversation going. Here’s what I had to say.

I wonder if Graham isn’t singing in harmony with Carl Trueman and others: there is a big problem with our current desire to be popular and celebrated. Churches are finding themselves in awkward positions, where their use of metrics is driving them to look a pale shade of early church life. We really should be heeding these warnings, and considering where our use of metrics and our ungodly desires are urging us on in increasingly unhelpful directions. This is something Graham’s post makes inroads with.

However, it might be worth separating the issues he raises: on the one hand, we need to discuss the wrong desires that are calling for data-comfort, and on the other, we are reading data wrongly, and so need to be helped to use it properly. His post addresses the first, but I think a Rekindle series on the latter would be helpful (and demanding). Perhaps we should attempt it.

Data is a fantastic feedback tool, and larger churches (especially) should have people who know how to interpret and are listening to all the data they can get their hands on, because of the nature of these institutions and the use data feedback provides as a management tool. If done properly, I think it could even help address the problems of Trueman and co.

I read Natural Church Dynamics by Schwarz a little while back. He locates himself within the church growth movement, but almost completely ignores attendance figures because of their inability to explain their existence. All his measurables revolve around the quality of church life because he sees these as the ‘growth forces’ that result in worthwhile numerical additions. I say this to flag the reduction of metrics to church attendance in Graham’s post, but also to segue into this next point.

What I found interesting while reading was the significant overlap between Heard’s 5Ms and his 8 growth forces: both see health as the crucial factor that influences numbers. Whether that is helpful or right, and if both, the exact way maturity influences conversions are useful conversations that we should be having.


In my original comment, I posted a quote from Tim Keller’s Center Church. I just dropped it in there, out of nowhere. I included it because I felt it provides useful language and an accessible framework, which holds together both the need to be faithful and the need to reach the lost. For the sake of continuity, here’s the quote:

“As I read, reflected, and taught, I came to the conclusion that a more biblical theme for ministerial evaluation than either success or faithfulness is fruitfulness. Jesus, of course, told his disciples that they were to “bear much fruit” (John 15:8). Paul spoke even more specifically. He spoke of conversions as “fruit” when he desired to preach in Rome: “that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles” (Rom 1:13 KJV). Paul also spoke of the “fruit” of godly character that a minister can see growing in Christians under his care. This included the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22). Good deeds, such as mercy to the poor, are called “fruit” as well (Rom 15:28).
Paul spoke of the pastoral nurture of congregations as a form of gardening. He told the Corinthian Christians they were “God’s field” in which some ministers planted, some watered, and some reaped (1 Cor 3:9). The gardening metaphor shows that both success and faithfulness by themselves are insufficient criteria for evaluating ministry. Gardeners must be faithful in their work, but they must also be skilful, or the garden will fail. Yet in the end, the degree of the success of the garden (or the ministry) is determined by factors beyond the control of the gardener. The level of fruitfulness varies due to “soil conditions” (that is, some groups of people have a greater hardness of heart than others) and “weather conditions” (that is, the work of God’s sovereign Spirit) as well.
The church growth movement has made many lasting contributions to our practice of ministry. But its overemphasis on technique and results can put too much pressure on ministers because it underemphasizes the importance of godly character and the sovereignty of God. Those who claim that “what is required is faithfulness” are largely right, but this mindset can take too much pressure off church leaders. It does not lead them to ask hard questions when faithful ministries bear little fruit. When fruitfulness is our criterion for evaluation, we are held accountable but not crushed by the expectation that a certain number of lives will be changed dramatically under our ministry.”

Church Growth: Must We be Passionate about Numerical Growth?

