Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Church Growth Syndrome

  • T.M. Moore
  • 2012 20 Aug
Church Growth Syndrome

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?”- Matthew 17:19

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also…” -Acts 8:18

Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the “church growth” movement provided the driving force for churches seeking renewal.

Church growth advocates produced studies of large churches, detailing factors common among them which seemed to explain why these churches were continuing to grow while others were static or in decline. In learned papers, popular books, seminary courses, and tidy workshops, advocates of church growth principles and practices offered a rich palate of colorful ways a pastor might bring new life to the canvas of his church.

Depending on which studies one consulted, and what was within the scope of one’s resources, a healthy, growing church could be ensured as long as you provided ample parking, a well-staffed nursery, programs varied to meet the interests of different age- and life-situations, a “homogeneous” congregation, and plenty of opportunities for fellowship. A good evangelism program could also be useful, as could a worship service that featured less in the way of tradition and more of a contemporary, up-beat flare and mood.

A wide range of organizations and individuals, following the lead of the church growth movement and hoping to contribute to the wellbeing of the local church, made additional suggestions and offered other products and services: tools and protocols for managing a church, caring for its grounds and facilities, setting up budgets, and working with ministry committees and teams.

At the same time, local churches began to discover such marketing concepts as “positioning”, and turned to various kinds of popular media and sloganeering to advertise the advantages of their congregation.

The appearance of scores of “mega-churches” from the ‘90s to the present added to the wealth of insight and resources available to pastors for helping to ensure that their churches would continue to attract new people and satisfy the needs of their congregation. Almost any pastor can recite at least some of the keys to a healthy, growing church which the church growth/mega-church movements have taught us to adopt. Many seminaries have taken up these principles and applied them to instructing students in the work of pastoral ministry. There is no shortage of resources or training to help pastors and church leaders learn how to free their churches from the grip of decline and lead them into sustained vitality.

Nevertheless, for all our dutiful application of church growth principles to building the local church, we have not managed to cast out whatever demons continue to nudge the Body of Christ irresistibly to the margins of American life and culture and the waters and fires of irrelevancy.

Many churches today have succumbed to church growth syndrome. Pastors and church leaders are always looking for the next new thing which promises to renew their congregation, as if church growth and renewal were something that could be purchased off the shelf or acquired during some weekend seminar, and applied using a disciplined series of steps and protocols.

In spite of the fact that we now have more mega-churches – and mega-church wannabes – than ever before, the Church in America is not growing, and the faith represented in the Body of Christ overall could hardly be described as setting our society upright for Jesus Christ.

A formulaic faith is yet another form of the kind of “little faith” that Jesus’ disciples practiced and that Jesus condemned.


The disciples had seen Jesus cast out demons. They watched His bodily movements and listened to the words he spoke. Surely this is what you do when you want to cast out a demon and return a person to good health?

Jesus, of course, condemned their merely formulaic approach to practicing faith in God.

How can we know when we are slipping into a formulaic kind of faith? The symptoms are easy enough to spot. While the motives leading us into this form of little faith are typically well-meaning and sincere, a formulaic faith can become a tar baby which leads to more entanglement in methods and means and less freedom to know the liberating power of God’s Spirit.

We may be tending toward a formulaic faith, in the first instance, when our primary approach to determining the health of our church is to count noses and smiling faces. Paul is clear concerning what constitutes a healthy, growing church (cf. Ephesians 4:11-16), and he does not seem to put much stock in such criteria. The people who already attend our static or declining churches probably are not as “spiritual” as we wish they were. They are, however, the product of our ministry to them. Why should we think that adopting means to draw more people in will bring any more vitality to the congregation than already exists?

We have begun to operate out of a formulaic faith, secondly, when we convince ourselves that growth and renewal will come if only we change this and that or begin to incorporate more of whatever into the life of our church. New buildings or programs, additional staff, changes in the form or order of worship – all these and more are methods and means we turn to, hoping that one or more of them will prove to be the key that trips the tumblers of renewal.

We are trapped in a formulaic faith whenever we allow ourselves to believe that simply changing a few things will make a difference in the liveliness of our church. We look for programs or other means that we think might be agreeable to our leadership and congregation – as well as our budget – and then begin the process of selling these ideas to the congregation as the church’s hope for a new lease on life.

We might, in fact, realize some of the indicators of growth that we’re seeking by such means: new visitors, happier members, and a higher profile in the community. But we are called to seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, not the kind of results we hope for from adopting church growth or mega/church methods and means.

A dangerous form of unbelief

A formulaic faith is very close to being little more than a dangerous form of unbelief. Like Simon, we want the means to be in our power for getting God to do our bidding, according to our preconceived notions of what constitutes a healthy, growing church. This is not what we set out to do; it’s not what we intend. It is, however, the practical effect of investing the Lord’s time and money in various means and methods which, adopted, we believe the Lord must honor if our church is to be renewed.

It’s not that we should not use means to build and grow our churches. We should – but only those means which God Himself prescribes. Yet these are the very means – shepherding, disciple-making after the pattern of Jesus and Paul, church discipline, house churches, serving the community – that we tend to set aside in favor of the latest cleverly-named program or liturgical innovation.

God has instructed us, as He did Moses, to build His tabernacle according to the pattern He has revealed. We fall into formulaic faith when we give lip-service to God’s instructions and means and invest our time, strength, and resources in programs, protocols, and practices based more on a consumerist, entertainment, and individualist model of human life and the church, rather than on the image and temple of God which Scripture teaches.

A formulaic faith may involve us in well-meaning, passionate, even spiritual exertions. But it will not build the church and it will not bring the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.

The sooner we recognize and reject any merely formulaic tendencies in our faith or leadership, and the more we learn to depend on the guidelines for faithful practice revealed in God’s Word, the better positioned we will be for the Lord to bring healing and restoration according to His own ways and means.

Next steps: Do you see any symptoms of formulaic faith in your own walk with the Lord, or in your church? Seek the Lord on this matter. Talk with some of your church’s leaders, and see if they have any concerns about this. Share this article with some of your fellow church members, and begin praying that God will help you to rely on His ways and means alone for building His church.

The place to begin in understanding how to be delivered from our little faith is by reviewing the nature of true faith. Order a copy of Chuck Colson’s book, The Faith, and read it carefully and with reflection. It’s available through our online store. You might also read the article, “The Sine qua non of Kingdom Seeking,” by T. M. Moore.