Is your church growing? We all know what this question usually implies. Are more people coming this year than last year? And for many churches, the answer is no. According to this standard, these churches are not growing. In fact, they are declining or even dying. And many pastors are struggling under the weight of serving in shrinking churches. Every conference and associational meeting is a reminder that their church is not among the list of healthy, growing churches.
But we need to be reminded that not all growth is good, and not all decline is bad. Imagine the doctor who says to a patient, “I have good news. Your tumor is shrinking!” Change in size must be put in context. And in order to find that context, we need to consider the question about church growth using different standards.
For example, is your church growing in its love for God and for one another? Or is your church growing in its concern for holiness and purity? Is your church growing in its knowledge of and love for God’s Word? Is your church growing in its conformity to God’s commands? Is your church growing in its evangelistic boldness and fervor?
When measured by these standards, we see that not all numerical growth is gain, and not all decline is decay. Sometimes unrepentant members must be pruned for the sake of the purity of the church. Sometimes evangelistic fervor and boldness are not followed by large numbers of conversions. Sometimes people flock to have their itching ears scratched by false teaching.
And when we focus on growth solely in terms of numbers we are often focusing on the things we can’t control. We can boldly proclaim the gospel, but we can’t save anyone. We can invite people, but we can’t make them come. We can call people to repent through church discipline, but we can’t make them repent.
Sometimes when people don’t come, they don’t come even though we were faithful to proclaim the truth. And sometimes when people leave, they leave because we faithfully followed God’s commands.
In my time serving as a pastor, I've seen seasons of numerical growth and seasons of statistical decline. But in preaching through the book of Deuteronomy, I was reminded of how numbers are not all that matter. Deuteronomy makes clear how intensely God cares about the righteousness and purity of His people. God does not call His people to pursue prosperity, but He calls them to pursue holiness, godliness, and justice according to His standards. Then He calls on His people to entrust Him to bless them. “Shrinking” churches can learn a lesson from God’s commands in Deuteronomy. Pursue holiness and godliness. Diligently keep God’s commands. Guard the purity of Christ’s church. Boldly proclaim the gospel. And entrust the rest to God.
If your church is growing in all of these areas, praise God. Continue in faithfulness to Him and be encouraged. If your church is not growing in these areas, repent of any sinfulness and begin to pursue godliness. Don’t pursue prosperity and numerical growth, but pursue God and obedience to His commands. And entrust the rest to Him.
*This is part one of a three-part series on encouragement for pastors written by Dr. Ray, an experienced pastor and director of the Accelerated BA + MDiv program.