What spells success for a local church? For many pastors the answer is how many attend their church. I drove by a Unitarian church with a full parking lot on Sunday. By our common definition of success they had achieved it - or the Mormon temple two blocks from my house that draws a full crowd. Seen in that light we realize that numbers are not everything and sometimes are nothing when it comes to success.
In fact, numbers may be the worst definition of success for churches and pastors. Churches do not grow indefinitely. Many pastors are not equipped to lead a large church but are wonderfully equipped to lead a small or medium size church. All of us have a leadership ceiling and internal wiring that defines the size of an organization we can effectively lead. Since God gave us that wiring we have to assume He is pretty happy with it and so should we be. One of my ministry buddies is a great preacher and the quintessential shepherd pastor. He pastors a church of around 250 and is wonderfully fulfilled in that role. His lane is not a church of 500 or larger where he would be frankly miserable. He is fulfilling his God given calling in a smaller church.
Further, the focus on numbers can easily cause us to move away from a full presentation of the gospel to embrace an attractional model of church where the goal is to attract as many people as possible and in the process to water down the emphasis on disciple making which actually demands something from those who come. There are plenty of large churches full of untransformed people which is not a New Testament definition of success. And remember that most church growth in the United States is not about new conversions but simply about people transferring from one church to another. How does that spell success?
We should also remember that many people are not enamored by large churches. They prefer a family size church where it is easier to know others, plug in and where relationships are easier to build. There are far more avenues of direct involvement possible in smaller churches than in large churches.
What we ought to really be focused on is not numbers but helping our congregation experience true spiritual transformation: Hearts transformed by grace; thinking transformed by God's word; priorities transformed to align with His word and relationships transformed by His love. Pastors often say to me, "I don't know how to do the vision thing." My answer is that ninety percent of vision in the church is simply helping people live out the Gospel in their lives, their homes, their neighborhoods and their places of work. This is true in a large church or a small church. Size is not an indicator of success - transformed people are.
Can small churches grow? Often they do so by church planting. They may not desire to grow significantly in numbers as a congregation but all churches can grow by multiplying themselves in church planting. And there will indeed be conversion growth for any body that is focused on spiritual transformation. Get the focus right and true spiritual fruit happens - John 15.
There are always reasons for church size - a complex set of variables that we cannot address in full here. But I would say to any pastor, the measure of your success is not in your attendance numbers as much as it is in the transformation that is taking place among your people. Even in the New Testament there were huge churches and tiny house churches and all kinds in between. While God's people grew in numbers there were still all sizes of churches and there is no reference as to numbers being the sign of success for any of them. Transformation was a sign as well as ministry engagement - see Ephesians. People coming to Christ was a sign - see the book of Acts. But church size was not.
Rather than getting caught in the numbers game, we all ought to be focused on transformed lives which leads to new people coming to Christ. And, be who you are made to be as a church whether a small neighborhood church or a mega church. The numbers don't tell the story, Gospel engagement does.