Stay Out of the Church Growth Quicksand by Phil VanAuken


By Phil VanAuken

Many a congregation has learned the hard way that church growth is a two-edged sword.  The benefits and advantages of growth– more members, more ministries, more money– are obvious and inviting.  Less obvious are the potential costs of overextended facilities and resources, possible staff/volunteer burnout, and the climate of disruptive change.  Church growth is a complicated phenomenon that raises new problems and thorny issues not all congregations are ready for.  Let’s turn our attention to some of the tougher questions raised by church growth.


Why does your church want to grow?  Mixed motives can be a real problem in the church that’s rearing to grow.  The laudable desire to see more people participate in congregational life can sometimes be overshadowed by the desire for bigger budgets and better buildings.  The quest to attract new members may lead to show biz entertainment in worship and to slick marketing that would be the envy of General Motors.
Church growth is all about ministry, not materialism.  God will use the church that ministers well to serve more and more members.  “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Galatians 5:13)

Does your church know why it’s growing?  Have you been growing because of your facilities, your excellent programs, or is it your inspiring senior pastor?  Maybe your growth is actually due to your relocation in a booming part of town, or to a revitalized visitation program.  More than one church has mistakenly concluded that a building program was its sure cure for stagnant growth, when the real culprit was spiritual in nature (anemic corporate prayer, superficial Sunday school classes, unconfessed sin in the congregation, etc.). One thing is certain–knowing why you’re growing keeps your church growing.

Is your growth planned or a surprise?  Both planned and surprise growth have their downsides to an unsuspecting congregation.  Planned growth may seem like a victorious breakthrough until the staff and key volunteers are swamped by new ministry demands and expectations.  Why hast Thou been so hard on Thy servant that Thou hast laid the burden of all this people on me? (Numbers 11:11)


Unforseen growth also strains the congregation’s infrastructure, confronting church leaders with speculative questions about the need for expansion and new hires.  In the early stages of an unexpected growth boom, leaders may not know what to do and respond in a tentative manner that makes the congregation edgy.  Too much growth, at least in the short run, can be worse than no growth at all.

Who’s going to lead the church through its growth boom?  That’s the staff’s job, isn’t it?  Aren’t they paid to run the church?  This misguided, unrealistic expectation is commonplace in too many churches.  The staff’s proper role is to inspire and equip congregation members to carry on the main ministry work of the church.  The myriad responsibilities of church growth ultimately filter down to the grass roots level of nursery workers, ushers, Sunday school directors and teachers, greeters, the maintenance crew, and the many other “invisible” servants.  Without highly motivated, well-trained, spiritually mature volunteers at the grass roots level, growth simply can’t be sustained.  Visitors won’t feel welcome to the church without the personal touch and TLC uniquely provided by rank and file members.

 Is the church going to make growth happen or wait for it to happen?  In our pragmatic, results-oriented culture, most church leaders subscribe to the “make it happen” philosophy of church growth: launch a new growth campaign, intensify visitation efforts, bolster the advertising budget, or gear up for another building program.  While such ambitious efforts are commendable, they have been known to backfire.  Before pulling out all the stops for growth, church leaders must first lay a solid foundation and infrastructure for expansion.  This starts with selling the growth vision to the congregation, explaining its pros and cons, and soliciting the renewed commitments of key ministry leaders.
 In some ways, church growth programs are like having a baby.  The mother and baby have a full nine months to prepare for the event, so that when it’s time for the baby to be born, all is ready and eagerly anticipated.  Leaders wait on God to prepare the church for growth according to His perfect timetable.  While waiting, the church must pray circumstances into readiness.


It’s exciting to witness and participate in healthy growth when God’s perfect hand is in it.  But when growth is man-made, the church may find itself trapped in quicksand.  Quicksand is so treacherous because you’re in it before your know it, and the more you struggle to get out, the deeper you sink. But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling; my steps had almost slipped. (Psalms 73:2)

 Don’t step into the following pools of quicksand that have victimized so many unsuspecting congregations:

Quicksand pool #1: Running your church like a business.  Business corporations are run by performance-oriented executives who strive to maximize market share through catering to consumers.  Corporations are organized around departments that aggressively compete for budgets and resources, and employees are hired and fired on the basis of pulling their own weight.  The bottom line is performance.
Many growth-oriented churches unwittingly follow this corporate model, often times as the result of high-powered business professionals who dominate the church board and key committees. They do what comes naturally in the way they run the church, such as hiring (and firing!) hard-charging staff; imposing ambitious growth goals for the 3Bs (budgets, buildings and baptisms); and marketing church programs (the product line) to Christian consumers.

Like corporations, many super churches” have multi-million dollar budgets, high paid (CEO) pastors, and an elaborate bureaucracy of committees, programs, budgets, and personnel.  Even though super churches aren’t profit-oriented, they are none-the-less a big business.  Staff members must recognize the crucial difference between running the church as though it were a business versus running the church in a business-like manner.  …Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s. (Matthew 22:21)

The larger a church grows, the more it struggles with keeping its priorities pure.  Because Christ is the church’s undisputed CEO, spiritual, not business, goals must be first and foremost in the life of the church.  Staff and lay leaders should be evaluated on the basis of their spiritual maturity and devotion to Christ rather than on their business acumen.  That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. (Ephesians 1:17)

Quicksand Pool #2: Defining growth strictly in statistical and numerical terms.  Most churches expend great energy keeping meticulous statistical records on everything from attendance, to giving, visitors, and who attends committee meetings.  But how much time and attention are given to fervency of prayer, evangelistic outreach, willingness to confess and forgive, and devotion to the study of God’s Word?  These qualitative aspects of a congregation’s spiritual life are God’s highest priority for church growth.  Having an up-trending growth line on the statistical chart is great, unless it tempts church leaders to smugly conclude that “We’re sure doing a great job!
Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.  But God said to him, You fool!  This very night your soul is required of you…. (Luke 12:19-20)

Quicksand Pool #3:  Treating other congregations and denominations as competitors and rivals.  Churches and denominations may peacefully co-exist in our society, but that doesn’t mean all is well in the Christian community.  Why don’t more churches, especially from the same denomination, engage in mutually advantageous ministry partnerships?  Why isn’t there more spiritual fellowship between members of the extended body of Christ?  Why aren’t expensive church facilities and scarce assets shared to a greater extent?

