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  • Writer's pictureDr. Nathan T. Morton

Can Church Growth Mean Church Loss?

The record of Christianity and the local church is a story of incline and decline, getting ahead and falling behind, growth and decay, increase and decrease. The ongoing saga of human history demonstrates the impossibility of any religious or secular group to escape the recurring cycle of ebb and flow. No matter which seasons a church finds itself in, it must avoid falling into the trap of criticism and credit. Honest evaluation is needed to prevent pride during times of increase, and discouragement in seasons of decrease.  

Less can be better than more. The little that the righteous person has is better than the abundance of many wicked people. (Ps. 37:16 CSB) Sometimes, more can become a detriment. Better a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure with turmoil. (Prov. 15:16 CSB)

I would argue that there is the danger of loss in the faith community when churches get over a specific size. Years ago, when I was involved in a church replant, I made a statement based solely on my personal experiences in churches as small as 41 and 90 that grew to average attendances of 200 and 350. I said that if our attendance grew to 150, we would begin dividing. I had noticed that somewhere between 150 and 200, many times the dynamics of the church fellowship changed in negative ways. At a certain point in growth, the groups transition from being faith communities into religious corporations in order to survive and maintain their growth momentum. In other words, the collective ministry becomes more important than the individuals in the ministry.

A few years after being sent out from that replant, I came across Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. Gladwell cites British anthropologist Robin Dunbar regarding the social capacity of an individual. Dunbar came up with the theory "Dunbar's Number" that suggests a limit to the number of meaningful relationships one person can maintain.

"If you belong to a group of five people, you have to keep track of ten separate relationships: your relationships with the four others in your circle and the six other two-way relationships between the others. ... If you belong to a group of twenty people, however, there are now 190 two-way relationships to keep track of: 19 involving yourself and 171 involving the rest of the group. That's a fivefold increase in the size of the group, but a twentyfold increase in the amount of information processing needed to "know" the other members of the group."[i]

Most people have an inner circle of relationships ranging between five and fifteen individuals, a larger group of around 50, with the maximum number of meaningful relationships that any one person can maintain being (get this) 147.8, which Dunbar rounds up to 150. These are the people you know by name, ones you might sit down and eat with if you run into each other in a restaurant, or you would not feel awkward about it if you had to call on them in an emergency. [Jesus had an inner circle of three, a larger group of twelve disciples, He sent out 70, and there were 200 in the upper room. The numbers are close. Coincidence?]

Gladwell interviewed Bill Gross, one of the leaders of a Hutterite Colony, who said that once the number of people in a faith community exceeded 150, they would begin to become strangers to one another.[ii] The Hutterite communities were not applying "Dunbar's Number" theory; this has been the practice of Hutterites since the 16th century.

According to Bill Gross, after 150, groups begin to develop within the group. "Above that point, there begins to be structural impediments to the ability of the group to agree and act with one voice ... The Rule of 150 says that congregants of a rapidly expanding church ... need to be particularly cognizant of the perils of bigness. Crossing the 150 line is a small change that can make a big difference."[iii]

And yet, the ideas of success generated by religious commercialism have caused many of us to think that bigger is better, even though statistics say otherwise. As attendances increase over a certain size, the percentages in giving and service coincidentally decrease per capita. This belief that "the bigger the church, the better" has resulted in entrepreneurial pastors, corporation-minded churches, and less discipleship. It has resulted in an environment that is producing some leaders who love the crowd but hate the people.

How many pastors have abandoned the ministry of the gospel brokenhearted and broken, not because of attendance declines, but more often because "certain ones" in that faith community claimed numerical decline could only mean the absence of God's blessings and then they laid the blame for it on the pastor. (They artificially created a problem and then handpicked the offender.) I know of former pastors who left the ministry feeling failures for this reason.

Attendance is never the true measure of a pastor. Read church history and you will discover that godly and godless leaders drew great crowds. For every ethical Billy Graham, there are unethical Bill Hybels. For every upright Charles Spurgeon, there are duplicitous Jack Hyles.

Honestly, I've seen it too many times. Through unethical and pragmatic means, a church will target the membership of nearby churches and numerically grow, and people look the other way. Most growing churches are growing, not from reaching lost people for Christ, but from the congregations of nearby surrounding churches. (Please note I said "most," not "all.”) If you disagree with me, read Bob Smietana's Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church. In it, he states that larger churches tend to attract those who want the show without commitment and are mostly populated by people who have left smaller churches.[iv] 

Smietana described the "Walmarting of Churches in America" during a keynote session of the Baptist Communicators Association in August 2023. In that session he stated that this trend is producing Christians who "go less, serve less, and give less."[v]

And what about the second church near the first whose attendance has declined as members defect to the more popular one? Although this pastor has biblical integrity, he is mercilessly disparaged and blamed. Why? Because we believe numerical growth is a sign of God's blessing, which can be, but not always. Sadly, we in the church often measure success by worldly standards and not God's principles. This is one of the critical flaws of the church growth movement.

Today, if you look around, you will see this exact scenario being played out in multiple churches across America and some places internationally. It's not just crucial THAT we minister; it's also vitally important HOW we minister. And how we minister today will determine the quality of the community of faith we leave behind. A church built on unethical practices is built on sinking sand. Not every growing church is a success story, some just haven't had enough time to collapse. This is the burden of church leadership.

