6 reasons pastors shouldn’t focus on church growth

Carey Nieuwhof, pastor of Connexus Community Church in Barrie, has written a blog post on 8 reasons most churches never break the 200 attendance mark. I thought I’d offer a reply, though in truth I’m not really interested in how congregations might break that apparently important threshold – or why they don’t. I’m more interested in the preoccupation itself – the preoccupation with breaking the 200 threshold.

Nieuwhof is by no means the first writer/blogger to focus on that magic number. I’ve come across it elsewhere, in passing. And one can only presume that there is a wealth of religious and sociological literature out there that explains and defends the importance of the all-important 200 attendance mark.

Before getting to my 8 reasons (actually, I only have 6) for this preoccupation with the 200 threshold, it is important to know that this is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. Otherwise put, this focus on achieving and surpassing a numeric level finds its home in modernism – philosophically and culturally speaking. There is nothing timeless or essential about it. For 2000 years the church has not lived its intention to ‘reach people for Christ ‘ in such terms – only in the modern period has such thinking and acting become possible.

I’m not saying that the church has never talked about numbers (just read Acts and you’ll see otherwise), but the church for the vast majority of its history did not talk about numbers in this way.

I should also clarify (before I really get going) that there is much in Nieuwhof’s piece that will be helpful to the church. In some respects, his is simply a call to the church to be faithful with the gifts God has given to the whole people of God and to ministers specifically. And yet his approach to such questions is embedded within a framework that I find problematic and troubling – so that what I write here in critique and response may in some respects be quite strong.

With no further ado, here are what I take to be the key reasons why some church leaders are preoccupied with achieving and surpassing a certain threshold of attendance – reasons based on Nieuwhof’s own blog post.

1.  Adoption of the modern ‘character’ of the Manager.  Alasdair MacIntyre, in his important book After Virtue, argues that the Manager is one of three quintessentially modern characters. The manager is preoccupied with efficiency and effectiveness – without reference to any particular end or goal. For the manager efficiency and effectiveness are detached from any particular account of what is good and true and beautiful. And in this sense it is instructive that almost all of the advice offered by Nieuwhof on how to reach and surpass the 200 attendance mark could be applied to a Unitarian church, a Buddhist community, or a Reformed Jewish synagogue. The goal or end (truth, faith, love) isn’t prioritized – only the means of getting there. So the manager, according to MacIntyre, is defined above all by control and efficiency – an important goal being the removal uncertainty and unpredictability and inefficiency. The pastor becomes manager – maximizing efficiency and rooting out uncertainties in the congregation on the way to its particular end.

2.   The church is understood as a system. Closely related to the above, in such managerial contexts the church is not seen primarily or decisively as the Body of Christ in which faithfulness to the mission of Christ and to the moving of the Spirit are decisive. Rather, according to the management framework, the decisive category for the church is “system”. A system in which people and process are to be managed and controlled – thus, for example, the focus on concepts of behaviour and leadership and management and organization. These are the catch phrases of a systems approach. And again, such preoccupations are presumed to be ‘neutral’ – they can be made to fit within any particular religious tradition or community organization, which perhaps reveals that something else has been displaced from the centre? Thus:

    • spend time working through your strategy (whatever it is)
    • empower volunteers around an aligned strategy (whatever it is)
    • you organize differently; you govern differently, [given the nature of your system and supposed outcomes]

The management strategy (and its language) is decisive, and to my mind can too easily displace the theological and relational focus on living faithfully in mission, in the service of Christ, as a broken-yet-being-healed community of his people.

3.  Enamoured with the prestige of the CEO in western culture.  Why does the language of “CEO” appear in a blog post about moving past the 200 attendance mark? Yes it’s deployed only in passing, but I cannot help but feel it quite important here – for the CEO is the hero of modern, managerial culture. Thus their massive salaries! The CEO is the hero who can move an organization beyond its poor sales record – or the anti-hero who failed to see what was coming down the pike and thus saw his company bottom out (Hello Jim Balsillie!). The pastor is CEO, who must deploy a strategy, human resources, and physical resources to accomplish some end, whatever end that leader or organization should happen to choose. It’s hard to see how a pastor that fails to function in this way (after all, you say you want to reach more people for Christ, right!?) can be defined as anything other than a failure.

4.  Focus is on the pastor as leader. You will spend a lot of time in searching for a definition of leadership within the New Testament – there are no principles of leadership listed in any of Paul’s letters or in Jesus’ sermon on the mount – or the plain, if you prefer Luke’s version. And attempting to extract such principles from narratives almost invariably does violence to those narratives. The New Testament focus is on the moving and gifting of the Spirit, faithfulness to Christ, love for one another, and service to our neighbours. It’s not about how to provide leadership in order to shape the system in order to remove inefficiencies and surpass the threshold of 200. If there is something called leadership (a big if in my books) it’s about faithful use of one’s gifts in preaching and teaching (and in helping theologically guide conversations and actions), in service to sisters and brothers, in mission to those neighbours who live around us.

5.  Riding the crest of Christendom. Churches that are growing appreciably today are populated (yes, this is conjecture on my part!) almost exclusively by people who were introduced to Christ, or shaped in their Christian identity (even if nominally), somewhere else. That is, the success of many new models of church (including those built around the pastor as efficient manager) are dependent upon the slowly dissipating remnants of Christendom.. And when Christendom finally collapses, so will these models. So, even if the focus on pastor as manager “works” it will only “work” for the short term – barring, of course, the emergence of a glut of hero CEO pastors to rebuild and save the church. No, of course we all know that’s not the answer. More accurately: Barring a powerful movement of the Spirit that will open the hearts of women and men again to the gospel of Jesus, which will always be far and away beyond what we think we are doing.

6.  A preoccupation with success. Numbers = success. It’s almost astonishing that this needs to be said, but when I read Nieuwhof’s piece I feel that it needs repeating: Small is good and beautiful in the context of Christ’s Body. I wonder a bit about Nieuwhof’s statement that “there’s nothing wrong with being a small church, since he does think that everybody wants a growing church – that is, one that can cross the 200 attendance threshold. Carey may think that small churches can remain small and flourish in the truest sense, but that is not suggested or articulated here, which is of concern to me – perhaps in some other context he would say this.

Again, there is little doubt that much of what is offered in Nieuwhof’s blog post can be helpful to the church – we need reminders about faithfulness with the gifts God has given in Christ. The problem for me is with the big-picture assumptions that drive the whole enterprise. My own view is that we must be deeply suspicious of the assumptions of modernism (control, efficiency, systems, and silence about ends and truth), and to prevent them from driving our approach to our shared life in Christ. The assumptions of modernism are seductive (who doesn’t want control!). But it seems to me that they can represent a betrayal of the patient, prayerful, and missional life of God’s people in community.

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