If having more than 20 people gather together for church inevitably leads to a platform/stage "show" setting that can become "dangerous" because it fosters a spectator ("80/20") mentality among group members which causes the church to "plateau," then why push for more growth instead of smaller groups and multiplication?
This is the question I'm left with after hearing Ed Stetzer, Director of Lifeway Research and church planter in residence, preach at Freshwater Church, a 14 month old church plant here in Bolivar which he says is "one of the 20 fastest-growing churches in America" having grown from zero to 750 in 14 months. He gave this stat as evidence of "God's hand" on the church and encouraged them to grow further.
Dr. Stetzer got my attention when he said that he won't complain about the setup of our Sunday mornings as spectator events because he finds a stage and pews inevitable when 20 or more gather. But he said the setup was also "dangerous" because it promotes a spectator's mentality. The challenge he presented, which echoes his latest book and blog series on "kick-starting" growth, was simply for church members to exercise their gifts in ministry and not just be spectators (text: 1 Peter 4:8-10). If the number of "customers" grows faster than the number of "workers," then needs will not be met and the church will "plateau or decline as customers leave to go find a different Wal-Mart."
It seems to me that Stetzer's logic has a circular problem: "Plateaued" churches need to motivate members in order to "kick-start" growth, but the more you grow the more the 80/20 problem is exacerbated, and the 80/20 problem is what creates the plateau in the first place.
Using numbers as both the goal of the church and measure of its health brings up bright red flags for me. The IMB trains its workers to plant small rapidly-reproducing autonomous house churches ("multiplication by division") while the SBC itself seems to focus more on growing church numbers; that dichotomy has always bothered me.
HOW a church grows is more important to me than how fast it's growing. You can attract more customers simply by lowering your price, which strikes me as the way many churches try to kick-start growth (I'll save that thought for another day). You can also grow a church without adding a single new Christian. Now, growth through "sheep stealing" isn't so bad because competition and variety are always welfare-enhancing. But is it really evidence of God's hand when you're growing primarily by people transferring their membership from other Bible-believing churches?
A former church planter once told me that his church lost its parent church's support when they did not achieve a certain growth rate. It didn't matter that they had 100 people who were growing in the Word and ministering to each other every week, it mattered more that they weren't growing by some percentage a year and had "plateaued." The removal of the parent church's blessing caused the church plant to fall apart. I see Stetzer's talk of church growth as a measure of "God's hand" as encouraging this type of behavior--although I'm sure that is not his intent.
Freshwater is a plant of Second Baptist in Springfield. Second Baptist is a very large church but it appears deeply committed to plant churches around the world rather than simply growing itself. (It gives to the Cooperative Program but also insists on spending a large percentage of its budget self-funding and sending its own missionaries as it is more Scriptural for the local church to do that than to create a denominational body to do it.)
So, another question I have is why would Freshwater, which is an example of "multiplication by division," want to grow larger rather than multiply?
If you're new to my blog/thoughts, I have previously written criteria of truly "Spirit-led" churches, ones that cannot be easily explained by rational human behavior:
1. Clear violation of the 80/20 rule (my original criteria says 90/10, a lower bar).
2. Wide diversity in race and incomes in the church (I'm finding out that racial diversity is extremely rare everywhere in the world among all people groups... there's an argument that in Revelation we see that each people group must have its own church so that this is natural and as-it-should-be. So, maybe I should just go with incomes here).
3. Staying relatively small and multiplying rather than focusing on growing larger.
Growth in numbers alone does not make the list for a variety of Scriptural and microeconomic reasons, which you can click on the link to find more about. (I leave "miracles" off the list for a couple of other reasons, but if your church is raising people from the dead it's pretty impossible to explain rationally. :-)