How to Grow a Church: By Grace, or by Numbers?

When it comes to how to grow a church, I want to be the seed that falls into the ground and finds good soil. If I impact 30, 60 or a 100 people during my lifetime I’ll consider it a fruitful life. 

How To Grow a Church: By Grace, or By Numbers?
A while back I stumbled across a sentence that has absolutely captured my attention. It’s from the blog of a nationally-known Evangelical pastor. The sentence is part of a longer blog post, and as such is not meant to stand entirely on its own, yet it set the stage for the rest of the post that discussed how to grow a church, celebrated what God had done in the past, and the lessons the pastor had learned in the first 15 years of ministry. Near the very beginning of his post, he said:
“The fact that we’ve grown to over 12,000 people worshiping and serving each Sunday at 14 locations in four states is proof of God’s grace.” ~ A Nationally-Known Evangelical Pastor
I read the quote several times. It bounced around in my head, making noise like two random and unrelated piano keys struck at the same time. I couldn’t read the rest of the article. Instead, I pasted the sentence on to my Facebook and Twitter pages and asked my friends for their reactions. Here are a few samples:
  • It sounds like a dangerous presumption.
  • Yes, I do think it’s by God’s grace, but it sounds more like “12k people! 14 locations! 4 states! Ergo, I AM AWESOME!” Somebody’s big fat ego peeked out behind what was probably a sincere attempt at giving God the glory, which is His alone. Darn.
  • The fact that I run circles around everyone shows that God is good. WhatdoyathinkofmeNOW?
  • Jesus only had a handful of people, no building and no cash. How sad that by Western standards, he didn’t do a great work.
  • More needs to be known… The numbers might be good, and might not be.
  • It sounds like a guy who wishes he could cage fight Jesus. 🙂
  • The proof of God’s grace is what the 12,000 people are doing Monday through Saturday.
  • Numbers alone are only proof of crowds gathering.
  • That quote isn’t universally true, but it may very well be true of their situation. Numbers alone don’t tell the whole story.
My thoughts are a varied a bag of Skittles. Here, taste a few colors:
  • I’ve never met the megachurch pastor quoted above, but I believe him to be sincere. I trust his motives even if I do not understand his methods. The religious world of Christianity is filled with its share of competition and jealousy—I’m sure this man has been criticized unfairly and been the envy of others. I also wonder how he can appeal to a numeric accounting of the grace of God.
  • The Father isn’t against big numbers, because he loves the whole world, and that’s a pretty big number. On the day of Pentecost 3,000 were added to the church in a single day. That’s a pretty big number. John the Revelator looked into the heavens and saw the angelic host of heaven, “myriads of myriads, ten thousand times ten thousands.” According to my calculations that comes to, uh, give me a moment, uh…a pretty big number. God can count. He numbers the hairs on my head and calls the starry host into the night sky one by one. The biggest megachurch is yet to come, and I’ll be there without complaint.
  • Yet Jesus went about changing the world in a remarkably small way. A short life, few followers, and a handful of seed at the end. The resurrected Lord tossed the seed into the ground and said, “I’m outa here.” He left 11 un-cultured leaders, perhaps 120 people, no budget, no map and no plan except “make disciples and teach them to obey.” The only asset they possessed was an imperishable seed. Any worldly accounting considered Jesus a failure and the ragtag collection of followers no threat to Jewish society, much less the nations of the world. Only in hindsight do we see the wisdom and grace of God revealed.
  • One of the largest churches in history was the Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, Turkey. Built for the glory of God in the fifth century, it housed Christian worship for a thousand years—until it became a mosque for 500 years. Today it is a museum. I’m pretty sure it’s a parable that’s been told very slowly. Thirty years ago the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, welcomed 10,000 worshippers and more than two million viewers each week. This year it filed for bankruptcy in its 46 million dollar debt.
Jesus didn’t do arithmetic. He did the higher level math. He engaged in human alchemy and turned human beings into living stones. He built good foundations and let the centuries gently press down on his church. The church he built will never change hands. It’s the only church that will last.
It’s the model I want to follow. I want to be the seed that falls into the ground and finds good soil. If I impact 30, 60 or a 100 people during my lifetime I’ll consider it a fruitful life.
Ray Hollenbach
Ray Hollenbach helps pastors and churches navigate change. He's the founder of DEEPER Seminars, weekend leadership retreats focused on discipleship in the local church. His devotional book "Deeper Grace" is available at He currently lives in central Kentucky. He's also the author of of "The Impossible Mentor", a deep dive into the foundations of discipleship.