Understanding Normal and Pathologic Church Growth

Since the church is the body of Christ, what kind of growth should this body have?

Today, church growth is receiving much-needed emphasis. But desiring church growth is not new for Christians.  From Christianity’s earliest days, believers have worked untiringly and sacrificially to see growth. Christ’s first convert was His first missionary.[1] As soon as we truly give our hearts to Christ, we can’t help trying to bring others to Him.[2]

Every Christian wants to learn improved ways of winning souls.  God wants to teach us better ways as well![3] Over the centuries many methods for church growth have been tried. Some have worked well; some have proved disastrous!

One of the more audacious church-growth methods was developed by the Jesuit missionary, Xavier. He was able to claim phenomenal success, reporting hundreds of thousands of baptisms in the Orient.[4] His secret required a supply of “holy” water and curious crowds to sprinkle it on.

Sadly, history reveals some well-intentioned but misguided church-growth methods that actually weakened the church severely. In Paris a Protestant literature distribution scheme brought the Reformation to a virtual standstill.[5] This should give pause to some similar, equally ambitious literature distribution plans today.

Unfortunately, history also reveals that dangerous practices have crept into the church disguised as “church growth.” Virtually any activity, even idol worship, has been defended in the laudable name of “soul winning.”[6] But disobedience can never call people to obedience.

Can we learn to recognize and avoid harmful church-growth methods? The human body is a useful model for the church,[7] and may give us insights. In medical school I was taught that not all growth is good growth! Our class learned to differentiate normal growth from diseased growth, a concept I have found helpful in understanding normal and pathologic church growth.

Five Ways to Grow

There are five ways humans can grow:

1.   Girth growth

When individuals stop growing up, they may start growing out. If excessive, this growth is not fitness but fatness. It adds nothing to the strength of the body. It isn’t useful growth, it is get-in-the-way growth. It causes many diseases. It decreases endurance. It shortens the useful life. It occurs when the intake of food exceeds the output of work. Empty calories and fast foods contribute to the problem.


As in the physical, so in the spiritual. Spiritual obesity is seen in churches where the members attend church and receive nutrition but engage in little useful labor for Christ. Fast-food sermons may entertain the hearers. Novel theories, drama, sensational or humorous stories may appear to arouse religious interest, but the numeric growth is not accompanied by a corresponding increase in spiritual growth.[8] Members fail to produce fruit, doing nothing to advance God’s kingdom around them. They do not recognize their great need for continual repentance and a growing sanctified life. No church with a membership that is increasing numerically with pew warmers and worship entertainment lovers can have healthy growth. In time these indolent members will contribute, not to strength, but to serious spiritual disorders within the church.

Some time ago I visited Washington, New Hampshire, and saw the church where Adventists first started keeping the Sabbath. It had hard wooden pews and was obviously not a place for early Adventists to sit comfortably. Perhaps it’s not a bad model!

Physicians urge over-weight patients to lose weight. The Great Physician does the same for the church. He says, “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2). While we don’t need churches that are lean and mean, we do need churches that are lean. This will happen when the pastor preaches the word of God and the parishioners live by the word of God.

2.   Forced growth

To keep growth balanced and healthy, the body carefully regulates itself with a variety of controls. We can override and defeat these protective mechanisms even in normal people by giving them certain hormones such as growth hormone. In some cases these hormones may actually appear to promote growth, but the growth is unbalanced. There are athletes who are so concerned about muscle growth that they are willing to sacrifice long-term health to take anabolic steroids and even worse substances. Ultimately they may suffer disfigurement and weakness.[9]

Spiritually, forced growth may sometimes be seen in modern evangelical revivals and charismatic renewals. Such movements may emphasize great and needed “growth truths” without the regulating and balancing “testing truths.” Faith (without works), love (without law), and justification (without sanctification) are three common religious “growth hormones.” Revivals may appeal to the emotions without truly reaching the heart. All such growth is unbalanced and cannot be sustained.[10] It results in misshapen spiritual dwarfs and deformed Christianity.

Paul says, “I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27, emphasis added). He did not simply preach the popular and easily accepted portions of God’s word. He preached it all. This is necessary for symmetrical growth.

