Church Health is Not Tied to Church Growth

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with my sister about church health and church growth. And it's got me thinking. My dad, and other's who have taught my sister and I throughout the years, have a strong belief that a healthy church is a growing church. I have heard many times that "all healthy living things grow" and "If a church or church group isn't growing it isn't healthy."

Something about this has never sat well with me, but I've never really questioned it. Now, I am.

Yes, healthy things do grow, but just because something is growing doesn't mean it's healthy. Take cancer for instance, something I know a little about now. Cancers clearly aren't healthy cells and yet they grow, often quickly. In fact, when talking about cells, fast growth can be a sign of a problem, it clues the doctors in that something might be cancerous.

Sure, lots of healthy things grow, but unhealthy things can grow too. AND not all healthy things grow at the same rate. Healthy hair grows quickly, but healthy bones grow very slowly and it would be unhealthy for them to grow more quickly.

But, we aren't really talking about cells, we are talking about churches. Is growth a good measurement for health in a church?

I'm not so sure that it is.

I think growth can be a sign of health, but it doesn't have to be.

I think if the church is growing you need to look at some other things to see if its really healthy. For example where is that growth coming from? Is your church growing just because its draining people out of other churches in the area? You also need to look at why people are coming to you're church and adding to your numbers. Is it just because you have better music then other churches in the area? Is it because you are hip and the cool place to be? Or is it because you are really loving people well and helping them to grow in their relationship with God.

The growth that truly shows whether or not a church is healthy isn't growth in numbers, its the personal growth of the individuals who make up your church. Are people growing in their love for one another and for those outside the church? Are they exhibiting more and more the fruits of the spirit? Are they learning to trust God more and more deeply in every area of their life? Are they bringing those who are far from Christ near to Him (note: near to Christ not necessarily near to your particular church). This is the kind of growth that a healthy church shows.

My sister made the comment that churches that don't grow are too internally focused, and if a church is externally focused then they will grow. At first this made sense to me, but the more I thought about it the more I questioned that too.

I can be very externally focused, actively loving those around me, while not requiring them to join me at my church. In fact I think that love doesn't require anything from another person. I can love someone freely and allow them to go to another church. I can love someone freely and allow them to not go to church at all. Is it internally focused of me to extend love without trying to convince someone to come to MY church?

I believe that a congregation can also show great external love and concern for others without necessarily adding greatly to their numbers. They can love through active involvement with missions, though caring for the poor, marginalized, and needy in their community, through taking care of widows in nursing homes and orphans in orphanages. Those things are very externally focused, those things are deeply loving, those things are the work of the spirit. But, those things might not add to the number of people sitting in your sanctuary every Sunday.

I have to also think of Jesus himself. He grew quite a following, he added a lot in numbers and so did the early church. "And they added to their numbers daily those who were being saved." The global church grew and should grow and growth, I think, can be a sign of health in the global church. But, in individual churches, I think growth is just one measurement. It may be a sign of health, but it may not. Jesus had only twelve disciples - there is an example of a healthy church group that didn't grow - well, I guess if you count the addition of Paul it had some growth, but such slow growth.

Again I'm not saying that a healthy church or church group won't grow, I'm just saying that I think a church or a church group can be healthy without growing, or at least without growing very quickly.

What do you think?

Rejoicing in the journey, Bethany Stedman