Don’t believe in church growth? Get over it

Too many moderate to progressive congregations have decided that believing in church growth is a negative thing. Believing in evangelism may be even worse. They do this to the detriment of their long-term future, and the vitality and vibrancy of the ministry they hold dear.

There is nothing wrong with being moderate to progressive, and at the same time being intentional about reaching pre-Christians and unchurched or under-churched persons. One of my favorite illustrations of this is the ministry of the First Baptist Church of Wilmington, N.C. during the tenure of its now retired pastor, Mike Queen. [See this congregation at]

Mike, along with his excellent staff, and dedicated lay leadership, led First Baptist Church to be continually thriving, creative, and innovative. A side benefit of their focus was that they also experienced significant numerical growth. It is not that they were trying to be church growth oriented or intentionally evangelistic. It is that they did not see a conflict between being moderate to progressive and reaching people for a Christ-centered, faith-based journey.

They were committed to extending the quality and reach of their ministry. Along the way they also knew that they had to renew the core of the congregation. They had to develop an increasing number of people who felt committed to the missional engagement of First Baptist. They had to do this with an intentional focus. It would not happen by accident.

Too many congregations focus on what they are not rather than what they are trying to become. In their attempt to focus on being missional, they forget they need to balance it with also being attractional. In their attempt to not be seen as a conservative evangelical congregation, they forget what is actually good and loving about the characteristics of these congregations. Because they have difficulty with a few conservative evangelical congregations, they reject that which would be helpful.

Too often moderate to progressive congregations focus on institutional and cultural survival that brings them personal internal joy, rather than the thrill of a thriving movement. In direct contradiction to their attempt to be missional they become cultural enclaves. They focus on perfecting their congregation around key theological, moral, and social issues rather than being on an intentional missional journey that includes an attractional element so the core of the congregation might be renewed.

During the urban cultural revolution of the 1960s many people would describe their congregation as prophetic in a diverse urban setting. They believed that their prophetic stance called for them to be so focused on what they felt were the pure and noble Christian principles that they were willing for their congregation to die. Some saw this as the natural result of a suffering servant motif.

My response was often, “No, if you die your dead. And if the ministry in which you are engaged was of sufficient value to the work of God’s kingdom then it was also worth having a strategy to renew the core of the congregation while extending the ministry in prophetic ways.”

In a certain sense the current round of moderate to progressive movement within North American Protestantism bears some similarity to the reckless approaches of the 1960s. There is great value in the moderate to progressive movement in North America. But long-term it may be lost because it is not balanced.

It seems that moderate to progressive congregations forget their congregation came into existence because someone saw the need to plant a new church that reached pre-Christians, unchurched persons, under-churched persons, or mobile persons moving into new communities. If someone in the past had not had an attractional focus, then many moderate to progressive congregations would never have existed.

We are currently in a season of year when many congregations are engaged in various efforts of disaster response. The early responders are involved in providing food and water, initial cleanup, and a bunch of volunteers. One of the critical issues for congregations who engage in disaster response is that they cannot outrun their supply lines. They cannot get so far out in front of their resources that they lose the resources necessary to move forward.

Unfortunately, many moderate to progressive congregations are like a disaster response effort that has outrun its supply lines. The reality is that they must believe in church growth or eventually die.

Do you believe in church growth?

George Bullard

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About the Author
George is President of The Columbia Partnership at, This is a Christian ministry organization that seeks to transform the North American Church for vital and vibrant ministry. It primarily does this through the FaithSoaring Churches Learning Community. See George is the author of three books: Pursuing the Full Kingdom Potential of Your Congregation, Every Congregation Needs a Little Conflict, and FaithSoaring Churches. George is also General Secretary [executive coordinator] of the North American Baptist Fellowship at This is one of the six regions of the Baptist World Alliance. George holds is Senior Editor of TCP Books at More than 30 books have been published on congregational leadership issues.

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  • Kevin Glenn

    Thanks so much, George!!! As Pastor of a CBF church, and after being involved in CBF life for the last five years, I still scratch my head at the way fellow CBF folks often respond to the growth that has taken place in the churches I’ve served. It ranges from intrigue, to concern, to outright suspicion. I’ve had a fellow CBF minister say to me, “Kevin you don’t understand-moderate churches don’t grow”, and a CBF leader share that collegues believe me to be “too SBC-like”…whatever that means.

    I don’t recall any follower of Jesus being exempt from the Great Commission. Disciples are to be disciple-makers. Perhaps I’m simple minded, but a dying church doesn’t sound much like a community of disciple-makers.  
    So my question to my CBF brothers and sisters: “Why does our tribe view growth with such suspicion…shouldn’t we view growth with expectation instead?”

    • BullardJournal

      Kevin: Thanks for you comment. It is also a sustainability issue. Is the ministry of a moderate to progressive congregation worth sustaining? Is it of sufficient value to do so? I think the answer is often “yes”. Therefore, a balanced approach is needed. George

  • mlineber

    I think the suspicion or uneasiness might stem from CBF’s identity being so tied up in it’s narrative of formation; as new people join who haven’t “been through the fire”, so to speak, the identity of CBF will change as well, unless it’s own formative narrative is passed on along with the Gospel. Which is an issue CBF folk will need to think about, I believe. Of course the formative narrative is probably implicitly passed on through the WAY in which the Gospel is proclaimed in CBF churches, but if the new folks will intentionally share the identity, they will need to be let in on explicit details. Which brings up an ID issue: should the primary ID of a church be found in the Narrative of the Gospel, or a subnarrative of crisis and reaction?  Of course, the “right” answer is that the Church’s primary ID is organically found in The Gospel, but I think we should be ever wary of preaching subnarratives in place of The Narrative.


  • Rusty South

    George, wearing “two hats” in the sense of making a potential pre-saint sinner comfortable flies in the face of the true gospel. At least once was the “true gospel,” spoken of by the Apostle Paul in Galations.

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