A few weeks back I posted on church attendance and the role numbers might play in evaluating ministry, both positively and negatively. I argued that unqualified numbers indicate little more than trends, can be misleading or even deceiving, and easily become a source of discouragement. One of the catalysts for my own reflection upon the church growth movement and its principles has been Andrew Heard. I have critiqued an aspect of his teaching (here), but in this post I want to interact with his point from Acts that being passionate about numerical growth is a necessary part of the gospel fabric and ministry. When presenting this at a conference, Heard admitted that being passionate about numerical growth leaves us wide open to compromise, providing a sort of tension. However I believe that being passionate for growth also requires careful qualification. I hope to develop that, in part, with this post.

Growth in Acts was a result of the church’s passion for Christ

Church growthBefore we get to some of those qualifications, we must ask if does Acts does show that being passion for numerical growth is necessary for gospel ministry. I have written previously on the purpose of Acts, arguing that by embedding gospel sermons in narrative Luke’s aim was to: (a) call its readers to repentance and faith in Christ while (b) emphasising that the success of the gospel is owed to the Holy Spirit. More simply, we might say that Acts emphasises the word about Christ and the work of the Spirit. There is no denying that Luke records numerical growth throughout (Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1, 7; 11:24; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20). But in holding to the aforementioned twofold purpose of Acts, this numerical growth resulted from the faithful proclamation of Christ made effective by the Spirit, which is why we repeatedly read that it was the Lord who added to his church. To risk being accused of splitting hairs, I think we would do better to argue from Acts that the apostles were passionate about Christ and dependant on his Spirit, rather than passionate about growth and dependant on methods. With that in mind, let us consider two qualifications for the statement, ‘Being passionate about growth is a necessary part of gospel fabric.’

Numerical growth must be measured by real conversions to Christ

I mentioned some of the dangers of metrics in ministry in my previous post. One of those is the misuse of numbers; we can, as one commenter said, seek “data-comfort” through metrics. This is not to say that this will always be the case but we must ask both why we are counting on Sundays and what those statistics show. The problem with counting heads on a Sunday is that the number of people who attend services is not an indication of how many Christians belong to your church. Therefore what we can infer from numbers is confidence of growth, perhaps of “seekers” but not an indication of conversions. Commenting on Acts 2, John Stott writes, “Salvation and church membership belonged together; they still do.” All of the numbers in Acts refer to conversions, not adherents or visitors. History tells us that tens of thousands of Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Pentecost and therefore we can safely assume that Peter addressed more than 3000 people. In fact, Acts 2:41 makes it clear that not everyone who heard received the word and baptism. The incredible number in 2:47 was not how many listened to Peter but how many came to Christ.

Conversions have little to do with us

Church growthAnswering the question, “Who grows the church?” in The Courage to be Protestant, David Wells strongly expounds the sovereignty of God. He writes, “Nothing…is more absurd than the panic that now grips the evangelical church. It is terrorized by the specter of postmodernity. Reading today’s “how-to” literature, one has to draw the conclusion that the church’s days are numbered unless we rush in to prop it up with our own know-how. God, you see, has more on his hands than he can possibly handle.” Wells concludes that section of his book with an appeal for us to let God be God over his church, for this will liberate us from feeling or thinking we must do what we are incapable of doing: “We cannot impart new life.” Believing numerical growth can be unlocked by a better strategy comes close to unbelief. Wells continues, “We turn to structures and programs, appearances and management, advertising and marketing. Our preoccupation is with what we do and therefore with what we control.” Strategies, structures, and ministry models do not deny the sovereignty of God but the confidence we put in them to grow God’s church might.

My hope in writing this post is not to promote theological knit picking and it certainly is not to discourage being passionate about growing God’s church. But, working backwards through my points: we must remember the place of human effort and planning within the sovereignty of God. The most God-glorifying expression of our passion for growth will be seen in impassioned prayers for conversions. Finally, if we are truly passionate about growth we will preach Christ and him crucified, in the power of his Spirit. Nothing less will do. Nothing less will grow the church.

