Two Postures Toward Numerical Growth

In just a few hours, I will facilitate a training event focused on transitioning well with about 30 United Methodist pastors who are being appointed to new calls this Summer. By now, most have completed their introductory visit with the Staff Parish Relations Committee (Personnel Team) at the new church campus. They have already discussed initial hopes and dreams for this next season of ministry for these churches and pastors. Just like every other denomination, regardless of their approach to calling new pastors, most personnel or search committees are looking for pastors who can help them increase their numbers. This desire to pursue numerical growth is woven into the tapestry of church, influencing the conversations, meetings, and goals.

Last week’s article described the early church’s relationship with numerical growth (can find it on our blog here ( Over time, the church’s relationship with numerical growth has travelled one wild and twisting journey. Now, churches here in North America trend toward one of two postures regarding numerical growth. Actually, they are two ends of the continuum, two contrasting viewpoints. Neither place on this continuum is indicative of a healthy relationship with numerical growth, yet both are worth describing given their common appearance. In so doing, our hope is we are more empowered to peel back the unhelpful cultural layers which restrain us from healthier relationships with numerical growth.

One End Of The Continuum - Elevating numerical growth beyond its inherent value, developing skewed and unhealthy church dynamics

No one meant for this to happen. Perhaps it’s a side-effect with America’s infatuation with organizational development and corporate growth. Over time, some churches came to believe numerical growth IS the goal, as opposed to the mission of God. Rather than making disciples of ourselves and others, some churches came to believe adding members to our list IS the goal. Rather than joining God’s world transformation effort (kingdom of God) some churches came to believe the goal is adding numbers to our church reports. Over time, some churches conflated the American belief that bigger is better with the call of church, believing churches are only successful when they are growing numerically. The bottom line for these churches is numerical growth….and if the kingdom of God advances in the process, well then, that’s a bonus.

How can this be so? Very simply, step back and look at our meeting agendas. During staff meetings and lay leadership team meetings, what gets the most airtime? On what do we invest most of our time and energy? The short answer is…..our organizational metrics. We hear and receive the financial report, the membership report, the building and grounds report, along with other reports. Since this is the primary conversation day in and day out, over time we grow to believe that’s really what we are about. Since this gets the most attention, we are shaping the expectations of our people to believe this is our priority. Since where the leadership focuses shapes our values and aspirations, we come to believe we are pursuing organization development over spiritual development. No one meant for this to happen; for organizational development to become first priority and the mission of God to be a distant second. But happen it did.

The ultimate result is the Body of Christ resembling an athlete who will do most anything to win, including pumping one’s body full of growth-enhancing steroids. That athlete does experience growth, but looks slightly misshapen or exaggerated in certain body parts. Like an athlete pumped with steroids these churches experience wild mood swings, depending on how the numbers look each month. Like an athlete who engages in blood doping to enhance performance, these churches are on the lookout for greater crowd-attracting approaches to worship plus better preachers and worship leaders. To summarize, church dynamics grow hyper-focused and intense, but around priorities that may have little to do with the gospel.

Another End Of This Continuum – Devaluing numerical growth below its inherent value, developing skewed and unhealthy church dynamics

Other churches recognize the unhealthy spirituality which comes with bowing down to the idol of numerical growth, determining never to do that. In a reactionary manner, they simply jump way over to the other side of the continuum, devaluing the role of numerical growth. This posture toward numerical growth also sets up strange body dynamics.

Spiritual arrogance is a primary danger for churches at this end of the continuum. These churches are not so “shallow” as to believe numerical growth is the holy grail of church measurement, so of course this means their spirituality is deeper and more theologically sound, so they believe. They would not be so shallow as to believe numbers are actually important. Interest in numerical growth simply indicates how misguided churches can become, they say. So, they discount any meaning numerical growth or decline may have for them. 

Another equally dangerous side-effect of this posture toward numerical growth is the tendency to blame everyone else when their numbers decline. When these churches shrink, having to slim down their expression of themselves, they tend to believe the numbers involved are beyond their influence. They believe the culture around them is conspiring against them or the people in their community are simply not sophisticated enough to understand their way of being church. On this end of the continuum, churches avoid the hard questions which come with numerical decline. Since they regularly tell themselves the numbers don’t mean a thing, they don’t listen to the wisdom inherent in  numerical decline. It’s funny how they discount numbers until the pain of numerical decline cannot be denied; and sometimes it’s too late.

Alright then; we have explored the love/hate relationship of churches with numbers, followed by interpreting the early church’s relationship with numbers. This article describes two ends of the continuum representing two prominent postures toward growth in this USA. Next week’s enews, we build on these foundations to, identifying perspectives which contribute to a healthier relationship with numerical growth.

Helen Renew