Myth: If My Church Does Not Grow, I’m Not Successful

Church Leadership

by Joel Comiskey

2012, the following article is from Comiskey’s book Myths and Truths of the Cell Church.

Myth: If My Church Does Not Grow, I’m Not Successful

A dreadful disease has permeated cell church ministry. It’s called “Yonggi Cho envy” or “big church envy.” Cho is just the personification of what I’m referring to because his church is so large. Pastors and churches experience a lot of jockeying to have a larger church than the next guy. The result of this attitude is that many pastors feel like failures when their churches don’t grow.

Truth: Success Should be Measured by Faithful Effort, Rather than Results

Church growth generally teaches that God rewards workers who reap, rather than those who faithfully sow the seed. This is called “harvest theology.” Again, it downplays the Christian teaching that God rewards faithfulness and uplifts those pastors and churches who are experiencing growth. Because I was committed to this church growth thinking, I found myself pressured and pressuring others to produce.

After one year of planting the church in California, I hired an associate pastor from South Africa who was a precious brother and thoroughly committed to cell ministry. At that time, I was traveling around the world and expected this pastor to make things happen and grow the church. I was following the church growth teaching that places the responsibility on the pastor to grow the church. My thinking was that if the church grew, it was because of the effectiveness of the pastor. It if didn’t, the pastor had problems.

The associate pastor from South Africa eventually left, and this time we hired a senior pastor to replace me. I found myself doubting the new pastor when the church didn’t grow as expected. I wondered if this new pastor was the right guy.

Finally, a board member confronted me saying, “Joel, what are you doing? You’re never satisfied. I’m not ready to go through another change because I believe our new pastor is God’s man for this church.”

God spoke to me. I realized that my pressure was human driven. About that time I read the book Evaluating the Church Growth Movement, 5 Views. One view was the traditional church growth view. The other three views were modified understandings of the traditional church growth view, set forth originally by Donald McGavran. The fifth view, promoted by Gailyn Van Rheenan, critiqued church growth on the basis of theology.

I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with Dr. Van Rheenan. God spoke to me that I needed to judge church growth based on what the Bible says and not the other way around.

About that same time period, I realized that if I was doing everything possible to reach out and minister, I was successful in the process of doing this.

Yes, we have to plant; we have to water; we have to do our part. Yet, ultimately, God must give the increase. When he does give the increase, we can rejoice in his supernatural blessing and goodness. If he doesn’t give the increase, we continue to be faithful, knowing that God honors our diligent effort and service.

We are successful in the process of being faithful. God asks us to make the very best effort possible under his guidance. As we are led by him, we are successful in the process of planting, discipling, and watering. We look to him for the increase, but we are successful whether we see the fruit or not.

I ministered in a cell church in the Midwest. The church was a model of cell church growth for a number of years, but then it stagnated. The founding pastor felt like he should be seeing growth each year and began to feel like a failure when the growth stopped. I was very impressed with the life and excitement in the church, but the pastor was discouraged. “I’m fed up,” he told me. “I’ve just lost interest. Maybe I should be doing something else.”

I preached in his church on Sunday and was encouraged by God’s work in the church. But once again the pastor began to condemn himself because the church wasn’t growing each year. He told me that he felt like a failure and that perhaps he should simply leave the church. I listened intently, but eventually I found myself saying, “Who brings the growth? You do many things well, but you have a problem in trusting God to bring growth in your church. You need to hang in there until it happens.” His wife, knowing I hit a raw nerve, encouraged him to listen closely.

Many pastors don’t hang in the saddle long enough. They don’t trust God’s sovereign hand to bring the growth and give the eventual victories. They leave too early.

Is there a time when God calls pastors and leaders to move on? Yes. However, moving on when feeling like a failure is not the best time to move. My counsel is to hang in there. God wants to reach lost souls and make disciples more than we do. Yet, leading a church is often more about what God wants to do in the life of the pastor. When the pastor has matured, the growth appears. Our job is to plant, water, and put in the best effort possible.

I spoke at a seminar with Mario Vega in Guatemala a few years ago. Mario is the lead pastor of the Elim Church in El Salvador, one of the largest cell churches in the world (over one hundred thousand people in cells). Three church planters came up to me after the seminar to ask whether they were on the right track because their church was struggling and not seeing the incredible fruit that Elim was experiencing.

These pastors were faithfully laboring and sowing precious seed, but they had become discouraged by their lack of results.

I took these three church planters aside and strongly encouraged them. I told them that they were doing an amazing work and that God would give the growth in his timing. I reminded them of Galatians 6:9, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

I prayed over them for God’s anointing and when I looked up, I noticed several of them crying. They just needed to hear that they were on the right track.

If you are faithfully doing what God has called you to do, you are also on the right track. Hang in there. God will grow his church in his timing.