As a pastor, I regularly hear the annoying question: “So, how many people do you have in attendance?” I get so tired of hearing this, because I know the attitude behind the question is based on numerical growth, not spiritual growth. That’s not really a fair question, and from one pastor to others, please don’t’ feel obligated to answer it. A person that asks that question may not be deliberately trying to derail you, but they are likely buying into the fallacy of “more people means more spiritual success.” Well, that could not be further from the truth!

I am thinking of a church in the Houston, Texas area that boasts tens of thousands of attendees, but the level of spiritual growth is not supporting the legitimacy of that number. When I think of church growth, that is not the place I select as the template for how to grow a congregation. I know this sounds cold and insensitive, but it needs to be said. Rather than call it “church growth,” let’s examine the American church and see why it does not reflect the early church as seen in the book of Acts.

Acts 2:47 tells us in a single phrase exactly what constitutes church growth: “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” The first thing I notice is that it was a daily growth process, but the most important thing we can take away from this verse is that the church was growing as a direct result of “those who were being saved.” That is where we have missed the whole definition of church growth! Adding to the church does not happen by shuffling members around from church to church.

I regularly meet with area pastors for a time of encouragement and prayer, and we each have an understanding that we do not want to swap church members with each other—instead, we want growth from the outside: new believers, formerly unchurched people, and so on. There are a few legitimate reasons to leave a local church, outside of the obvious, which would be heresy. For instance, the comfortable church in America is okay with moving on after someone is offended, rather than seeking reconciliation and biblical forgiveness. By the way, the reasons people leave churches are almost always preference-based, and almost never because of false teaching.

This type of disobedience to God’s word finds us where we are today at epidemic levels: playing church swap. Let’s quickly look at the healthy reasons why congregations grow. The first would be as a result of evangelism, the second would be a result of a person being revived and participating with the body of believers again, and third, as has been the case in my ministry recently, folks who relocate and are looking for a Bible-believing church. Other than these reasons, I have not seen much positive action from people church-hopping around town.

The usual result of church-hopping is that immature Christians (or possibly imposters) transfer their baggage from one congregation to the next, airing their dirty laundry and unresolved issues, or waiting for someone to offend them so they can leave in a huff—having a hissy fit. This is not edifying to the local body, nor is it glorifying to Christ. Nothing could be more annoying to pastors who just want to teach God’s word and see their flocks grow.

Now let’s look at what church growth really is as we reflect on the verse from Acts that was previously mentioned. I gauge the growth of a church, not by how many people are in the pews, rather by how many people are in love with Jesus. To use numbers as a metric for spiritual success is unfair and inaccurate. If you have 100 people in your remote little town, you will never have 10,000 people attending. On the other hand, if you are in the heart of a booming city and you only have five people attending after twenty years of ministry and outreach, there may be something missing—it’s probably the Spirit of God.

So as we examine the current condition of the church, we must be careful to identify growth according to the Bible: souls being added to the family of God. Merely moving from building to building based on selfish, personal expectations can hardly be considered “church growth.” I would rather have ten people in the seats who love the Lord with all their hearts than 10,000 people who have no concern for God or his word. Real church growth is any number of people who are walking closely to the Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit on a consistent, daily basis. When this happens, growth is inevitable and regular.

I am not talking negatively about large churches because I know that God is presently working miracles in many of them. I am simply saying that there is more to the term “church growth” than can ever be represented by a seating chart. Obviously, if God is truly at work, the number of bodies multiplying will be inevitable, but it may not be at the rate that the church growth specialists promise. If we focus on our personal walk with the Lord and being obedient to him, it will impact those in our local Christian community and it will look so much like the First Century church. Genuine church growth is what we desire; superficial number expansion through church swapping is unhealthy and it is a misnomer to classify it as anything positive.