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8 Principles for Churches That Want to Grow

Mark Driscoll » Church Church Leadership Wisdom Church Planting Gospel Executive Pastor

When it comes to numbers, churches tend to err in one of two ways: they either discount them as unimportant or they put too much emphasis on them. 

The reality is that numbers are important, and though they aren’t the only sign of a healthy church, they are an important measure.

For Mars Hill, numbers are a key measure of our health. For us, it’s all about the numbers, if by “numbers” you mean the number of people getting their sins forgiven, getting their lives changed by Jesus, and going to heaven instead of hell. We’d like that number to go up. We’re all for that.

When numbers are viewed from this perspective, they are a good thing to desire to see grow. This is why I commend pastors who desire to see the church they pastor grow for the right reasons.

In my conversations with pastors around the world, many have questions on church growth. So, I thought I’d share eight principles I’ve learned about church growth.

1. Begin with the end in mind and know how large you want to be.

The following is a rough breakdown of reported (which may not be entirely accurate) church attendance. Admittedly, these numbers are a few years old, but, as a general rule, they do give you a rough idea of church-size barriers. 

  • Churches with 45 people or fewer = 100,000 churches or 25% of all churches
  • Churches with 75 people or fewer = 200,000 churches or 50% of all churches
  • Churches with 150 people or fewer = 300,000 churches or 75% of all churches
  • Churches with 350 people or fewer = 380,000 churches or 95% of all churches
  • Churches with 800 people or fewer = 392,000 churches or 98% of all churches
  • Churches with 800 people or more = 8,000 churches or 2% of all churches
  • Churches with 2,000 people or more = 870 churches or 0.22% of all churches
  • Churches with 3,000 people or more = 425 churches or 0.11% of all churches

Lyle Schaller, considered one of the best church consultants in the world, states in his book, The Very Large Church, that the two most comfortable church sizes are under 45 people and under 150 people, likely making them two of the hardest thresholds to pass through, in addition to the 800 mark.

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell states that 150 is also the maximum number of people someone can purposefully connect with, which explains why some people do not like bigger churches. It may also explain why John Wesley divided people into groups of about 150, the average hunter-gatherer village is about 150 people, most military units are under 200, and the Hutterites allow their communities to grow no larger than 150.

Understanding group dynamics like this is important in understanding that there are significant challenges that come with each phase of church size, and being aware of where you want your church to grow allows you to begin preparing for those growth phases more effectively.

2. The larger the church, the more different it is from other churches of the same theology and tradition.

As a church grows, while the theology remains the same, the organization complexity doesn’t, often requiring new methods of ministry. 

Size affects the number of lines of communication, how an organization stacks or does not stack leadership, access to the senior leader and family, etc. Simply put, church size does matter for how a church is run, much like a married couple who some years later find themselves with a dozen children cannot simply organize their life as they did with their first child—everything must change.

For those wanting to learn more about the dynamics of church size, Tim Keller has a helpful paper, and Larry Osborne has a helpful book called Sticky Teams

3. Change is inevitable.

You either move forward or backward. A living church changes differently than a dying church does, but all churches change.

For a church to grow, it must change. It does not need to change in theology, but it will need to change in methodology. If a church is unwilling to change their methodology to reach and care for more people, then it is guilty of method-idolatry, which is where we confuse unchanging biblical principles with what are supposed to be changing cultural methods.

4. Don’t assign moral judgments to size and change.

People tend to wrongly attach a moral value to church size, which is unholy, unhealthy, and unhelpful. This explains why big churches are accused of being uncaring and small churches are accused of not reaching people or being well led or organized. 

I pastored Mars Hill when it was small and saw a lot of people saved by Jesus. And, now that Mars Hill is large, I'm certain we take far better care of our people with far better community than we did when we were small. Many smaller church pastors, especially those who value theology well above ministry philosophy and size, tend to completely overlook or even deny the importance of church size. They will accuse those who care about numbers to be simply pragmatic, as if wanting more people to meet Jesus and grow in grace were a bad thing. 

The reality is that Jesus works through churches of all sizes, and if he should see fit to bless a church to grow bigger, that is not a bad thing but a good thing.

5. If you want to grow, you need to prepare for common changes now.

Here are few of the changes you’ll face as you grow:

  • You move from managing workers, to leading managers, to leading leaders.
  • Focus shifts from a survival-in-the-present mode to a success-in-the-future mode.
  • Expectations move from informal to formal (elders, deacons, and members).
  • You have to grow from making decisions by general consensus to a handful of people making decisions.
  • Communications becomes formal and written rather than informal and oral.
  • People’s roles move from general responsibility to specialized responsibility.
  • The church moves from being one community to being many communities (e.g. multiple services, community groups, etc.).
  • The senior leaders shift their focus from being primarily caregivers to making sure people are being cared for by raising up leaders.
  • The senior leader shifts from working in the organization to working on the organization.
  • The members move from being connected to the pastor to being connected to other leaders.
  • Focus shifts from drawing people through relationship to drawing them through events and dynamic Sunday services.

6. Be humble as a leader to seek the counsel of pastors ahead of you and receive their counsel.

Over the years, I’ve reached out to many godly pastors who oversee larger churches for advice and counsel as Mars Hill has grown. Their friendship, advice, prayer, and service to our church have been much appreciated and priceless. No man is an island, and it’s crucial to seek godly counsel and humbly receive it.

7. Discern between guilt and conviction in seasons of transition.

Developing this discernment is key, as you cannot do what everyone wants you to do and also do exactly what God calls you to do. As the old adage goes, if you try to please everyone, you please no one.

Proverbs 29:25 says that fear of man is a “trap” or a “snare,” depending upon your translation. Fear of man causes us to live for the approval of our tribe and to fear criticism or ostracism from our tribe. Fear of man is a form of idolatry—living to please someone other than Jesus Christ.

Ultimately, when you get to heaven, you’ll give account to Jesus for your decisions and actions as a pastor. Strive to be faithful to Jesus, not to the demands of people.

8. Pray and plan for people to meet Jesus.

As you often get what you pray for, and you need to prepare for it.

Mars Hill has been blessed by God to see a great harvest over the years. Like any large harvest, there is much work to do and it is tiring. As you pray for many people to meet Jesus, also prepare in faithful expectation for the work that will come if Jesus answers your prayer.

The good news is that seeing many people meet Jesus, while demanding work, is the best kind of work there is.


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