HillsongSaddleback Church in California, pastored by Rick Warren of Purpose Driven Life fame, recently announced a three-year, $71 million fundraising campaign to finance what leaders are calling its “largest and most ambitious plan ever to expand the mega-church’s ministry”. Yes, that’s right, your eyes didn’t deceive you: I said $71 million.

This is a staggeringly large amount of money, and I guess it’s a fair bet that a good chunk of it will go into bricks and mortar and technology. But I don’t really want to get into a critique of Saddleback Church itself. This news has, however, had me pondering about church growth and how it is understood and pursued, particularly among western evangelical churches.

You see, to me this is a striking example of how much of the western church relentlessly pursues numerical growth as the one and only valid mark of “success”. Indeed, at this point I’d say that a good many churches and church leaders have numerical growth firmly at the top of their list of signs of a “successful” church.

The reason I’m putting “success” and “successful” in quotes is that when it comes to church purpose and vision, I don’t think the word “success” should even be part of the conversation.

All I really want to do today is offer some brief thoughts on why it is that so many western evangelical churches have bought into the “success as numerical growth” paradigm. (Note that I didn’t say “all evangelical churches”, or even “most evangelical churches”… so please don’t shoot me down in flames as a church-hater, because I’m not. I’ve been a paid-up member of evangelical churches for thirty years, and still am as of today.)

So, here are three of the top reasons why I think a great many western evangelical churches are sold out on numerical growth:

1. There is a predominant (one might even say overbearing) focus on Jesus’ “great commission” to his disciples, combined with a belief that the fulfilment of this commission will usher in the “end of the age”. The primary task of churchgoers is often understood as being to evangelise unbelievers, which basically means to turn non-churchgoers into churchgoers. Thus, numerical growth is the be all and end all, because the more people in our pews, the fewer pagans are left unevangelised. And the big idea is that once there is no group left in the world that has not heard the gospel, the end will come.

I have two big problems with this.

First, the gospel is not about turning non-churchgoers into churchgoers. If being a Christian is primarily defined by belonging to a religious institution called “church”, I’m not really that interested.

Second, I find this widespread hankering after “the end” highly problematic. It appears to be underpinned by highly questionable eschatology: namely, the belief that the only hope for humanity is for us to get to the point where God finally calls curtains on the world, kills off all the bad guys and teleports us all to an ethereal heaven.

I’m all for sharing the good news with people. But I don’t believe the good news is about getting a ticket to heaven to escape everlasting torment, and I don’t believe we should be in a rush to get it out to every race, tribe and tongue just so that God can finally throw the world in the garbage can and move onto the main event of heaven.

2. The second reason I think many churches are so hot on numerical growth is simply that they’ve been hoodwinked into believing the modern cultural myth that bigger is better. Bigger numbers, more people, larger facilities and a heftier bank balance might be valid ways to measure the success of a business, but churches are not businesses. (At least, they shouldn’t be.) (I’ve touched on this before.)

3. I believe there are much more relevant ways to measure church growth than by bums on seats. In particular, if discipleship were at all important (which it isn’t in many churches), we might measure growth not by the number of “giving units” on the roll (yes, that is actually a widely used term among church leaders) but rather by the spiritual maturity and Christlike character displayed by the people.

But… this would require an investment in close, one-on-one relationships and spiritual formation, which is often painfully slow. It would mean shifting the emphasis away from spotlights, smoke and a kickin’ worship band on Sunday morning, and focusing instead on the hard work of individual growth in Christlikeness. That, as I’m sure you realise, is far less fun and less glamorous than pouring your energy into something that can be measured in membership numbers and weekly offerings.

What do you think? Am I being unnecessarily cynical, or does the western church genuinely need to get over its fascination with numerical growth and focus its efforts elsewhere?

[ Image: Michael Chan ]