A Note on Analogies

After the publication of my previous post critiquing Andrew Heard’s lifeboat analogy for the church, it was suggested to me that I develop some of my thoughts on analogies, or illustrations, in general. However I cannot pretend to have mastered the use of analogies; in my own preaching, I use them very sparingly. Briefly, in writing, I have explored an abused illustration from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (“He’s not safe but He’s good”) and Jesus’ parable of the field, but those are not detailed studies in the praxis. So in this short post I will merely summarise some thoughts on illustrations I have borrowed from the appendix to Pierced for Our Transgressions.

Their purpose

AnalogyThe authors of Pierced write, “An illustration works well when it corresponds closely to the biblical idea it seeks to explain. Translating an unfamiliar concept into everyday terms can bring clarity and perhaps also a certain vividness and immediacy. It brings our world and the Bible’s world together, and puts us and our lives into the picture.” Illustrations function as useful bridges helping us understand something strange or peculiar by something familiar or easily understood.

The dangers

As we read above, illustrations are useful, but they can also be misleading. The thrust of my previous post is well summarised in Pierced, “Illustrations never correspond to reality at every point, and it is at the points of difference that they may mislead.” However, the authors continue, “The fact that an illustration does not correspond with reality at every point does not mean it will always mislead; merely that it ought to be used to illustrate only those aspects of reality with which it does correspond.” Therefore we must be aware of an illustrations deficiencies, which can confuse and obscure, the opposite of their intended purpose.

Though they are addressing the atonement, Pierced reads insightfully for any illustration, “Even if we choose (wisely) to illustrate just one aspect…we must take care we do not inadvertently distort other closely related themes…To avoid being misunderstood, we need to consider the specific strengths and weaknesses of any given illustration: what it captures well, and where it might fail.” On the topic of church, since that was my concern with Heard’s illustration, the lifeboat analogy distorts other aspects of the church’s mission by overemphasising evangelism at the expense of maturity. Obviously, those are closely related but – in my opinion – the lifeboat overlooks or redefines the importance of godliness and service by conflating maturity with evangelism. While the lifeboat illustrates the desperate urgency of the church’s mission it places far too little emphasis on the biblical emphasis and zeal we should have for maturing, tested, and transforming faith in Christ.

The authors of Pierced then call preachers to take care that their analogies are not pushed too far so that they inadvertently illustrate the wrong thing. As I said previously: there are better illustrations that inform us about the mission and shape of the local church as well as our place in it, so we should be cautious when an illustration not found in Scripture dominates our understanding. “To repeat: it is the points at which they fail to correspond to reality that are liable to mislead.” Should every Christian’s primary concern be the lost, hauling them up from the deadly waters, rescuing them from a Christless eternity? Yes, we should zealously long to see as many as possible saved. But, no, it is not the primary point of the church’s existence; it is one of them.

The careful approach

PreachingI think Pierced ties all of the mentioned dangers up well, “The risk of [overstretching an analogy] is increased when we are attempting to explain something complicated, for no single analogy will be up to the job.” I acknowledge that Andrew Heard was speaking at a conference on church growth, allowing for a selective approach. However, the church and Christian life is complicated, even when honing in on a single component, such as evangelism. As for most things, one analogy can only successfully illustrate part of the truth. I think that is why we are given such an abundance of them in Scripture. It is not enough to merely be aware of our analogies’ shortcomings; we must temper and supplement them with others.

In conclusion, and to stave off despair, “We may be tempted to throw up our hands in frustration and concede defeat…no illustration is perfect, if by ‘perfect’ we mean it corresponds with reality at every point.” But that does not mean every illustration is invalid; we are not doomed to mislead with every analogy. We must recognise where they fall short, and ask if those deficiencies are unhelpful; make sure closely related concepts are not obscured; and resist overextending this great God-given tool.

