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There's more than one way for churches to grow.

But over the last forty years or so we've been given one model of church growth almost exclusively. Get more people in the building.

That model is so prevalent that when I dare to suggest that many small churches are healthy churches with something to add to the body of Christ, I'm met with an incredulous chorus of how can it be healthy if it’s not growing?

The answer? Nothing in nature keeps growing continuously. Every healthy organism grows bigger until it reaches maturity, then it grows in other ways after that.

Why would we expect local churches to be any different?

What if gathering a bigger crowd isn't the only way for the kingdom of God to advance in a local church body?

What if, for some churches and ministries, a bigger crowd was actually counterproductive to the way God designed them to grow, reproduce and contribute to the body of Christ?

Some Disadvantages Of Only Using Numbers To Define A Church’s Success

No, we don’t need to get rid of numbers. Metrics tell us many important facts, including helping us to see things objectively. But they’re not the only way to make judgments about ministry success.

And yes, a numerically growing church is a wonderful thing. But it’s not the only thing.

1. It’s too narrow

Any definition of church growth that doesn’t allow for, even celebrate, churches that contribute to the body of Christ in ways other than constant numerical growth is missing out on the benefits those churches can bring.

2. It leaves most churches feeling like failures

If getting bigger is the only contribution that we acknowledge, then any church not experiencing constant numerical increase (most of us) feel like failures.

We need to stop treating the majority of churches like they’re the foot in Paul’s body analogy, hearing the hand say “I don’t need you!”

3. It closes our eyes to great churches and ministries

Numerical growth is great. For the church it’s essential. But, just like an army requires dozens of support staff for every soldier on the field, is it possible that the church needs multiple churches that are discipling, counseling, comforting and more, for every church that’s adding to our numbers?

I don’t know if that’s the case, but we need to be open to the possibility, so we can utilize every church’s gifts.

4. It's shame and pride-based

It’s a strong pastor who can keep leading a church while facing static or diminishing attendance without being overhwlemed with feelings of guilt, frustration and shame.

And it’s an equally strong pastor who can experience constant numerical growth and not be filled with pride, even arrogance.

Yes, there are many pastors on both sides of that equation who keep a proper attitude of gratefulness and humility, but a numerically-based system of ministry success makes it much harder.

Some Possible Advantages Of Defining Church Success In New Ways

1. Encouraging and empowering more churches

Instead of insisting on numerical growth for every church, what if we did the hard work of helping churches discover what they are good at, then encouraging and resourcing them to do that ministry really well?

2. Sparking innovation

When everything has to fit within a pre-ordained box – even if it’s a good box – it stifles outside-the-box thinking. There are some great, innovative churches doing wonderful work to get the message of the Gospel out in new ways. But the only ones we know about are big.

As I wrote in my previous post, Getting Unstuck: Innovative Small Churches Find Alternatives, Not Excuses, the limitations within small churches shouldn’t cause us to settle for business-as-usual, they should spark us to become more innovative.

Virtually every historical innovation happened, not when everything was going well, but when we faced challenges.

If smaller churches were encouraged to look for fresh, new ways of doing ministry instead of being forced into a preconceived definition of success, a lot of them would step up and surprise us.

3. Decreasing the clergy/laity divide

Small churches can’t hire staff. So we have to equip the saints.

In the church I pastor, for example, every staff member, ministry leader and volunteer has been raised up from within our church. So we’ve gotten used to the idea that people performing what are normally considered pastoral tasks aren’t trained clergy. It’s just us helping each other.

Some Possible New Ways To See Church Growth And Ministry Success

So, what might some of those new definitions of church growth look like? We won’t know until we create an environment where they can flourish and show us.

In a previous post, 3 Ways Some Churches Grow Without Getting Bigger, I took a look at a few possibilities, so I’ll list them here and leave it to you to click the link and get the details.

1. Growth by multiplication

2. Growth by sending

3. Growth in influence

Again, No Excuses Allowed

Lack of numerical growth should never be seen as an excuse to settle for less. But it should also never be seen as a reason to criticize, diminish or ignore churches that don’t fit into our definition of success.

Every church has something they can contribute to the body of Christ. What they’re called to do may not be noticed by others, but if they’re practicing the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, they should be encouraged and empowered to keep doing it. And keep getting better at it.

In fact, as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we need to remember that sometimes the greatest renewals, revivals and revolutions come from the places we least expect it.


Karl Vaters is the author of The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking That Divides Us. He’s been in pastoral ministry for over 30 years and has been the lead pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California for over 20 years. He’s also the founder of, a blog that encourages, connects and equips innovative Small Church pastors.

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Mark Armstrong

commented on May 19, 2017

Thanks for a helpful article, but I wonder if the premise of the article is really true i.e. over the last 40 years numerical growth has been the dominant measure of church growth. Perhaps I can say "not in my circles". Does anyone seriously argue that "bottoms on pews" is the only measure of a healthy church? Notwithstanding this, Carl reminds me not to sit on my laurels in ministry. I suspect, when the demographics are right, that smaller churches will experience growth because strong gospel ministry leads to conversions and the right growth.

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