Reflections of 25 Years: Growing A Crowd -vs- Growing A Church

Dr. Randy White

In the early days of my 25 years of ministry, I won church growth awards. In the latter days, I didn’t. But in my own evaluation, in the latter days I did better ministry; more Biblical, more consistent, and more God-honoring.

My seminary ministry (before I started this 25 year clock) was in a small, West Texas town of 300 people. I was called as the summer “Youth Director” (which is what people used to be called who directed the youth). On my first Sunday, we had three youth from two families. After spending a few days in the office, I realized that office work wasn’t directing youth, so I picked up one of the three youth and said, “take me to any house where a teenager lives.” We drove around the county, I introduced myself, and arranged for them to start attending the youth group on Sunday morning. At the end of the summer, we had a nice crowd of teenagers, and the church decided to keep me on. I stayed three years, closed out my ministry with seminary graduation and an ordination service. We had over 30 kids attending on a regular basis.

My first job as Pastor was in a farm town of 1500 people. The old church had 135 in average attendance. I worked hard to preach (though I didn’t have a clue what I was doing). I worked hard in evangelism, going door-to-door through the community. A couple years into it, I had a program that I’ll never forget, for good and bad reasons: Every Door in ‘94. I almost got every door. I only served the church 2 ½ years, but the church had 210 in average attendance when I left, 20 years ago.

Today, the tiny-town church has (I’m guessing) about 3 teenagers, and the farm-town church runs about 135. I can either gloat that I was God’s gift to those churches and that no youth director or Pastor since has been as good as I was. Or, I could realize that I just worked the crowd smooth enough to pump the numbers up, using tried and true methods of people-pleasing and crowd-building. If the truth is told, I think the later is more accurate.

Building a crowd can be done by learning the business principles I mentioned in the previous article. It is all about marketing, “customer service,” and making people happy (for years I was the poster-child for people pleasers). To build a crowd, you can preach “hard” sermons, but only if it is the kind of hard sermon the crowd will appreciate (namely, preach against someone else who is somewhere else). If you want to grow a crowd, get a “Ten Principles of Growth” book and follow the principles. It will work, and it won’t be that hard. (Just incidentally, it is harder to grow a crowd in the city than in the small town. Cities have lot’s of crowd-builders to compete with).

Somewhere over my 25 years, however, I learned that crowd-building and church-building are not the same thing. Crowd building is quick, especially if you have a little cash and a contagiously energetic personality. Building a church, however, is a slow, painful, tedious process–and the result is seldom numerical.

To build a church, you’ve got to change the way people think. They need to go from Biblical ignorance to Biblical expert. Sadly, many people who have sat in the church pews for many years are still Biblically ignorant. Beyond Biblical knowledge, to build a church you have to build theological expertise. Knowing that the Bible has promises and prohibitions is dangerous if you don’t know when to apply those promises and prohibitions. Building Biblical knowledge and theological expertise takes years, and doesn’t come with a “Ten Principles” book or a “Quick and Easy” manual.

When a Pastor stands in judgment for his leadership, I seriously doubt that God will care about the denominational growth awards. He will surely care about whether the Pastor “preached the Word, in season and out of season.”

Next in this series: Reflection #3: Churches are Too Big

To read all the articles of this series, click here.