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If we prioritized health, not as a means to growth, but as an end in itself, would we be in a greater position to represent Jesus to the world?

Imagine all the time, money and resources that have gone into church growth in the last generation.

Is it naïve to wonder what the world and the church would look like today if all that effort had been invested exclusively in church health instead?

Is it possible that if the church had prioritized health, not as a means to growth, but as an end in itself, we would be in a greater position to represent Jesus to the world?

We’re often told that one of the reasons so many churches remain small is lack of faith. But I wonder… Could it be that the reverse is true? Might our obsession with bigger and bigger churches be rooted in a lack of faith?

Are we afraid that God might not do his part (building his church) if we simply stayed faithful to do our part (making disciples)? Is it possible that the glut of church growth books, seminars and classes in the last few decades has been our attempt to help God out?

I’m not against big churches. Or church growth. I’ve been blessed by big churches and I want to see every church grow.

I’m just wondering out loud if all our church growth strategies have diverted – or at least diluted – our limited resources away from what should be our main priority. Making disciples who produce healthy churches, no matter what size they are.

Maybe. Maybe not. But the question at least needs to be considered.

A Healthy Church Isn’t Easy

Healthy churches are hard work. At minimum, a pastor has to:

  • Manage, if not master a wide variety of skills
  • Keep them coordinated within a small margin of error
  • All at the same time
  • Over a long period of time
  • With volunteer labor

Many pastors are asked to do all that and more, often as a second job, sometimes with no permanent facility. And even if they manage all that, they’re still considered a failure by many people if the church doesn’t also hit certain benchmarks for consistent numerical growth.

It’s a burden few people can bear. No wonder so many pastors burn out and leave the ministry every year.

What if we’d spent at least some of our time in the past few decades preparing ministry students for the likelihood that they’ll be pastoring a small church for some, if not most of their ministries?

What if we’d taught them how to pastor those small churches well, instead of pushing them to make the church bigger?

What if all the money that’s been lost in failed building projects and big events had gone into local church outreach and quality ministry?

What if we celebrated and resourced healthy churches, without regard to attendance records?

How many church startups failed because they expected a level of numerical growth that 80-90 percent of churches will never reach?

How many pastors have quit in discouragement because they weren’t able to measure up to a church growth ideal that God may never have been calling them to?

How many big churches have collapsed, and may yet collapse, because they weren’t able to transition from the dynamic church-building pastor to the next generation of leadership?

How many churches close every day because they never pursued the idea of putting health ahead of growth?

What Would Health-Instead-Of-Growth Look Like?

If we’d concentrated our efforts on health, and let God take care of the growth, what would the evangelical church look like today?

No one knows, of course, but here’s what I suspect:

  1. We’d probably have about the same percentage of mega to big to small churches that we have today, but there would be a lot more healthy ones – of all sizes.
  2. Fewer pastors would have left the ministry in discouragement.
  3. Fewer churches would have been ruined by pastors trying to push them to reach numerical goals they were never meant to pursue.
  4. Fewer congregation members would have felt overlooked by a pastor in pursuit of “the next big thing”, and would be serving God with greater joy.
  5. More small churches would be healthy, innovative and vibrant instead of poor, struggling and discouraged.
  6. There would be more cooperation and less competition between churches.
  7. Unchurched people would have a greater variety of outward-looking, healthy churches to choose from. Of all denominations, styles and sizes.

Here’s a Crazy Idea

If health really does bring growth, why don’t we concentrate on church health, and let God take care of the growth?

We gave church growth principles a forty-year test drive. Some good things – and churches – have come from it. And some not so good.

What if we gave church health principles the next forty years? I say we give it a shot.

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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Anonymous Contributor

commented on Sep 12, 2017

How true, how obvious. Thank you, Karl, for daring to say these things There are two parts to making disciples - first, there is getting people interested, and the next is carrying interested people forward. But maybe we should indeed focus on the second first or even, as you say, exclusively! Too often we 'evangelize' because we are conscious that our own church health is weak and we hope that new converts will pump things up. But why would new arrivals then want to stay?! But if we re-create whatever it was that made non-Christians say 'look how these Christians love each other', then we would surely generate interest. Instead we seem to encourage more and more people to enter a vast tent of people 'about' to move forward in their knowledge and love of God. But that is rather like a large and confusing coach or rail station Instead we should have happy coach loads leaving the station so that others might want to come aboard Of course it is much easier to preach an 'evangelistic' sermon than it is to feed the existing flock. If it is done badly, the latter might be critical, whereas the former will simply stay bemused. And of course we see all Paul's efforts and forget that Jesus mainly taught his 'disciples' Yet when we preach the gospel in its richness, drawing on both Old and New Testaments showing Jesus marching across time to redeem the cosmos, it should act both as food for the converted and 'evangelism' to the unconverted. It is the greatest story of them all But the world sees Christians as squabbling about everything in the name of truth (and yet I do think orthodoxy is vital). But they don't even see us as loving one another in our local churches. Like the Jews of old, we are so concerned with raising our biological progeny that we have little time for raising spiritual progeny. Charity begins, and ends, at home, it seems

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