The Failure of Tree-Climbing Fish and Little Churches

I've heard people talking for years about "church growth." But when they do, I'm not always sure what they mean by it. Or, to put a finer point on it, I'm not always sure they know what they mean by it.
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“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” ~ Albert Einstein

It’s school time again, so I’ve recently had teachers tell me how much my children have grown over the summer. And in that context I know what they’re talking about. Like weeds these kids are.

The comments about my children’s growth got me thinking: I’ve heard people talking for years about “church growth.” But when they do, I’m not always sure what they mean by it. Or, to put a finer point on it, I’m not always sure they know what they mean by it.

Press the church growth people about whether they’re just talking about creating a big church, and they respond with shock: “Surely,” they seem to imply, “nobody’s that mercenary. It’s not just about numbers.”

It’s funny, though. They won’t waste much time before adding, “But numbers are important.”


“Because numbers represent people. And God wants as many people as possible to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Seeking numbers is justifiable because numbers are people.” (Of course that formulation is too easily inverted over time so that people soon become numbers. Moreover, often the people who “come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ” aren’t that at all, but are rather disaffected Methodists and Baptists looking for more amenable ecclesiastical accommodations. But that’s another discussion.)

Herein lies the problem with church growth as both a goal and a description -- ”growth” in this case operates as a word begging for explanation.

The “growth” in church growth is conveniently ambiguous. If I talk about my children growing, for example, I could be referring to any number of things -- from their size to their maturity to their ability to handle life on its terms rather than on their own. The point is, if I say, “My child is growing,” your response need not necessarily be, “Oh really? How big?”

In fact, to use the physical size of my children as the only measure of their growth seems facile, an exercise in point-missing. If size were indeed the point of “child growth,” we would have to say that the tallest and the fattest child wins.

Generally speaking, though, we measure the growth of children with more finely-calibrated metrics. Is she more thoughtful, less self-absorbed? When faced with tough choices, is he able to make good decisions? Is she concerned about justice and peace, or about getting her individual needs met? Does he invest his resources in the accumulation of stuff or in the building of relationships? Can I trust her? Can I rely on him?

Were my children’s physical bodies stunted for some reason, I could very happily consider them fully grown by using different measurements. All of which is to say, when I talk about “child growth,” unless I’m specifically commenting on the ruinous nature of school clothes shopping after a summer spurt, I’m most likely talking about more than mere size -- which, in the long run, is one of the least interesting and least informative ways to measure human growth.

Someone might object here, by saying, “But when I talk about church growth, I mean more than size too.”

Let me be quick to say, I do not mean to imply that people who talk about church growth are only talking about increases in membership and financial resources. I believe that the most ardent church growth proponents also think it’s important for their members to mature.

What I am saying, however, is that because membership and finances are easily measurable and maturity is not, membership and finances are the de facto measurements of church growth; they are what most people mean when they exclaim, “Our church is really growing!”

Here’s how I think it works: At a glance, we can look at a spreadsheet and see how the numbers stack up -- attendance, membership, finances -- something we cannot do with other measurements for growth, like patience, courage, compassion, trustworthiness, etc. Consequently, people tend to start with the easiest measurements (i.e., numbers), then work backward to justify them as the most important signals of growth.

It’s just easier to defend the claim that our church is growing if we can point to some quantifiable data that appears self-evidently to support that claim. “Yeah, we had 500 new members last year, and added a gajillion dollar family life center/Go Kart track/Sea World Aquarium.” See? Easy peasy.

What people almost never mean when they say their church is growing is “Yeah, we made some hard decisions that caused some families to leave, but we feel that this is who God is calling us to be; and we learned so much about what it means to be faithful in our context.”

But why is the former a better indication of church growth than the latter? If my child grew a foot and gained 100 pounds over the last year, would that be a better indicator of “child growth” than if she started a group to tutor struggling students on the wrong side of town or told a passive-aggressive boyfriend that she could no longer be a part of his incessant search for drama?

It’s at this point, however, that people who disagree with me about the whole church growth thing will almost invariably throw up their hands and say, “It sounds like you’re just making excuses for unsuccessful little churches by criticizing churches that are big and actually growing. It sounds like you think church growth is a bad thing.”

First, let me point out again the subtle shift back into “bigness” as the default metric for growth. It’s such an ideologically transparent posture that we don’t often even realize we’re doing it.

Second, though, if we return to our metaphor of “child growth,” and substitute “unsuccessful little children” for “unsuccessful little churches,” the argument sounds much less compelling, doesn’t it? Picture the jock parent speaking to the nerd parent: “It sounds like you’re just making excuses for unsuccessful nerdy kids by criticizing kids that are actually good at football and cheerleading -- you know, kids the rest of the world can look at and immediately conclude that they’re worth something.” (Or in the case of big churches, the ones you can look at and immediately conclude that “they must be doing something right.”)

I’m not saying big churches are necessarily bad, any more than I’m saying that being homecoming king or queen is bad. All I’m saying is that we ought explicitly to agree that, for churches, the assumption that “growing” means “getting bigger and more self-evidently successful” is -- in the absence of any other criteria -- a horrible way to measure growth, in the same way that we would agree that being homecoming king and queen isn’t the only (or even the best) measure of whether our children are growing.

Look, the world needs big churches and homecoming royalty, I suppose. But woe unto us if that’s the primary measure we use to determine whether either our churches or our children are becoming who God intends for them to be.

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