My Name Is Jason, and I’m A Recovering “Church Growth” Addict

It sounds like such a good idea–sitting down and developing strategies for how best to “grow” your church.  After all, how could it be bad to want your church to be as big as possible?  Isn’t that just part and parcel of the call to evangelize?  This is exactly how I felt about “church growth” throughout the time I was a Protestant, especially as I became more and more involved in leadership positions in the congregations I attended.  And it’s only now that I’ve embraced Catholicism that I can see how deluded I was and how much this way of thinking hurt me and others who seem to believe that one of the main jobs of church leaders is to figure out ways to make their congregations bigger.

For those unfamiliar with what it’s like to be a “leader” in a Protestant church, let me tell you:  it’s scary.  At least for me, I felt like the life and death of the church rested on the shoulders of those of us with responsibility for determining what the worship services would look like, what the Sunday school program (both for adults and kids) would be like, what special events we’d sponsor, etc.  I took it as a given that our “worship experiences” had to have just the right mix of music to “prepare our hearts” to hear a “dynamic” sermon from the preacher (so that we could get lots of people to attend).[1]  In addition, we had to offer “relevant” Bible studies, organized by age or “life stage,” so that people could get “plugged in” and max out the “family life center” space on Sundays.  Plus, if we wanted to hit the real demographic pay dirt of attracting young families, it went without saying that we had to have a “state-of-the-art” children and family’s ministry, including a “high-octane” youth group.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me here:  I’m not saying that it’s wrong to try to make what is done at church as attractive to people as possible.  Good music in the service is better than bad music, and good Bible studies that try to make it easy for people to feel comfortable attending are better than bad ones that make people want to run screaming from the room.  What I am saying is that, in my experience in Protestant churches, we spent way more time discussing how to make the worship services, the Sunday school program, the youth group, etc., attractive than we did discussing the content of the message that would be presented.  And that’s getting things exactly backwards.

Consistent with this, the congregations I attended had no detailed doctrinal statements to which individual Bible study teachers needed to subscribe before they could teach.[2]  As a consequence, the teacher in one Sunday school room could be a hard-line, 5-point Calvinist while the teacher next door was a convinced Arminian.  But, if both of them were considered “gifted” teachers (often judged by the numbers of people who’d attend their classes), hardly anyone seemed to have a problem with them teaching diametrically opposite views of the nature of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will.[3]  And if someone did raise the issue of their doctrinal differences, they’d be brushed aside by saying it didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things whether someone was a Calvinist or an Arminian.[4]

Doctrinal confusion was not the only outcome of focusing on getting numbers in the door.  At least for me, because I felt like the continued existence of the church was at stake, I wasn’t above browbeating or using guilt to try to get people to attend this-or-that church program–even if they were already at the church two or three times a week.  I told myself that the reason I wanted them there was for their own good.[5]  That was malarkey, though–the real reason I wanted them to come was to show what a great program we in the leadership had come up with, which would be proven by the massive numbers of people pouring into the church building.  On top of this, I can’t count the number of church events I myself attended out of guilt, as opposed to coming for a spiritual reason.

The bottom line of all of this is that, in my experience, making “church growth” either a personal goal for the individual Christian or a corporate goal for a congregation inevitably results in a watered-down message, doctrinal chaos, and the use of guilt-based tactics to increase attendance at church-sponsored activities.  And I’m firmly convinced that Catholicism avoids these pitfalls for at least two reasons:  (1) the Eucharist; and (2) Christ’s promise that the gates of Hell will not prevail against His Church.[6]

First, the Eucharist.  As the Catechism states, the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life.”  As a consequence, and as Cardinal Wuerl and Mike Aquilina have put it, the Mass is, in the most primary sense, “what Catholics do.”  No matter what else they do–be it studying the Bible, organizing social or charitable ministries, or holding fun fairs–the Mass is central to Catholics, and is explicitly stated to be so.  And this simply flows from the doctrine of the Real Presence:  if Christ is truly and substantially present in the consecrated bread and wine of the Mass, then isn’t it apparent that everything else pales in comparison to the Eucharist?  What also flows from this is the Church’s teaching that to deliberately miss weekly Mass mortally wounds the soul.  The person who does so, in essence, is saying:  “I don’t want to be in the presence of Christ on His day.”  That’s a big deal, and because it’s a big deal, the Church is upfront with people and tells them that missing church actually matters.  That’s a whole lot more straightforward than the unspoken expectation, of the Protestant churches I’ve been in, that I’d better be there every time the doors are open, even though, as a matter of doctrine, we criticized the Catholics for making Mass attendance “obligatory.”  It never occurred to me as a Protestant how nonsensical my position was:  I made people feel like they’d better be at church a lot (especially on Sundays) but, if pressed, I would have had to admit that I didn’t believe there was any real consequence to them if they weren’t.

