Is Growth Overrated?

Our culture is obsessed with “big.” In so many ways it seems, “size does matter.” Often the crudest anecdotes adapted by any culture “expose” the values of that culture. Accompanying our obsession with “big,” can be an unhealthy obsession with growth. The human growth hormone (HGH) and the performance-enhancing drug scandals in the modern world of sports are highly symbolic of this. This obsession with “big” and “growth” has plagued the church. At church leadership conferences, megachurches are highlighted as the model to strive for. In many of these circles, the first question a pastor gets asked is, “How many attend your church?” The answer to that question, depending on who else is in the room, determines that pastor’s place in the assumed but unspoken pecking order of ecclesial significance.

Study after study shows that the universal church is indeed growing rapidly. This is not surprising. What is surprising is that the reason for the growth is not because of megachurches, but because of thousands, and perhaps millions of small churches around the world! Christian Swartz wrote, “The stats tell us that ten smaller churches of 100 people will accomplish way more than one church of 1000.” [1]  Specifically, this means that far more people are reached with the Good News and become followers of Jesus through small churches. The explosion of the church in China and many other nations are due to small house churches proliferating.  In observing this, Karl Vater writes that “there are few better ways to invest in the advancement and promotion of the kingdom… than by multiplying, encouraging, and equipping healthy local small churches.”[2]


Why are small churches generally more effective?  One reason is the “liminality factor.”[3] “Liminality” has to do with being in the arena of risk, vulnerability, and disorientation. The term literally is a description of the passage of life for youth in tribal cultures, where they are taken into extreme conditions and taught to survive, feeling left to fend for themselves. This process prepares them to emerge into adulthood. Liminality is not the place we would naturally choose to be, but God often takes us there. In liminality, our very survival seems at stake and we feel desperate. It is a place of utter dependency while requiring us to give everything we have. Liminality is often where small congregations find themselves. When congregations are in this place, it involves more “buy-in” at a grass roots level. I am intrigued by the high ratio of people who attend VEV who are meaningfully involved and engaged. It is a ratio that far exceeds the North American average, where 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people (often called the 80/20 ratio). At VEV, it’s more like 80/80.  

In megachurches, commitment can be minimal. This is because people can slip in and out anonymously. They can depend on a multiple paid staff to meet the functioning needs of the church. Research bears this out. An online article sent to me by Rick Hiebert cites a Duke University Study that indicates that megachurches have less involved members per capita than small churches.[4] Of course, there are deeply committed disciples in both big and small churches. God can use a megachurch to get the attention of a city or culture and they can often be a wonderful resource to many smaller churches around them. Yet, overall, this seems to be the exception more than the rule.  


It’s hard to be anonymous in a smaller church. Mind you, the Christian faith was never designed for anonymity. I think the greatest metaphor for the church is “family” which means a place where you are known and loved. By “family,” we do not merely mean the traditional “nuclear family” but rather a larger extended family – a family of multiple generations including cousins, uncles, aunties, grandparents as well as parents, brothers, and sisters. God is still “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!”

Crowds come and go. I’ve lived long enough to know that the right kind of technology and marketing can draw a big crowd, but, Jesus never seemed that impressed with crowds. He often deliberately tried to reduce their size by saying some really hard things.[5] It was because he wanted disciples, not fans. He wanted a family, not crowds. He knew crowds could boost someone’s ego but still leave them very lonely.  


Having said all that, I have come back from sabbatical with a longing for growth, both in my own life and the life of our church family. In fact, to not want growth is not healthy. But, what do I mean by “growth?” I mean growth in the most holistic sense of the word. I mean growing like Jesus did – “in mind, body, love for God, and love for people” (see Luke 2:52).

How can we grow like that? How can we be more conversant with Scripture, with history, and with our current culture, so that we can better live the story we love to tell? How can we make sure that we’re taking good care of our bodies, including nutrition, exercise, and rest, so that we can offer them as a daily living sacrifice to God (Romans 12:1)? How can we grow in relational and emotional health and in our capacity to love God and neighbour? How can we learn to be more comfortable in our own skin and to live out of our true selves in Christ - not out of false religious selves? How can we mature in our capacity to be lovingly patient with each other, to work out our differences, to disagree respectfully, and communicate lovingly? How can we grow in our capacity to celebrate children, the poor, the marginalized, and the invisible ones? How can we grow in our capacity to love and include those who are different than us? How could we extend welcome to the displaced and marginalized refugees fleeing to our city from war-torn nations?

As a community, how can we help each other grow? How can we hold one another in loving accountability, not for a “performance review,” but to help each other reach towards our God-given dreams? How can we help each other discover, develop, and deploy our spiritual gifts? How can we grow in our church/parent partnership to make disciples of our children? How can we be intergenerational and include our children and youth more in the story?  How can we be a blessing and love our neighbours by being a loving presence?  How could we develop a greater sense of "place," through initiatives like our "Let's Grow Together" community garden? How can we increase our radical welcome so that people join our community of faith, organically and naturally, adding to our beautiful mosaic?

How could we multiply so that there are dozens of more congregations like ours throughout greater Vancouver that are still relating to each other in mutual love and care? How could we develop leaders and teams for these congregations? How could we work with our other Vineyard congregations and church plants in the city to do so? How could we grow by entering into a deeper level of doing justice and loving mercy? What are our next steps in our journey of mutual healing with our First Nations friends in Lower Post?

So, you see, growth is important. However, let’s use questions like these for our measuring stick. Perhaps you can add some questions of your own! The Good News is that we're observing encouraging signs of this kind of growth – in our community and in our larger Vineyard family. 

[1] Karl Vaters, “Your Small Church is Big,” Leadership Magazine, Spring 2015, page 58. In this article, the author quotes a study by Ed Stetzer and Christian Swartz. 
[2] Ibid.
[3] Alan Roxburgh discusses this concept in his book, The Sky is Falling: Leaders Lost in Transition.
[5] See for example, John 6:61-71