We understand the dynamics of church growth much better today than we did a generation ago.  The ever expanding church growth literature has been a wonderful blessing to the Christian community, helping churches and their staff teams in outreach, evangelism, and ministry management. But despite all the progress in church growth strategy, we must recognize that it is not an exact science.  So much more remains to be discovered and successfully applied.  God’s ways always retain an element of mystery and surprise.

Like most complex phenomena, church growth is often paradoxical--not entirely predictable or intuitive.  Therein lies a danger.  The more we take for granted about our understanding of church growth, the thinner the ice we’re skating on.

Let’s consider a series of surprising paradoxes about church growth that warn us to proceed with caution in our administrative game plans.  We want church growth to be a meadow, not a minefield!

Paradox #1. Church growth doesn’t always make a congregation bigger.  Sometimes our strong focus (obsession?) on the numbers of membership, budgets, baptisms, and attendance blinds us to the equally important qualitative dimensions of church growth involving the spiritual life of members: fervency of corporate and private prayer, sacrificial ministry service, and obedience to God’s will.  Now we’re really talking church growth!

Paradox #2. Church growth requires that while we proact on a human level in strategizing and planning, we allow God to remain in full control.  The mind of man plans this way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).  Our plans must be saturated in prayer and our techniques rooted in devotion to God.  Church growth is ultimately God’s business, because the church is His Body.

Paradox #3. Church growth can’t be pursued in a direct, hands-on manner like the way we raise money or staff Sunday school classes.  Instead, growth is an indirect byproduct of the local church’s spiritual health.  Spiritually vibrant congregations grow naturally in their closeness to God.  But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

Paradox #4. Church size and church health aren’t necessarily correlated.  Not all growing churches are spiritually healthy, and spiritually healthy churches don’t always grow.  Unfortunately some churches achieve numerical growth at the expense of spiritual health through sensationalism (entertainment-oriented worship, extravaganza fund raisers, big name entertainers), materialism, or even cultic practices.  God calls other churches to labor and sacrifice in slow-growing vineyards (prison ministry, rural outposts, difficult foreign fields, etc.) that yield precious fruit to the Lord.

Paradox #5. Though churches should be administrated in a business-like manner, they shouldn’t be run like a business.  Similar to corporations, churches are growth-oriented, but they must avoid adopting the corporate growth lifestyle of hard-nose competition, slick marketing, and an end-justifies-the-means mentality.  Local churches aren’t competitors--they all serve the same CEO.

Paradox #6. The same pastor or staff team that guides a smaller church through major growth might not be ideally suited to lead the larger congregation.  Just as a company’s founding entrepreneur may have to turn the reins over to professional managers when the business goes public, some successful pastors may eventually have to transplant themselves to a less complex church where their gifts and vision are appropriately fitted.  Staff members can’t be all things to all churches.

Paradox #7. Church growth is both a blessing and a curse.  The blessings of new members and expanding budgets are an obvious attraction to every congregation, but what about the inevitable strain on facilities and resources, and the crushing workload for staff and volunteers?  New members place new demands on ministries and additional responsibilities on burnout-prone leaders.  Growth always comes at a cost.  “For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost, to see if he has enough to complete it?”  (Luke 14:28)

Paradox #8. Ironically, churches are most vulnerable to conflict and contention precisely when they are grown fastest.  You’d think the growing congregation would bask in a fair weather climate of harmony and cooperation, but then reality sets in: overtaxed resources, indebtedness, ministry turf builders, and ambivalent congregation members worried about breaking up “that old gang of mine” in Sunday school.  The better things are going in a successful, dynamic church, the greater the expectations of its staff and members to the extent these expectations are realistic, tensions rise.  In mushrooming churches, Job-like patience is often in short supply.

Paradox #9. Church growth is not always real growth, nor is it always good for churches.  What passes for growth in some churches is actually nothing more than membership transfer.  One church’s --growth” is another congregation’s membership loss.  God’s kingdom hasn’t grown.  Genuine church growth entails more than a change of address.  There are many good reasons for membership transfer, but church growth isn’t be among them.

Paradox #10. Most growing churches don’t really know why they’re growing.  Is it due to their great facilities?  If so, why do many churches lacking fine facilities grow?  If growth is attributed to dynamic preaching, then why do so many churches with “average” pastors grow?

Despite our desire to turn church growth into a science, it defies formula it’s too complex, too subtle, too paradoxical.  And that’s exactly the way God wants it so we have to depend on Him for the welfare of our local church: to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).