3.   Neoplastic Growth

At best, tumors are benign. At worst, they are cancerous.

No one can deny that there is growth rapid growth with cancer. Although its early stages may be innocuous and may even appear harmless, it quickly spreads throughout the body. It does not bring life, it brings death. Cancer is growth that takes the rich resources provided for the entire body and uses them for some limited, uncontrolled, local cause. Cancer is more than ugly, it is hideous. There is no cure for this type of growth. It must be detected early and eradicated fully.

Spiritual neoplasms exhibit the same key characteristics. They consume without producing and are unresponsive to external control.

At the turn of the 20th century, Battle Creek was growing. The institutions were increasing in size, the facilities were improving in convenience. But this was cancer growth. The institutions were growing by selfishly misappropriating funds funds that had been given sacrificially and unselfishly by believers, funds that were needed in aggressive mission work in the south, in the west, and overseas. Drastic treatment proved necessary. God had to give two applications of “pyrotherapy”[11] to eradicate it.

Physicians are constantly on the alert for even subtle signs and symptoms of malignancy. When these signs are present, the physician undertakes an immediate and thorough evaluation. Similarly, as Christians we must be alert to signs and symptoms of spiritual cancer. We must ask ourselves important questions such as:

•   Do I spend any time for spiritual outreach, visiting my neighbors, assisting with church needs, etc.?

•   If I were the only Christian in this city, how would God’s work fare?

•   When my income increases, is there a corresponding increase in my mission giving?

•   Am I more concerned with local needs than the pressing needs of the world field?

Our work has always been aggressive. Workers have felt privileged to sacrifice for “the cause.” I am reminded of my late father, a minister. He always was reluctant to receive a pay raise because he felt this might cause fewer workers to be sent into the field. Always 30% and often more than half of his small salary was given to extend the work. His example was not unique. Building programs, needy students, mission projects have always been supported by such generous, sacrificial giving.

Selfishness is incompatible with Christianity. True Christians will never use funds for extravagance and show in one region while other parts of the Lord’s vineyard perish for want of means. “Those who are truly converted will have an equal interest in the work in all parts of the vineyard.”[12]

4.   Stature Growth

Just as all growth is not good, not all growth is bad. Stature growth is normal growth and development. It is determined in part by our genetic inheritance. There are some people who are tall. Others are short.

Likewise some churches have the potential to be large, some do not. Larger churches and their leaders need not despise smaller churches, nor do smaller churches and their leaders need to envy the larger.

But growth is not only genetic. Diet also plays an important role. Some persons are short because they are unable or unwilling to eat proper foods. The children of the earliest European settlers of this country were short because they did not get adequate nutrition during their developmental years.

Paul calls Christians individually to stature growth in its spiritual sense.[13] This is not numeric growth. This is character growth, growth in grace. This type of growth does not come by anxiety and worry,[14] neither does it come from self-righteous effort. This is the natural by-product of full and daily surrender to the Lord.[15] It is vital to teach this to our children and new members lest they be stunted, and be surrounded by stunted people, and come to think this stunted condition is normal.

5.   Fertility Growth

Fertility growth is numeric growth. God intends for families to grow numerically.[16] This requires the complete union of a husband and wife.

For Abraham fertility growth became a test of faith. For more than ten years Abraham and Sarah tried to have a son, but no child came! In their natural and understandable desire for numeric growth, after years of apparent failure they abandoned God’s plan. They didn’t wait for the Lord. No matter how Abraham and Sarah rationalized it, Abraham committed adultery, and while numeric growth was the result, it was bastard growth.

North American Growth Church Growth

We have to look at the situation in North America honestly today. It is not growing rapidly as it once was. Can anyone who loves the church say that it is growing numerically as much as they would like? Can anyone say evangelism is progressing as rapidly as they would like? What should we do when God closes the evangelistic womb? We need not be discouraged. We need not blame and criticize others. We should make certain that the church, the wife of Christ, is intimately united with Jesus. That is the only way for true growth. If the church is intimately connected with Jesus, in faith we can await His timing to open the womb. We need not look for other methods for church numeric growth, they will only produce bastard results.

