Sam Ranier, pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church in Florida and a contributor to the Christian Post, recently wrote an article titled It’s Time to Release Churches From the Myth of Infinite Expansion. Here’s some of what he had to say:
Every church has limiting factors. No church grows exponentially every year. Infinite expansion isn’t possible. Even the largest churches stay at the top of the list for only about twenty years. Each generation has its own group of biggest congregations or fastest-growing congregations.
Compare any lists of the largest churches from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s and you’ll find different churches leading the way. By virtue of their size, big churches are constantly shifting. Indeed, some of the largest churches from twenty and thirty years ago no longer exist today. They grew rapidly, declined just as quickly, and eventually disbanded.
No church should die, whether the congregation is large or small. God wants every church to be biblically faithful and grow both numerically and spiritually. The myth of exponential growth has its roots in the attention garnered by churches that grow rapidly over several years. Other pastors examine these growth models and try to emulate them. Truth be told, these churches often flourish because of demographic factors that don’t necessarily transfer to different locales. Maybe they’re in a fast-growth corridor of a large metropolitan area. What people tend not to examine quite as much is how many of these churches fade from the growth lists just as quickly as they arrived.
The distinction may seem nuanced, but there is a difference between the mentality of multiplying disciples and growing a large church. There will always be an attraction to rapidly growing institutions, organizations, and movements. I cannot fault people for gravitating toward something that’s growing. However, every case of exponential growth — whether in business, religion, or the academy — eventually reaches an inflection point, a pivotal moment when the organization must make fundamental changes in its operations if it wants to continue.
So far, so good. Infinite church growth is a myth; a lie preached up at countless church growth conferences. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement was one of the fastest-growing sects in the United States. Many of the Top 100 churches were IFB. Today, only two IFB churches are on the Top 100 list. The IFB church movement is in freefall, attendance-wise. Many of the IFB megachurches from the 1970s and 1980s are now shells of themselves or closed altogether. Convinced of the lie that God wants churches to infinitely grow, IFB preachers continue to “work the plan.” However, the “plan” no longer works.
The same can be said about Evangelicalism in general. Evangelicalism is dominated by what I call predatory church growth practices. The Bible seems clear on the matter: churches grow through winning souls to Christ, baptizing them, and adding these new converts to the church. The Great Commission, right? However, MOST church growth comes from Christians changing churches; Baptists becoming Charismatics, Methodists becoming Baptists, and so on. Megachurches come into an area and pillage older, established churches, saying “Look at what God has done!”
What has God done, exactly? What I see are the machinations of men. Armed with surveys and demographic studies, church planters look for communities where they can maximize their brand. Most church planting operates according to modern business practices, and not the teachings of the Bible. I live in a quad-county area filled with Christian churches. At least 300. We don’t need any more churches. Yet, church planters convince themselves that Bryan or Defiance, Ohio are communities ripe for harvest; that God wants them to plant new churches that are identical to congregations already in existence. And sure enough, these new churches grow. However, no one seems to notice or care about where the growth is coming from or that small, struggling churches closed their doors after losing members to the new church in town, If, as Rainer says, no church should die, why does he promote church growth methodologies that actually facilitate the death of older, established churches? Why not work with the churches that are already established instead of planting new congregations? Or do churches become so ingrown and incestuous that nothing can save them from death? I am surrounded by dying mainline and Evangelical churches. Once the endowment money runs out or they can’t find a pastor to work a full-time job for part-time wages, these churches will either close or merge with other like-minded congregations.
A megachurch in Toledo recently established a franchise in Defiance. Just what we need, right? They found a struggling, established church and took it over. Megachurch franchises are currently all the rage. The goal is to expand the brand. This, of course, leads to increased attendance and income. And make no mistake about it, it is the “numbers” that matter. Success is measured by asses in the seats and money in the plates.
While Ranier admits that:
It’s exciting when a church grows from 20 members to 40 in one year; then from 40 to 80 the following year, and from 80 to 160 the year after that. But, ongoing exponential growth is an unachievable goal for a local church. We should celebrate this growth but not expect it to continue to accelerate year after year. Churches tend to get into trouble when they construct campuses, build infrastructure, and hire personnel with the expectation of ongoing exponential growth.
