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I read another one of those church growth blog posts recently. You know the ones. A list of steps your church can take to break through whatever growth barrier you’re facing.

It was a very good list. Every one of the principles was about church health. In fact, as I read it, something started feeling very familiar. As I finished reading, I realized where the feeling of familiarity was coming from.

“Hey, that’s our church!” I said with a smile – to an empty room. “We do all those! We’ve been doing them for years. Cool!”

Yes, the picture the author drew of a healthy, growing church was an accurate description of the church I pastor. In all but one way.

Despite years of following every healthy step on the church growth list, our church hasn’t broken the numerical growth barriers.

All the Steps, Without the Results

But how can this be? If you do the steps, you get the results, right?

I wondered if I’d misread something. So I re-read the entire post. Some of the principles for breaking through church growth barriers were:

  • Give others more credit and responsibility
  • Train others to do pastoral care
  • Stop making excuses for what you can’t do
  • Have an outward-focused vision

Those are all good principles. Healthy principles. No-excuse and no-blame principles. My second read-through confirmed my first impression. It felt like our church. These are principles we’ve learned to do well – not perfectly, but well.

So the steps have been taken and the principles are being implemented, but no growth records have been shattered? No 200 barrier broken through?

What’s missing here?

No Church Growth Guarantees

To be fair, the post was introduced with this qualifier, “While embracing all 6 things won’t guarantee your church will grow, every church I know that has successfully pushed past the 200, 400 and 800 barriers has navigated these changes.”

I’m glad the author included that important caveat. All churches that break through growth barriers follow the right steps, but not all churches that follow the steps break through the barriers. There are no guarantees.

But in church growth circles, there is often a strong implication that church growth is inevitable if we follow the rules. The implication is so strong that a pastor who tries and succeeds at all the steps, but doesn’t see the all-but-promised growth, often feels like a failure.

I know. Because I did. I felt like a failure for a lot of years, even though I pastor a healthy, missional church. Because the numbers never materialized.

If you’re wondering how I got past the feelings of guilt and failure, that’s the story I tell in the first few chapters of my book, The Grasshopper Myth.

The Pastoral Call

There are no guaranteed steps to church growth. Because the church is people. And people don’t come with guarantees.

So, what’s a pastor to do? Here’s the only advice I know.

Discover what you and your church are supposed to be doing, then stay faithful to that mission and ministry. Faithfulness doesn’t help us reach our goals. Faithfulness is the goal.

Keep doing healthy, contextualized ministry. Remove any obstacles to growth and health. Stop comparing ourselves with others. And quit offering excuses. (For more about this, check out 9 No-Fault, No-Excuse Reasons Many Healthy Churches Stay Small.)

Let God bring your church the kind of growth he wants. Even if it’s not the kind of growth you want. Or the church across town has. Let Jesus build his church.

Pastors aren’t called to grow bigger churches. We’re called to make disciples. Equip the saints. Lead healthy churches to become redemptive communities filled with passionate followers of Jesus. Reach our community and world together, no matter how many people do or don’t end up in our seats on Sunday.

If you’re doing that, no matter how big or small your church is, you’re fulfilling your calling.

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E L Zacharias

commented on Sep 22, 2016

Amen. Also, while you are not to consider yourself to be a failure, do not allow others to call or insinuate that you are a failure. Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, and even Jesus could be called a failure, for lack of numbers. Do not allow others to label you or tell your story. Continue to present Christ, baptizing, leading the people of Christ.

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