Does this strike you as a strange question? Surely, we want big churches. Because that will mean more people who know and love the Lord Jesus Christ. But this is not true in all cases. For church attendance does not equal faith. In other words, a large church can be full of spiritually dead people. One of the severest warnings in Revelation 2-3 is spoken against the church in Laodicea. “You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realising that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). Perhaps we do need to explore pastors’ hidden motivations behind the desire for a big church after all.
Church attendance does not equal faith. In other words, a large church can be full of spiritually dead people
What Lies Beneath
The desire for large thriving ministries is surely in many cases a healthy and prayerful longing for evangelism and conversions. However, we are deceiving ourselves if we deny that mixed motives may lie beneath. Pastors are, after all, sinful, limited and self-seeking human beings. It is this darker side of the pursuit for a big church that we will consider below.
As with most of our idolatry, we desire things that are positive and good. A large and healthy church is undoubtedly an honourable aim and a God-honouring ambition. But this means that it can easily become a noble idol, similar to a happy family or success in the workplace. We very easily slip into desiring good things over and above God. This is a decent but limited definition of idolatry. If I can make something as obviously God-given as marriage into an idol, I can do the same with growing and pastoring a large church. In many ways this point will underpin the rest, which are struggles that I believe show we might be bowing to the idol of a big, successful ministry instead of the God who grants us the privilege and task of ministry.
We might be bowing to the idol of a big, successful ministry instead of the God who grants us the privilege and task of ministry
Linked with the above, Iain Duguid describes idols as things we demand from God in order to give us significance. It is not hard to see how being at the helm of a big church could lead to relocating your meaning and identity. I imagine this temptation develops the longer one is in ministry. After years of faithfully teaching the Bible, caring for God’s flock and making the many sacrifices involved in full-time ministry, the hunger for recognition must cry out. Other pastors less gifted than yourself are enjoying success and growth. As you compare your own work to others you become racked with insecurity, insisting you deserve recognition. But this will only happen if your significance has shifted from Christ to being the leader of a big church.
As you compare your own work to others you become racked with insecurity, insisting you deserve recognition
Similarly to the previous point, perseverance in ministry can quickly give way to discontentment with the church God has given you. Make no mistake: the church you pastor is God’s treasured possession bought with the blood of his Son. God entrusts this treasure to undeserving pastors and leaders. Commenting on sin in Genesis 3, John Calvin wrote, “Ambition and pride, together with ungratefulness, arose, because Adam was seeking more than was granted him” (Institutes 2.1.4). According to Calvin, Adam’s sin in Eden was his shameful spurning of God’s great bounty. We are similar to our first parents; easily persuaded that God is holding something back from us. Thus pastors grow discontented when their churches remain small. Ingratitude causes many pastors to overlook the glorious gift of God’s church, and their responsibility to it, as they long for a bigger one.
Ingratitude causes many pastors to overlook the glorious gift of God’s church, and their responsibility to it, as they long for a bigger one
Failing to accept your limitations
It is jarring how proud those in service of the crucified Christ can become. Pastors speak about growing churches, assuming that they can effortlessly cope with its compounded pressures. Yet proud pastors forecast numerical growth. This is done as if he is in control. And he does not wonder if he may not be gifted or godly enough to manage that growth.
There are two problems here. The first is that it is God alone who gives the growth. He begins and finishes his work in people while using weak and often unwitting humans in the process. Secondly, being aware of his own failings and limitations, the pastor should recognise that the reason his church has not broken the 1000 barrier is simply because God in his perfect wisdom has not granted it. This might be because God knows the pastor will not be able to lead a church that size.
Our limitations do not limit God’s action, though in his kindness he may prevent your church from growing to the size of your ambitions when that far exceeds your abilities
God can grow a church despite it’s pastor. In the same way he can keep growth from those who seem to have all the gifts necessary to lead a megachurch. The point is we do not determine that. However grand our vision for church growth is, we must face reality: God grows his church and we do not. Furthermore, our limitations do not limit God’s action. Though in his kindness he may prevent your church from growing to the size of your ambitions when that far exceeds your abilities.
Seeking comfortable ministry
A few years back I was heading up a youth ministry. One of the teens in my church told me the following. His aim was to become filthy rich, so that he could be really generous to gospel ministry. Despite not knowing the hearts of men – much less teenagers – I asked him if his desire was not simply to be rich and comfortable. Recently I have wondered if the desire to pastor a big church, the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg, is little more than wanting to be comfortable in ministry – the pastor of an affluent church.
The desire to pastor a big church can be the veil for desiring a plush position in a wealthy church
IX Marks have published an excellent book that highlights an uncomfortable pattern. Churches are typically concentrated in middle to upper-class areas. Obviously I am not suggesting that we overcorrect but merely that we recognise the self-preserving tendency we all wrestle with. The desire to pastor a big church can be the veil for desiring a plush position in a wealthy church. Just like my teen’s intention to be generous towards gospel work was most likely propped up by his desire to be rich.
Growth covers a multitude of sins
Finally, the desire for a big church might be driven by the pastor’s need to hide sin. This point was brought to mind recently while I was listening to a podcast at Mortification of Spin on pastoral abuse. In answer to the question about why churches put up with domineering and even abusive pastors, one of the hosts made a chilling point. Success is a powerful absolution. Congregations and councils might be slower to call out and discipline their pastor when he appears to be responsible for a growing, vibrant and impressive church. Big churches are not only a great hiding place for Christians who desire anonymity and a nominal faith. They are also perfect places for pastors to hide their failings, by promoting their successes.
Success is a powerful absolution
I am aware that this kind of post opens me up to accusations of presumption and pride. I am not the judge of men, nor can I discern human hearts and motivation. But from my own experience of writing I know that there exists a fine line between a great platform for God’s glory and the desire for my own. So, pastor, why do you want a big church?
Editor’s note: this article originally appeared as part of a series addressed to pastors. Closely related to the post above is this one: Pastor, God Grows Churches. You can find links to the rest of the series in that post.