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?