The Bible suggests that “ongoing exponential growth is an achievable goal if churches commit themselves to following the teachings of Christ and aggressively evangelizing the lost. That has always been God’s way. Most Evangelical churches are social clubs and not hospitals for the sick. The vast majority of members are passive participants who rarely, if ever, share the gospel with sinners. This reveals an ugly fact about Evangelicals: they really don’t believe what they are preaching. People come to church because they want their felt needs met. They want to “feel” God’s presence. Megachurches, in particular, gear their services and programming toward meeting these felt needs. Professional musicians, emotion-driven music, and catchy lifestyle sermons feed and meet congregational emotional needs. When churches can’t meet these “needs,” congregants pack up their families and move elsewhere.
I spent twenty-five years in the ministry. I was primarily a church planter. I loved the thrill of everything being new and exciting. In 1983, I started an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church in the rural southeast Ohio community of Somerset. Somerset had two Catholic churches, a mainline Lutheran church, a Methodist church, a Charismatic church, and a Church of Christ. Somerset needed an IFB church, right? — a True Christian® congregation.
We started in a storefront building with sixteen people in attendance. By the end of the year, we moved to a larger building. Two years later, we bought an abandoned Methodist building, five miles east of Somerset. By then we were running one bus route, averaging fifty in attendance. And then came the super growth years. We became the largest non-Catholic church in the county (and proudly advertised this fact). Over the next three years, the church grew exponentially, reaching 216 in attendance. By then we were running four buses. Two local IFB churches had split, and we gained fifty or so members (with checkbooks) from these congregations. Over time, these disgruntled Christians found yet another preacher they were unhappy with — me — and returned to former churches or sought out new churches. By 1989, church attendance was back in the 50s, the buses were sold off, and I focused more on teaching the flock instead of winning the lost. On my last Sunday at Somerset Baptist, fifty-four people were in attendance — many of whom had been members from early on.
Ranier suggests that if churches want to grow, they need to maximize their building and land use. Again, I don’t necessarily disagree with him. The typical church building is used a few hours a week and then left empty to collect dust the rest of the week. Several years ago, Xperience Church moved to the Defiance Mall, spending almost $2 million dollars to rehab and modernize their space. I thought, at the time, moving to the mall was a good idea. In fact, why not get a bunch of churches to move to the mall? That way, Christians can pick and choose which church to attend. These churches all preach from the same Bible, and allegedly believe the same gospel. What makes each church different is its music, pastor, programs, and amenities.
Over the years, I had congregants who drove thirty minutes to an hour to hear me preach. They loved Pastor Bruce or “Preacher,” as I was commonly called. I often thought about all the churches they passed on their drive to “Bruce’s church.” Was I really a more accomplished preacher than all these other pastors? Or, were people attracted to my friendly, winsome, compassionate personality? I suspect the latter. Evangelicalism is largely personality-driven. Let a congregation change its pastor and what happens? People leave. Their attraction was to the man, and not the message. Once the man is gone, people move on, hoping to find yet another friendly, winsome, compassionate preacher. And so it goes, with congregations facing near-constant membership churn.
Strangely, Ranier focuses on maximizing parking lot use. He sees limited parking access as a hindrance to church growth. Certainly, if people can’t find a place to park, they won’t attend your church. However, these are far bigger issues Evangelical churches face than the lack of parking spots.
Evangelicalism has a marketing and messaging problem. Evangelicalism is one of the most hated sects in America. Why is that? Evangelicals are known for what they are against. Young adults, in particular, are turned off by Evangelical support of Donald Trump and their incessant wars against our culture. Ask yourself, “What are Evangelicals known for?” Name one positive thing that comes to mind when thinking about Evangelicals.
As long as Evangelicals are at the forefront of culture wars, then they shouldn’t be surprised when the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world don’t want anything to do with them. “Well, Bruce, your problem is with the B-I-B-L-E, and not Evangelicals.” Maybe, but the only “Bible” I see is in the lived lives of Christians. Anti-LGBTQ. Anti-abortion. Anti-same-sex marriage. Racist. Misogynistic. Bigoted. Patriarchal. Arrogant. Judgmental. Divisive. Over the past sixteen years, thousands of Evangelicals have commented on this site or sent me emails. Rare is the person who is kind and thoughtful. Most often, they are mean-spirited and judgmental, with no interest in understanding my story. I “see” Evangelicals clearly, and there’s no chance in Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, or Ohio that I would ever darken the doors of an Evangelical church. While my reasons for this are many — mainly intellectual, in nature — how Evangelicals treat me and other unbelievers certainly plays a part.
By all means, Evangelicals, pave your parking lots and maximize those parking spaces. Church hoppers (Evangelicals who hop from church to church, always looking for a better show) will appreciate improved parking. However, until Evangelicals take a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror and change their ways, they will not reach the ever-increasing number of NONES and other unbelievers.
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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