For years it has bothered me that, although the majority of churches in America have fewer than 300 people, most church leadership advice comes from pastors of huge churches. The assumption that bigger is better pervades the church leadership culture. What if that’s the wrong tack? Here are five reasons your church might be better off focusing on faithfulness instead of success… even if it that means it will Shrink.
1. Faithfulness, not success, is the goal of the church
The church’s job is not to grow, multiply, or expand. The church’s job is not to take back the culture for Jesus. The church’s job is not even to survive. The church’s job is to be the church—to be the faithful people of God who organize their common life together in such a way that they image God to all creation. Sadly, most American churches do not image God so much as they image American story of bigger, better, stronger, higher, and faster. The story of God is quite different. This story says the last will be first and the first will be last. Authentically Christian leadership does not embrace success as a worthy objective. Instead the Christian leader must embrace the way of descent, and the cruciform life of dying to self and others. The American way is up. The Jesus way is down.
2. A fixation on success creates anxiety and burnout
When a church chases ministry greatness, and makes growing attendance their primary metric for success, the most consistent outcome is not growth. The most consistent outcome is anxiety. CEO style church leadership may or may not produce growth, but it always produces a consuming anxiety in the lives of the members and leaders who constantly feel bad for not being bigger. All of that anxiety adds up over time. It usually falls to the pastor to try and keep the system healthy. The megachurch pastor is like the liver of an alcoholic body. The anxiety, pressure, and stress generated by the megachurch are not shared equally but are focused primarily on the pastor. Just one person cannot cleanse those types of systemic toxins, and eventually the pastors will burnout.
3. We are not in control of ministry outcomes
Who holds the future of the church? Is it God, or is it the visionary leader with a 5-year plan? Much of what passes for church leadership is akin to the professional athlete who takes performance-enhancing drugs. The megachurch is like a body on steroids, pumped full of leadership models, strategies, and techniques gleaned not from the gospel but from the world of business and the narrative of consumer capitalism.
4. Growth is not always a good sign
Perhaps the most powerful reason the North American church is in decline today is that the church’s way of being in the world does not embody a genuine alternative to the way of the dominant culture. When the church becomes an agent of the culture, indistinguishable in most ways from society at large, one of two things will tend to happen. On one hand, some people will cease to see the value in belonging and they will opt out. Why not sip some coffee and watch Oprah on a Sunday morning, if we’re going to get the same thing at church? On the other hand, the church could simply stop chasing success. However, this typically involves a reorientation away from creating the ultimate worship experience, and toward investing our lives in those Jesus seemed to care about most—those he called “the least of these.” When that happens, those who are only there for the big show will opt out.
5. The pursuit of greatness drowns out goodness and virtue
When Jim Collins wrote his renowned leadership manual Good to Great, church leaders ate it up. His central thesis, “Good is the enemy of Great,” contends that leaders who become satisfied with a good organization will cease to press toward greatness. My thesis is a complete reversal of Collins’s. I say that Great is the enemy of Good in Christian leadership. The drive to be great is crowding out goodness and virtue as the central focus. Christian leadership has become too pragmatic, while faithfulness has taken a backseat. Pastors have morphed into CEOs, and the worth of the leader has become intrinsically tied to the size of their congregation.
If you interested in learning more about how to shrink – egos, fame, and “footprint” – in order to do more faithful ministry, please check out Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture
Tim Suttle is the senior pastor of Redemption Church in Kansas City. He is the author of several books including his most recent, Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture (2014 Zondervan). An Evangelical Social Gospel?, (2011 Cascade Books), Public Jesus (2012 The House Studio). His blog is called Paperback Theology. Tim often writes for The Huffington Post and Sojourner's and his work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and other magazines and journals. He is the founder and front-man of the Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. Tim has planted three churches over the past 12 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan.
Publication date: March 13, 2015