Some Misgivings about Andrew Heard’s Lifeboat Analogy

In a recent conversation about the latest Generate Conference, a friend shared his reservations about an analogy Andrew Heard deployed in almost every session. If you are unfamiliar with it, the idea is this: an unprecedented maritime disaster has struck and you are the captain of a rescue vessel sent to the affected area. The bottom line for measuring the lifeboat’s success is the number of people on-board, souls saved. As Heard repeatedly emphasised: you should never reach a point when you are satisfied with how many have been rescued. And if people are dying you cannot be too concerned about the comfort of those already in the lifeboat. Rather, each person brought up from the waters needs to join in the task of rescuing others.

Texas Sept 2013There are undoubtedly many positive uses of this analogy, and Heard utilises it fluidly, from challenging Christians in the church who grumble when evangelism is persistently urged, to pastors who have become heroically pessimistic and satisfied with underperformance, stagnant ministries whose battle hymn is: ‘We are being faithful.’ The analogy provides a much-needed reminder of what is at stake: those who have not come to Christ will die without him. We must be more concerned for those still in the water than those who have already been rescued. Perhaps its most valuable application is its stress on the activity, read ministry, of those on-board. We should not rely on an exhausted team of workers, inches from burning out, when we can join in the operation, making it further reaching and far more successful. But I worry that an overdependence on this analogy in articulating the identity and purpose of Christ’s church could be harmful.

My friend expressed hesitation toward the analogy on the basis that despite the litany of analogies found in the New Testament that describe the church – body, temple, household, and family, to name a few – we do not find one remotely similar to the lifeboat. Therefore, as a preliminary point, it cannot be our primary analogy for describing the church or understanding its mission. Yet, for Heard, the analogy seems to influence and express his thinking at a number of points. While everyone knows that metaphors are pliable, I think we would do better in understanding and employing the numerous biblical metaphors about the church. Metaphors are also admittedly imperfect, meaning their use can be unhelpful, even misleading. So below I want to highlight a few of my misgivings.

Rescued souls need care

As I argued in another post, Can Satan Grow the Church?, exploring Jesus’ analogy of the field and the weeds: the size of a church can be very misleading. A church can be bursting at the seams, yet full of those who do not actually belong to Christ. What Heard’s analogy subtly implies is that we simply need to get people on-board, into the church and committed to reaching others. Yet this overlooks the fact that many who have been brought in will be in desperate need of further resuscitation, attention and care. It is no use having a boat full of: spiritual corpses; barely living and bedraggled souls crawling back towards the waters of sin and death; and others whose only appearance of life is their zeal for those not yet in the boat. To add to the analogy, the deck needs to be packed full of paramedics checking the vitals of those rescued, issuing care, and strengthening them for the task.

Rashly appointing the ill-equipped

Building on my previous concern, fixing our focus on those not yet in the boat will mean viewing those in the boat as little more than tools for that task. But tools need to be fashioned, after they have been cared for. In fact, people are more than mere tools or pragmatic partners in reaching the dying. Though Paul’s restriction in 1 Timothy 3:6 against appointing new converts concerns elders, I believe that it can function as a more general caution against hastily placing people into ministry roles, since even those who are being assessed to serve as deacons must be tested (3:10). If we overemphasise the need for reaching outsiders we will fail to prepare our people for that task or – and this might be worse – we will cease seeing our people as partners and begin to treat them like tools.

Real danger of unbiblical measurements

This last point is one that I hope to develop at another time. Fruitfulness in the Christian life, from my reading of the New Testament, is rarely tied to conversions but is almost always about character and Christlikeness. My fear for the lifeboat analogy is the unbiblical evaluation of Christians: pragmatism over personal growth. If we believe that the church is first and foremost a means for saving souls then that will be how we evaluate souls on board, by their usefulness in the mission. While maturity results in making the gospel attractive, it cannot be reduced to service and must certainly not be restricted to a Christian’s evangelistic zeal or efforts. We should desire transformation, godliness, opposition to sin, and lives of worship.