Second, Christ’s promise that the gates of Hell would not prevail against His Church.  As a Protestant, I would have said I believed this promise was true, but my devotion to “church-growth” methods was entirely at odds with trusting Christ’s words.  As a Catholic now, I can honestly say that I am completely at peace regarding the Church’s future, and I no longer feel motivated by guilt to go to church because I’m worried that, without me, the Church will fall down.  No matter what happens, Holy Mother Church will ultimately prevail over all her enemies, both within and without her walls.

This, of course, is no excuse for individual Catholics to sit back and do nothing, or fail in their own obligations to attend Mass and to support the Church’s mission.  We’re still, each of us, called to evangelize the world and to be good and faithful witnesses to those around us.  But it is Christ Himself who will add to His Church, just like He did in the earliest days of the Church.  I’m simply cooperating in His task–rather than asking Him to bless my task.  After all, it’s His Church, not my church.

Getting out of the business of worrying about whether the Church’s numbers are growing or not has been amazingly freeing.[7]  And, in my limited experience, it also seems freeing to the Catholic clergy I’ve met.  They seem to spend way less time working on drumming up workers for Bible studies, the youth ministry, or the next big church event.  Rather, they concentrate on the administration of the sacraments–because they really believe that’s the most important thing they can be doing.  Not being tied up in knots over numbers just puts everything in the proper perspective.

A short while back, the Holy Father himself stated all of this far better than I possibly can:  “A Church which seeks above all to be attractive is already on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for herself, she does not work to increase her numbers and her power.  The Church is at the service of Another.”  The entirety of his remarks are at the link below.  They’re worth checking out:


Recognizing the truth of this teaching by the Holy Father is hard, and living out life in accordance with it is even harder.  Does “church growth” sound good?  Absolutely.  But so did the invitation to eat the apple.


[1]               And, of course, those lots of people would then (hopefully) give lots of money.  That’s a topic for perhaps some other time, though.

[2]               The absence of a detailed doctrinal statement was itself (in my opinion) a function of a “church-growth” mentality.  The more detailed a doctrinal statement gets, the more likely it is that it might offend someone.  Witness people’s reaction to the Catholic Church’s teaching regarding artificial contraception.

[3]               One of the few instances I’m aware of in which there was any kind of an issue with a teacher’s doctrinal qualifications was when a Sunday school teacher at a church I know of became an ordained minister in an entirely different Protestant denomination.  Even then, though, his class insisted that he should be allowed to continue to teach.  After all, under the Protestant understanding of the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers,” what right does any church’s “leadership” have to tell any particular Bible study it can’t have the teacher it wants?

[4]               The assertion that it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Calvinist or an Arminian, of course, is itself a doctrinal position.  And if your goal is simply to have as big a church as possible, it’s a very tempting position to take.

[5]               I now see that my feeling that it was necessarily good for someone to be physically at a church activity was based on the unstated assumption that being super-involved at church was necessarily some significant marker of spiritual maturity (which, of course, is not indicated anywhere in the New Testament).  At the time, I would have denied that I believed this, but my entire approach to “church growth” would have belied that denial.

[6]               I do understand that Catholics can fall into the “church growth” trap.  Such Catholics do so, however, despite their Catholicism.  As a system (which is what I’m discussing here), Catholicism gives the individual Catholic a way around this problem.

[7]               In this post, I’ve concentrated on the problem of wanting a really big church.  There’s also the problem (although less common) of wanting a really small church, made up only of “true believers.”  Both problems, at their root, though, are based on the assumption that the number of people on the church’s rolls tell us something about how good the church is.

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3 Responses to My Name Is Jason, and I’m A Recovering “Church Growth” Addict

  1. Thomas says:

    And, besides not having to worry about church growth, we don’t have to worry about planting. The Church already exists and we do not go to it or plant it; rather, we are in it and, consequently, go to Mass.

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