Spiritual growth=numerical growth?

In The Church on October 22, 2010 by scottsund

A friend sent me a link recently to an article from an executive pastor of a very large and growing church.  In the article, the pastor says that “spiritual growth is always related to numerical growth” because as people grow in their faith they will give more, serve more, invite more friends, etc.   I had to wrestle with this because the absolute statement of spiritual growth=more numbers is a bit troubling.  And yet, he makes a case that growth should include an element of inviting others in.  We don’t exist as a church to become a more comfortable social club, we are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to go into the world to spread His message of Kingdom living.  In this way, as more people hear about Jesus, spiritual growth will equal numerical growth.

But then the pastor said something that has bothered me for 2 days since reading it.  He wrote, “Large visions and large projects require large faith, large giving, and large amounts of volunteers to own the mission. It should be somewhat difficult and painful because it should be a sacrifice. Through sacrifice, God destroys our selfish ways and teaches us to treasure Jesus above our comfort and our self-sufficiency.”

The problem with the statement is that it only describes one pathway on the journey towards Jesus.  Yes, this describes the large church that casts a big vision…people empty their wallets…staff get hired…volunteers get trained…and wham- a new church emerges.  But is this always how God’s large visions emerge?  Aren’t some of God’s large visions actually quite small in the eyes of the world?

Nothing was very “large” when Francis of Assisi decided to give his money away, live with poor people, and take the vow of chastity, obedience, and poverty.  In fact, Francis was said to identify with the suffering of Jesus so much that he had the scars of Jesus’ crucifixion emerge on his own skin.  This kind of pain and suffering isn’t often spoken about when we think of doing grand things for the gospel…and yet Francis’ life transformed history.  The Franciscan monks that emerged from his example continue to serve the poor and needy and broken to this day.

Nothing seems particularly large in Mother Teresa choosing to live among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta.  What is amazing about Mother Teresa’s years of serving the poor was that she continued to serve even when her faith in God felt spiritually dry.  She emptied herself daily to represent Jesus to the world’s very “least of these.”  Did she see numerical growth arise from the fruits of her greatness?  I don’t think so.

This is particularly important for me right now as I shepherd a growing satellite church in north King county.  I want to do huge things for the Lord and see God write incredible stories of intense redemption of people.  And yet when I dream these dreams, I have to be careful not to involve my own ego in the narrative.  Because inevitably as the pastor above writes about God’s big visions, there is a bit of self-glorification for that particular church in God’s story.  This church becomes the expert and it looks like they have captured God in a bottle so they can peddle the recipe for success to others.

But God is speaking to me right now about spiritual health.  God’s heart is for the lost, the lonely and the downtrodden.  God wants more and more and more people to come into relationship with Him.  And yes, God says, healthy things grow.  I hope this happens in my church.  I hope my little church of 100 people becomes a church of 500 then a church of 5000.  I really believe I want these things because they will point to God’s glory.  And yet, I know myself too well, and have to be careful that the story is about God’s glory, and not my own.

I think of one of my favorite verses in the bible, when John says about Jesus, “He must become greater, I must become less.”  I hope and pray that God’s Kingdom gets expanded exponentially in the Seattle area and beyond.  And yet I must remain open to the fact that sometimes greatness looks different to God than it looks here on earth.  What do you think?


3 Responses to “Spiritual growth=numerical growth?”

  1. Hey Scott! Great message. I was thinking about that John the Baptist quote through the whole thing and was pleasantly surprised to see it at the bottom.

    I’ve heard some “big vision” talk in our church and I find myself thinking that it doesn’t fit with what I’ve known of Jesus or what I’ve seen in Scripture. It is so difficult to know what He has planned. The only thing I ever feel safe saying is that I will try to listen to what God wants me/us to do and I will try to trust and obey. Beyond that, I’m a bit afraid to make grand plans.

    “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.” Psalm 127:1

    “Some boast in chariots and some in horses but we will boast in the name of the Lord, our God.” Psalm 20:7

    My wife and I were talking about our youth group last night and I think I’m done with methods and strategy. I just want them to know Jesus. There are 8 million ways for that to happen and just about any “ministry model” can work so long as God is doing the work. If we can just reliably listen and obey, we will see God do amazing things.

    me < JESUS

  2. 1 Corinthians 12

    4There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.

    I think you and the mega church pastor are both correct. Knowing both of you, I think you would find yourselves to be different sides of the same coin.

    Scott, I love everything you said. It is all true… and yet the complexity and irony of God’s nature is both ministry worldviews (the specific mega church you are responding too vs. the church that Scott describes) are ordained by Him and executed through His bride the Church. One church, two locals. Different parts of the same 1 Corinthians body.

    Your excellent examples of Mother Theresa and Francis of Assisi are both movements that far exceeded the “growth” of any mega church vision I have seen in my lifetime. Ironically I think Mother Theresa would have been the first to endorse the message from the mega church pastor. My point is that your examples testify to the idea represented by the mega church pastor- not negates them.

    I never met Mother Theresa personally- but I did have the privilege of working on a campaign on her behalf before she died. Let me assure you that she raised more money and asked people to sacrifice in every realm more then all mega church pastors combined. She touted the boldest vision that I have ever personally heard. She was a respecter of no man. She truly was on a mission from God and she had the guts to challenge people (of all religions) to tell her she was wrong (while she asked for your check). She knew she was a good steward of the money and knew that it was God’s will to love people in the name of Jesus.

    From her perspective we were the ones who were robbed of the blessing if we chose not to support the vision given to her by God. She had total peace that if you didn’t join with her you would join with Christ somewhere if you seek God with all of your heart.

    I think I am saying “Yes and Amen” to what you wrote as long as you acknowledge that your vision (formed in you by God himself) also “describes one pathway on the journey towards Jesus”.

    I have experienced the anointing on your life since you were 15 years old. I say this as much prophetically as I do with all respect and humility…There will be a day soon when you will send a message very close to the one that bothered you.

    [“Large visions and large projects require large faith, large giving, and large amounts of volunteers to own the mission. It should be somewhat difficult and painful because it should be a sacrifice. Through sacrifice, God destroys our selfish ways and teaches us to treasure Jesus above our comfort and our self-sufficiency.”]

    At that time you will not have lost but come full circle, fulfilled in the significance of the same Holy Spirit that advises Jamie, Ranjy, Scott and dare I say even Mother Theresa.

    I am so proud of you. Any congregation that calls you Pastor is truly blessed!

    Love you,

  3. Hi Scott, was this your sermon today? So well written. Thank you for explaining how I feel about religion. It is not the glory and numbers. It is what we do each day as individuals to help to world and our fellow human beings. My adopted dad is an atheist but belongs to a church and volunteers in our immediate community and all over the world to help the poor and downtrodden. I have so much respect for him, because he receives no “glory” or recognition for it but he will leave this world knowing he made a difference in the lives of others who have less than him. I wish more people of faith would follow in his footsteps. Small equals more. Thanks for sharing this. Kelly

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