Church underwaterThis post is written generally as a caution against making any metaphor a controlling one, especially when it is not explicitly found in Scripture. But, more specifically, I am writing this post as a call for discernment. Is the church primarily a lifeboat with the mission to rescue as many people from death as possible? I am not sure that it is. Especially not when the result is an emphasis on those outside of the boat at the expense of those within. I do not have an analogy to offer in place of the lifeboat, but we would do well to start with those provided for us in the New Testament. Nor do I think we need to throw this analogy overboard. It is useful, especially to illustrate some of those things mentioned at the opening of this post. But, in my opinion, it is not the best or most helpful analogy for understanding the identity and purpose of Christ’s church.

Andrew Heard’s Challenging Points from Generate

EV Church & Geneva PushA few weeks ago I attended Generate, a church planting conference for leaders and pastors in South Africa. Our speaker was Andrew Heard, senior minister of EV Church and the founding director of Geneva Push, an Australian church-planting network. The conference was very stimulating and challenged our approach, both practically and in principle, to ministry. Over the 4 days that I listened to Andrew he made many provocative yet warranted points. In this post I will unfortunately only have space to review a few that struck me, and which I believe are an important corrective to how we think about ministry in South Africa, especially in my own church culture.

1. An exposition of Revelation

Revelation 5:9 reads: “They sang a new song.” It is so easy to overlook the adjective, “new.” But Andrew argued that it carries a weight few of us ever realise, and many of us resist. This new chorus, which rings throughout the heavens, marks one of the most significant turns in the biblical storyline. Andrew suggested that the very fabric of eternity is broken, by the Lamb’s death to ransom sinners. A new song is sung in the throne room of heaven, the old song celebrating creation is in some ways relegated. We tend to forget the implications of this heavenly shift, as our lives are cluttered with the marvels of the created world. The challenge for Christians is not to ‘keep the cross central,’ as if our ignorance could dethrone the glorified Lamb, but we are tasked with remembering that Christ’s work eclipses everything and therefore proclaiming it until his coming. Jesus’ death is the subject of heaven’s praise and we must repent where we have forgotten the new song, which we are also invited to sing. 

2. The very real tension between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility

Many times in ministry I have been comforted by the words, ‘God does the growing, just be faithful,’ or something along those lines. Andrew challenged these sentiments by calling the church to be responsible, to take ownership of our role in the advance of God’s kingdom, as well as our failings. With a rankling turn of phrase Andrew warned us against, “drinking too deeply of the sovereignty of God.” He also said that the attribution of floundering ministries to God’s sovereignty is blend of myth and hyper-Calvinism, which we summon so that we can sleep better at night. But maybe we should not sleep easily at night; for we should be consumed with what Andrew called “godly discontentment” that longs to reach more people with the gospel, causing them to become mature disciples of Christ (Colossians 1:28). We need to ask if we have settled too quickly into excusing failure by retreating into the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. Have we settled for merely remaining faithful? If we have then we need to repent of being so apathetic towards the many who have not yet come to Christ and received eternal life. We should toil, struggling with all of God’s energy that he powerfully works within us (Colossians 1:29).

3. A dangerous but indispensable desire for growth

Chris Koelle

Lastly, Andrew called us to cultivate a healthy desire for church growth. His qualification of healthy growth was made because, while most ministers have a passion to see their churches grow, some have fallen into the associated traps of seeking to liked, respectable, friendly and inoffensive; this is too often achieved by sitting lightly on the truth. This is not to advocate pietistic hostility but rather to remain true to our Lord, whose gospel is inherently confrontational. N.T. Wright often speaks about the strikingly subversive meaning contained in the words “Jesus is Lord.” Not only was it an affront to the Imperial cult but it also says to each of us today, ‘Bend your knee for Jesus is your Lord.’ Thus a healthy desire for growth will not be seen in the city and the church sharing a hug, holding hands and walking off into the sunset. We might need to repent of desiring the friendship of the world above the friendship of God our Father. Or perhaps we need to repent of being embarrassed about Jesus’ lordship that summons every creature to bow before the Lamb who was slain, and who is seated on the throne.