Do Healthy Churches Grow?

The answer I’ve heard to this question is usually an unequivocal “yes.” 

But I believe this answer can be misleading and dangerous, if not downright incorrect, depending on the assumptions behind it. The real answer is far more nuanced.

Let’s start with what we mean by “growth.” It is often assumed that growth refers to numeric size of a congregation. In other words, healthy churches will get larger. But growth is not the same as expansion. Growth can also refer to maturity. A church may be growing deeper roots, which are not observable from the outside. It may also be growing in kingdom impact, rather than local size. I know of churches that birth new congregations, or that send dozens of believers into ministry elsewhere. 

In addition, the dangerous corollary to the assumption that “healthy churches grow (numerically)” is that “(numerically) growing churches are healthy churches.” But numeric growth can too easily be manufactured and manipulated. Numerical growth simply does not give an accurate picture of a church’s health. This is why I am so skeptical of any list of the “largest” or “fastest growing” churches, and of anyone who puts any stock into these lists. 

Another assumption behind the assertion that “healthy churches grow” is that growth can continue endlessly. But if churches are organisms, they will have a life cycle, just like any other living thing. That means they will die someday. I’m healthy, but I’m not going to live forever. Perhaps we should acknowledge that local congregations don’t have to live forever, either. Perhaps letting a congregation die or scatter is one way God fertilizes other kingdom work. 

Finally, the belief that healthy churches grow puts a lot of pressure on the leader of the organization. The assumption is that if a church is not growing, it is a reflection of a leader’s skill (or lack thereof). But this is an unhealthy understanding of leadership. Leaders can’t control a majority of the factors that contribute to a church’s growth or health, most notably the fact that God causes growth (1 Cor. 3:6-7). To believe otherwise is either unrealistic or arrogant.  

So: Do healthy churches grow?

Maybe. It depends. But perhaps we’re asking the wrong question.

Angie Ward