I Don’t Want My Church to Grow
by Paul Gregory Alms
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from LF Summer 2009
The title is an exaggeration. Or, more accurately, a lie. As a Lutheran pastor, I do want my church to grow. If you stripped away all the artifice and false humility and my saying what I think I should say and even trying to think what I should think: yes, I want my church to grow more than anything else. I want the self-satisfaction and the pride in what I have done. I desire the ease that comes from more people and more funds. I want my peers to respect and look up to me. I want to feel valuable. I want to believe that I have accomplished something with my work. I want to think that what I do and have done has had results, that I am a “good pastor.” So, yes, I want my church to grow.
My church doesn’t do that all the time. Most of the time my congregation, like most others these days, I suspect, floats along. The numbers are up a little and then down a bit, then down quite a bit and then back up. Most congregations that I know are declining to some degree or another, some very slowly, almost imperceptibly, others catastrophically. And most are served by a pastor like me. I imagine that all of us, when we endure our own forty days in the wilderness, would probably throw everything overboard and jump from the temple’s height just to have our church be successful. Do I want my church to grow? Yes, more than anything.
But confessing that “more than anything” is alarming. It is a perilous desire. The peril lies in both the church and the person of the pastor. We are surrounded by a culture that values bigness and growth above almost all else. Success is the one framework we can all agree on, whether in business, the arts, sports, politics, and also, sadly, the church. This has infected the church for decades and has become almost reflexive among pastors and congregations, even when we try to exit from a marketing and entertainment mindset. As pastors, we feel a need to apologize and make excuses if our congregations seem small or we experience a dip in attendance. The danger lodges inside of us, in our souls. We search for an excuse to offer, or we assure others we are working on fixing the situation. We share the strategies we have in mind. We end up connecting our ego and self-worth to how many people come or the trends of membership or giving. This can lead to an exaggerated sense of our own importance or to serious self-loathing and despair.
It is difficult to exit the merry-go-round of despising the church-growth circus while secretly wanting my own way of being a pastor to be successful and acknowledged. I don’t want my church to grow precisely because I want it to grow so badly. The worst thing that can happen to pastors is that the strategies we have invented for our churches succeed. Such success is a diabolical temptation. We begin to believe—trust in—the statistics or the nice things parishioners say, and soon, like Peter, we think, “Wow, I can do this.” But soon enough the waves overwhelm us and we begin to sink. It is not that it is a good thing in itself to lose members or have fewer people in worship, but it can be a worse thing to fall into the reflective pool of pastoral success. Narcissus was not a good shepherd of sheep.
The growth of a congregation is also hazardous for the congregation itself. Kierkegaard famously wrote that “the crowd is untruth.” In matters of congregations, this is a trustworthy saying. A congregation that grows large and successful can easily lose sight of what is eternal and real. The notorious examples of megachurch pastors and their congregations crashing and burning in the throes of moral catastrophe and doctrinal confusion mask the more mundane lure of mostly ignoring God even when invoking His name. Growth can become its own idol, a golden calf, a feel-good elixir that pays little serious attention to Scripture and even less to the actual lives that church members are living. The reach for triumph outshines the more important matters of sin and grace that play out when people leave the safety of the crowd. Sitting in the “audience” becomes the sum total of the Christian life. Being in on such a successful church can become its own validation. The success of the enterprise is the touchstone by which those attending make sure they are in the right place. “Look at how well we are doing. God is blessing us.” The crowd becomes untruth.
That false surrender to the crowd lies at the very heart of American culture today. The celebrity worship, the rush after money and the outward marks that indicate we have money, the ubiquitous collecting of friends and likes and clicks in our social media, all of these constitute a way of life built on grand expectations and increasing numbers. A good argument for wanting your church not to grow is to resist this cultural imperative. The church that looks just like the achievement-driven culture it inhabits is probably off track in some way.
The church must adapt to its circumstances—but not surrender. The stuff of statistical reports and counting and funding are not the way of the church but the way of the marketplace. The two can coexist and borrow from one another, but the marketplace is a hungry warrior and the church a humble servant. The latter can rarely withstand the voracious impulses of the marketplace once the marketplace has been welcomed into the center of the church’s life.
All these are valid reasons to fear congregational growth. But the chief reason I do not want my church to grow is that a small congregation is the best place to learn how to be and remain a Christian. The way of forgiveness and self-denial and divine community are not impersonal things learned in an audience as we sit comfortably in theater seats. They are the truths that weigh and tear, mend and heal flesh-and-blood people. The rough and tumble of congregational life, where you sit next to the guy with mental illness and serve on a committee with a recovering drug addict and hug the widow who lost her husband last week, cannot be substituted with large screens or consumer comforts. The experience of singing and struggling together week after week and knowing each other’s faults as they are forgiven is a glue that stitches each of us to the church and to Christ. The weekly routine of receiving Christ’s body and blood with a set of people whose names you know and who know yours and your story—and probably not a few of your sins—is something that can’t be wrapped up in a program or effectively advertised.
Small and declining churches have their own temptations. Smallness is no better an idol than success. But the impersonality and publicity driven ways of the media-saturated world we live in are an acute attraction right now. This can best be combated in small communities through relationships anchored in God’s tangible grace, united in shared liturgy, through holy things touched and handled in common, eaten and taken together. The goal cannot be more or bigger but only truth and grace. We do not offer Christ’s cross to people to get somewhere else, to achieve a goal or reach a threshold. We come to the cross as the sum and substance of all existence. The church is these people under the cross, this community, this neighborhood, inhabited by God’s presence.
So, yes, I do want my church to grow. I pray that I am not consumed by numbers or acclaim or self satisfaction. Truth be told, I desire those things. It is the pastor’s cross. But in the end, I do want people who are looking for sense in a senseless world to hear the life giving words of the gospel. I want people burdened with sins to be able to confess and be freed by absolution won through the death and resurrection of Jesus. I want babies to be baptized and brought up in the knowledge of God’s holy love. I want desperate pilgrims wandering across the barren desert of American spirituality to find a home and a refuge which offers the real spiritual food of the eucharist. So, yes, in those respects, I want my church to grow. May God grant it!