Throughout the Bible and church history, the conduit for God's good work is often committed, passionate leaders. There is no ark without Noah, no Israel without Abraham, no exodus without Moses, no rebuilding of the temple without Ezra, and no repairing the wall of Jerusalem without Nehemiah. It would be impossible to write the last 700 years of church history without mentioning the names of Knox, Wycliffe, Huss, Luther, Zwingli, Wesley, Whitefield, Moody, Evangeline Booth, Lottie Moon, Criswell, Wilkerson, and many, many more.

I want us to think about the seven types of leaders or leadership characteristics God used in the Bible.

1. Moses teaches us the virtue of patient leadership. How many times could Moses have given up in the face of Israel's criticism and complaint? And yet, he didn't because his calling was never tied to human success or crowd approval. His calling was tied to honoring God. Even when God punished Moses for his disobedience in striking the rock, he accepted it humbly and continued to lead. It should not be surprising that Moses was with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.

2. Joshua teaches us that leadership must listen to God and have the courage to trust Him. When ten spies looked at the impossible situation of conquering Canaan, they said, "This is impossible," but Joshua and Caleb disagreed because they trusted God more than the circumstances. They had more faith in God's promise than in their own sight and human estimation. Even in failure, when the small city of Ai defeated Israel's army, Joshua turned to God, not the naysayers. We need to hear God, trust God, and follow His guidance.

3. Elijah teaches us to be leaders with joy. The most poignant pictures of Elijah are not beside the brook being fed by ravens, with the widow of Timnath, or even calling fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice. Elijah's leadership comes to a crescendo when he mocks the prophets of Baal. "Shout loudly, for he's a god! Maybe he's thinking it over; maybe he has wandered away; or on the road. Perhaps he's sleeping and will wake up!" (1 Ki. 18:27 CSB17) His facetious challenge is refreshing because it reveals not a sour soberness we often mistakenly equate with "godly" people but a sincere confidence in God and godlike humor in adversity. Again, it should not be surprising that he was with Moses and Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.

4. Nehemiah teaches us the value of past positives and the importance of building upon them. You don't tear down everything and reinvent the wheel. Wise leadership builds on what God has given and what God has done. Yes, sometimes what God DID does become the enemy of what God is DOING, but it doesn't have to be. The past, when understood in the sovereignty of God, can be seen as the precursor. 

5. Peter teaches us that great leaders sometimes struggle with great weakness. To fail and fall significantly does not have to be a disqualifier if one falls forward into the arms of Christ. No leader is perfect; every leader is in the crosshairs, and Satan would love nothing more than to break, neutralize, and remove soldiers from the Lord's army. Peter's resilience teaches us that all who desire to make a difference for Christ must have spiritual tenacity.

6. Barnabas teaches us the force and power of encouraging leaders. Barnabas sold his land and gave the money, encouraging the whole church. Barnabas recommended Paul to the church in Jerusalem when no one else would. Later, when Paul rejected John Mark, Barnabas stood by him and took him on a different mission journey but did not discredit or unfriend Paul. In fact, Paul mentions Barnabas in 1 Cor. 9:6, and later, we see John Mark with Paul in Col. 4:10. Barnabas, through encouragement, strengthened individuals and the church. One of the most extraordinary things that anyone can do is encourage others.

7. Paul teaches us that through God's power, a leader's work can exceed the sum of their abilities. "For this is what the Lord has commanded us: I have made you a light for the Gentiles to bring salvation to the end of the earth." (Acts 13:47 CSB) Paul confessed that he was the chief of sinners, acknowledged that he did not speak with flowing and eloquent words, and admitted he had persecuted the church. Yet, Paul believed that despite all these things, God could and would do exceedingly more than he could ever ask or think through him. Who would have thought that the imprisoner, persecutor, and killer of Christians, the hater of Jesus Christ, would become the very person who would build bridges into the gentile community and take the gospel as far as Europe? With God's power, this is precisely what Paul did.

Now, God has not called us to the imitation of men. The question we must ask ourselves is not, "Which leader am I?" Instead, we should strive to emulate all seven of these essential characteristics as they are needed in various places and at different times to build up and perfect the church.

Here are three essential questions we should ask ourselves:

1.     What is needed at this moment, time, circumstance, and culture for this church to succeed in a way that proclaims the gospel and brings glory to God?

2.     Do we have what this church needs to lead it forward in a way that provides hope for the present while also building a legacy for the future?

3.     Are we "in tune" with God so that we can hear His voice, see His plan, and surrender to His will in order to realize HIM being glorified above all else?

"If Christians around the world were to suddenly renounce their personal agendas, their life goals, and their aspirations, and begin responding in radical obedience to everything God showed them. the world would be turned upside down. How do we know? Because that's what first century Christians did, and the world is still talking about it." ― Henry T. Blackaby, Spiritual Leadership: Moving People on to God's Agenda



[i] Gladwell, Malcolm. 2002. The Tipping Point. New York, NY: Back Bay Books. p.178-179.

[ii] Gladwell, 181.

[iii] Gladwell, 181-183.

[iv] Smietana, B. (2022). Reorganized religion: The reshaping of the American church and why it matters. Little, Brown & Company. p.79.

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