Blunt truth about church growth


It’s NOT about the externalsPhoto of David Collins

Churches that want to grow often focus on the wrong things. It’s time to refocus.

by David R. Collins

In my first four columns, we covered some truths about church growth:

1. It is intentional.

3. It connects worship to life. 

2. It is centered in the Word preached.

4. And it involves a lot of invitation.

With this entry, instead of sharing what churches need to do to grow, I want to dispel a pervasive myth about growth.

It is NOT about the externals.

It’s not about having an electric guitar. It’s not about having a cool coffeehouse atmosphere. It’s not about having a new mission statement or logo.

Preaching a bad, rambling sermon in a coffee house setting will not grow your church. It will only give your current church members a little relief, because now they can sip something while you ramble, and they can feel good about being a part of a “relevant church.”

Updating the church logo to something trendy, or the mission statement to “Love God, Love Others, Serve the World” is fine. But it won’t change anything unless your church is actually doing those three things. If it isn’t, and the rebranding gets a few new people to visit on a Sunday, they won’t stick around long once they discover it was only an external change.

Too often, we focus on externals because it’s so much easier to talk about them. We can debate them around the conference room table and talk some more next month. Externals are one of the few changes that we can actually vote into being. They also don’t require a whole lot of sacrifice or work on our part when we try to implement them. That’s why it’s so tempting to focus on them.

But it’s the internals—the content of the messages we communicate with our lives and speak with our mouths, both from the pulpit and from the pews—that need polishing up. That’s where real change has to happen. And we can’t do it just once. We have to live into it day in and day out, knowing that growth may not follow immediately. (Though it also won’t hurt.)

It turns out that there is no magic bullet, unless hard work is a magic bullet. But it’s really more like a regular bullet that people don’t use because they’re too busy searching for a magic one.

Church growth is not about the easy externals of church life. It is about communicating and embodying the good news of Jesus Christ, sharing it with your community in ways that they will hear it, daily laboring to follow in Christ’s steps as his disciples. It is about remembering that we are promised the grace that comes from a cross, not a smoothie machine. 

David R. Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, Florida.