In keeping with our individualistic culture, most congregations operate out of an isolationist mindset that reflects an unspoken sense of rivalry and competitiveness with other churches in the community.  Church leaders are rarely eager to share facilities or cooperate in joint ministries because they want to be in control (even though Christ is supposed to be).  When presented the opportunity to pool resources or co-minister with another local church, most congregations can’t seem to get beyond fretting about purely mundane matters, such as how to divide up the budget.  Many would probably agree with one church-goer’s sentiment that, People in my congregation have a hard enough time getting along with one another without trying to harmonize with another church!

Inter-church and inter-denominational cooperation is a sadly overlooked dimension of church growth.  Think of how much extraordinary ministry could be accomplished and scarce resources saved if congregations could only find a way to work together rather than endlessly duplicating their efforts and resources.

 Quicksand Pool #4:  Expanding staff or facilities to artificially stimulate church growth.  Adding staff or facilities gives the congregation a larger launching pad, but real growth occurs only when the rocket (number of congregation members) gets bigger.  Done for the right reasons, expansion creates a more comfortable “shoe” to accommodate the congregation’s larger foot.  But done for the wrong reasons, expansion fosters a climate of distrust and burdens the church with debt.  Some churches have been guilty of pushing for expanded facilities as a (thinly disguised) political tactic calculated to pressure congregation members into giving more money, or perhaps to placate some disgruntled faction in the church

 Quicksand Pool #5:  Promoting congregational homogeneity to sustain growth.  Most congregations subscribe to the theory that since birds of a feather flock together, they might as well go after more from the same flock.  People with much in common do indeed flock together, but they don’t attract many from other flocks.  Over time, the homogeneous congregation tends to stagnate, turning into a Dead Sea of ideas and initiatives.  It becomes its own worse enemy, like an ingrown toenail, when it runs out of room to grow.  By contrast, diverse congregations attract a broader and deeper constituency (members from different ethnic groups, socioeconomic backgrounds, and levels of spiritual maturity) with a richer future growth potential.  Diverse congregations are a hotbed of new ideas, initiatives, and energy.

 Quicksand #6: Desiring comfortable growth.  Churches, like people, are easily spoiled by success: the “comfy” facilities, accommodating staff team, well-managed programs, and high visibility in the community.  Sunday school teachers in a booming congregation are apt to feel less compelled to keep up with visitation; deacons may decide they deserve to slow down a bit; long-time volunteers say it’s time for the new members to take over.  But the new members assume that everything comes easily in the church, so there isn’t much of a need for them to volunteer (or to tithe).

In comfortable churches, growth is seen as automatic–a given and hence taken for granted. The prevailing sentiment seems to be, Our church has arrived and we deserve to enjoy our success.”  Here lies the deepest and deadliest pool of quicksand.  When members begin to take the growth of their church for granted, it won’t be long before they start taking their own personal spiritual growth for granted.  Then they will be up to their necks in quicksand!


 Staying out is easier than getting out, Mark Twain wisely observed.  It’s easier to avoid the problems commonly associated with church growth than it is to futilely wrestle with them.  Healthy long-term congregational growth requires a dynamic mix of opposites delicately balanced to foster healthy long-term numerical and spiritual growth.  Planned growth must be balanced with advanced infrastructure preparation.  Making growth happen must be balanced with waiting on God’s provision.  Numerical membership growth must be balanced with personal spiritual growth.  Congregational homogeneity must be balanced with diversity.  Short-term growth must be balanced with long-term growth.  Isolated growth must be balanced with shared ministry partnerships.

 Balanced church growth is healthy church growth.  It requires church leaders who lead balanced, healthy spiritual lives.  No church can or will grow beyond the spiritual level of its leaders.  Church growth techniques and strategies are no substitute for Christ-like leaders who have God’s call and sense of priorities.  Church growth ultimately depends on Jesus Christ, since it is His church.  The better we follow His lead, the better local churches will grow and prosper.  …We are to grow up in all aspects of Him, who is the head, even Christ. (Ephesians 4:15)



Steve needs to step down as Sunday school director because attendance has been down for too long.
We need to hire a full-time youth pastor because First Church’s youth program is getting much larger than ours.
Let’s attract more young couples to our church so that we can get the money to finance that new nursery we’ve been wanting for so long!
Let’s not split our Sunday school class.  We all like each other too much.
Thank goodness the new outreach director has been hired so I can slow down on my visitation.
Come visit our church and see our great staff team in action.
The choir’s not growing because we don’t have any outstanding soloists.
“That new kid just doesn’t fit in around here.
 “Let’s start our own ministry to the homeless in the community
 “Attendance is up, so our church must be headed in the right direction!



By Phil VanAuken

%d bloggers like this: