If you’re a pastor, what you’re about to read may seem strange. As you think about your ministry, I’d encourage you to pray for slow growth.
Our temptation is to want fast and furious growth. Sometimes this happens. God’s hand of revival has fallen more than once. In 18th- and 19th-century America, revival hit many cities, greatly multiplying the number of genuine believers. In the 21st century, countries in Africa and East Asia have seen a dramatic rise in the number of Christians.
God can and does move dramatically. He’s alive and powerful, and we should pray for revival. But a good desire for numerical growth should never eclipse a willingness to be patient.
A number of years ago, I listened in awe to a pastor lay out his vision for the future of his church. He planned to see 100 campuses, 100,000 members, and 1,000 church plants—all in ten years. My jaw hit the floor as I pondered his (I trust well-intentioned) ambition.
His chutzpah impressed me, but I wondered whether in the midst of his passion for numbers he’d forgotten the parable of the mustard seed. God tends to move slowly and quietly. There are good reasons for this. There’s virtue in being patient and in embracing—even wanting—slow and steady growth.
Consider five reasons to pray for slow growth.
1. Quality is better than quantity.
Many pastors eager to see their churches grow quickly aren’t as careful as they should be to ensure new members are genuine believers.
When I was a younger pastor and someone showed interest in my church, I tended to overlook red flags. If mine was the fifth church they’d joined in 10 years, I’d think, Aha, he’s finally found a good church, instead of, Oh no, there may be something going on in his heart I need to pursue. I’m not at all suggesting leaders should set the bar for church membership so high that it’s hard for anyone to join. I’m simply suggesting patient leaders will care more about carefully shepherding a brother or sister into the flock than simply seeing the flock grow larger.
2. Quality growth is likely lasting growth.
Consider Proverbs 13:11: “Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gains little by little will increase it.” How you gain wealth matters. The process and even the rate of accumulation is important. The more disciplined you are in gaining wealth, the more likely you are to spend wisely and keep that wealth.
There’s a reason so many lottery winners eventually go bankrupt. Remember that pastor I mentioned who longed for so many campuses and members and church plants? Ten years after casting such a bold vision, he had nothing to show for it. It’s easy to grow discouraged when you see only a tiny trickle of people joining your church. But if the trickle represents solid growth, it’s much likelier to be there years from now.
3. Large churches come with large problems.
There’s a principle in economics called economies of scale. A business can save costs by increasing production. McDonald’s can sell inexpensive french fries because it buys so many pounds of potatoes. Long story short, businesses that grow large are almost always more efficient.
But churches are not factories. God didn’t design them to be efficient, and pastors simply looking to serve more people won’t necessarily serve those people well.
Churches are not factories. God didn’t design them to be efficient, and pastors simply looking to serve more people won’t necessarily serve those people well.
For example, it’s efficient to create a small-group program, but that program will never replace the need for one-on-one pastoral counseling. A marriage retreat will serve many couples at once, but there’ll always be couples who need more intensive help. Whether you’re preaching to 50 or 500, your sermon preparation time will be the same.
But as your church grows, your pastoral demands will grow as well. It’ll be increasingly difficult to capably shepherd the flock of God. I’m not suggesting it’s better to pastor a small church. But regardless of your ministry’s size, Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesian elders should weigh on your soul: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). The words that stand out to me in that verse are “careful” and “all.” Pastoral ministry is highly inefficient work.
Pastoring does not get easier as the church grows.
4. Your ability to shepherd well will grow with time.
Shepherds are, first and foremost, Christians. We’re all in the process of being sanctified—which is slow, gradual work (Heb. 10:14; Phil. 1:6; 1 Cor. 1:18; Col. 3:9–10). And our ability to shepherd will grow with time because we are growing with time.
You cannot microwave wisdom.
Some men are well-suited to step into a large church and meet its large needs. Some are well-suited to be stewards of explosive, numerical growth. But most of us are not. Most of us need more time to grow and mature. You cannot microwave wisdom.
5. Truly faithful churches, of whatever size, are beautiful.
Whether your congregation is bursting at the seams or one crisis away from folding, the fundamental mark of success is not size but faithfulness. It’s worth noting that, physically speaking, Jesus was unimpressive:
He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isa. 53:2–3)
We live in a world that idolizes speed, size, and flash. This isn’t the Christ I worship, and it’s not the church in which I want to worship. Huge congregations don’t need to apologize for being large, and tiny congregations shouldn’t feel inferior for being small. In David’s day and ours, the Lord looks at the heart—and that includes the heart of churches (1 Sam. 16:7).
Frailty and Faithfulness
If you long to see your church grow quickly, that is not a bad desire. And God may see fit to grow your church in a remarkable way! He’s done so in the past with men like Chrysostom, Spurgeon, Keller, and Chandler (and countless others). But however big your church is, may it always reflect the frailty and faithfulness of our Savior—always humble, always dependent on the Spirit, always willing to be rejected by the world.
And if your church is not growing the way you desire, well, that may actually be good thing. Keep praying. Keep plodding. Keep going for the glory of his name.