Not all growth is healthy.

Not all growth is healthy.

Before planting a church in Ithaca, NY I spent about a decade starting and leading campus ministries. So I came to church planting with a lot to learn. I read, listened to tapes and cds, went to conferences. I did everything I could to learn as much as possible about this new adventure I was on.

Like anything, some of what I learned was helpful, and some, not so much. There was one idea that was a mantra in church planting circles. I heard it at conferences. I heard it over and over from my coach. And I believed it. I taught it to other church planters. I preached at our church on Sunday mornings.

The phrase is simply, “Healthy things grow.” Sounds good, right?

I’ve actually been working on this post for a few months. But it wasn’t taking shape like I’d hoped. Then last week Wayne Cordeiro reposted a blog written by Larry Osborne entitled The Myth of Endless Growth.

So rather than me explain why I think this idea caused more harm than good, I hope you’ll read their post. Go ahead…I’ll wait.

Osborne’s post ends asking if this myth has impacted how you lead or define success. And the reason I’d been working on this post is because it has.

Here’s my list of 3 ways that buying into this myth (lie?) impacted me:

1) It led me to focus on the wrong things.

When we started the church, I wanted to see a close community built where transformation happened, and people were  becoming disciples of Jesus. Those things are all difficult to quantify. And, well, transformation can take a while. Then there is recent research which shows, transformation is not  really happening in our churches anywhere near the degree to which we’d hope.

But the number of people who show up at your services. The number of small groups. The number of services. Those are all things you can point to and show that we are doing better this year than last. The problem is, growing those things takes a lot of energy and resources. They don’t ensure that you’ll see transformation or discipleship. And they don’t leave time or energy for the things that are important.

2) It led me to put unhealthy people in leadership

As our church grew, we constantly needed new leaders. New ministry leaders, new small group leaders, new children teachers, new staff. There are some who lead and work because they want to serve, and they care about people. There are others who do it for less healthy reasons.  They want to be recognised. They want positions of control. They want to be close to the pastor. The problem is, they often lack maturity, spiritual depth, character, compassion and people skills.

There were times when we put people in leadership because “they got things done.” There were obvious signs of a lack of emotional health, spiritual health, relational health. But we needed people and they got stuff done.

Except of course when they crashed. Then things were a mess. But we’d hold meeting after meeting, soothe things over, and eventually get back to work…until the next time.

The majority of people in leadership there were high quality people. They had character, depth, loved Jesus & loved people. It was a privilege to work with them. But having unhealthy people in leadership caused a lot of drama and stress for them that they shouldn’t have had to deal with.

[Reading Pete Scazzaro’s  stuff on Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and Leadership was so helpful in finally breaking this cycle.]

3) It killed contentment.

When we planted our church in 1999, I was not brimming with confidence. And if you told me that one day we would have 100 people regularly attend our church, I would have been ecstatic. However, once we were at 100, I focused on 150. When we hit 250, I was focused on 500.

And I guess it would be one thing to say I was focused on the next step. The bigger issue was that I never enjoyed where we were. It was never enough, because healthy things grow, and we need to be growing all the time.

When I was in university I took a course called labour history. There was a story,  about a labour leader ( I think it was about Samuel Gompers) who was asked what unions wanted and his response was, “More.” I know what that feels like.

With my focus being on the next growth barrier, the next milestone, and taking the next hill, I missed out on some really good stuff God was doing in our church.

I’m thankful that the people I mention above have begun to point out the damage caused by some of the commonly accepted philosophy around church leadership. I’m thankful that we were able to begin addressing some of this during my last two years in Ithaca.

How about you? Do you agree with Osborne’s premise? Has this myth impacted you and your leadership?

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2 comments
  1. Joshua Hopping says:

    you (and Osborne) make some good points… growth for growth sake isn’t always good – after all cancer, which is bad, is nothing more than cells growing and multiplying too fast. Stuff to chew on… =/

    1. Bob Wilson says:

      And I hope it’s clear that I’m in no way opposed to a church growing. I do think it is often hammered home in a way where for a lot of people (myself included) it becomes an idol. And then the larger church system feeds that…how do you get a leadership position in the denomination? how do you get invited to speak at conferences? You grow your church. A lot I’m still chewing on.

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