God has promised growth to us as surely as He promised growth to Abraham. We can trust His promise. If we wait ten, twenty, thirty, or a hundred years, the promise remains sure. Jesus remained faithful when His work appeared fruitless.[17] He trusted His Father’s guidance.

The Perils of Counting Numbers

There have been earnest Christians, especially pastors and evangelists, who have felt that numeric growth is the proof of their faithfulness to God. A few conference leaders measure success this way.

Many perils lie in counting the numbers of new members.

1. Discouragement and desperate actions.  Elijah tried to count up his evangelistic converts.  He felt he had none![18] He concluded that the territory to which he was assigned was too difficult, and he left for another area.[19] Concluding that his work was a failure, he became discouraged. We can’t count our children. God assured Abraham that his children would be numberless.[20]

2. A spirit of pride and competition. David looked in self-satisfaction upon the growth of Israel during his administration. He took a census for reasons of pride and was punished for it.[21] However large our church grows, our strength and trust must be in God alone, not the strength of numbers.[22]

3. Madison Avenue approaches and “marketing.” Our commission is to preach the gospel to all the world, not just to those segments that appear most open. We must go not only to the highways, but to the hedges.[23] We need to reclaim past members, not because statistically this is successful, but because it is part of the church’s commission. Our success must not be judged on the basis of numeric growth but on our faithfulness to the Lord’s instruction. “If you lower the standard in order to secure popularity and an increase of numbers, and then make this increase a cause of rejoicing, you show great blindness. If numbers were an evidence of success, Satan might claim the pre-eminence; for, in this world, his followers are largely in the majority.… It is the virtue, intelligence, and piety of the people composing our churches, not their numbers, that should be a source of joy and thankfulness” (Counsels to Teachers, p. 94).

We must not tailor our message to please and attract the crowds but to honor and please the Savior.

4. Hasty baptisms and early apostasies. Today it is considered normal for a high percentage (approximately 50%) of newly baptized converts to apostatize. It is considered normal for 50% or less of the church membership to attend church regularly! But based on the norms of the early church, this should be considered unacceptably high infant mortality. Of the converts brought in under the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost the Bible says, “They continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42, NKJV). This is true normal growth and development. For this growth we must pray, and we must work in faith.

The Solution for Increasing Growth

Inspiration has pointed out a reason for limited church growth. The following striking quotation has often been repeated. We need to look at it closely:

“The Lord does not now work to bring many souls into the truth, because of the church members who have never been converted, and those who were once converted but who have backslidden” (Evangelism, p. 110).

Unfortunately this statement is often separated from its full context. Reading the entire paragraph helps us understand why there is little church growth:

“The subject of health reform has been presented in the churches; but the light has not been heartily received. The selfish, health-destroying indulgences of men and women have counteracted the influence of the message that is to prepare a people for the great day of God. If the churches expect strength, they must live the truth which God has given them. If the members of our churches disregard the light on this subject, they will reap the sure result in both spiritual and physical degeneracy. And the influence of these older church members will leaven those newly come to the faith. The Lord does not now work to bring many souls into the truth, because of the church members who have never been converted and those who were once converted but who have backslidden. What influence would these unconsecrated members have on new converts? Would they not make of no effect the God-given message which His people are to bear?” (Testimonies for the Church, 6:370, 371, emphasis added).

Until the members of the church take healthful living seriously, and receive and act on the great light God has graciously granted them, there can be no true church growth.  Church planting, popular evangelical methods, any or all of these approaches will prove to be a failure without members who love Christ fully and give Him charge of their entire life and lifestyle.

God bless you in 2018 !


Phil Mills, MD, is a graduate of the Loma Linda School of Medicine, and a dermatologist in private practice.  Phil also enjoys writing and theology.


[1] John 1:40, 41

[2] The Desire of Ages, p. 141

[3] Testimonies for the Church, 4:67

[4] The Orient and Its Peoples, Jeannette Houser, p. 198 (https://books.google.com/books?id=hIzNAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA198&lpg=PA198&dq=xavier+thousands+baptized+orient&source=bl&ots=_0NRQBOtr6&sig=jDwGQdlKFiV2YgnIiKZb6oJ1y4k&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi82IXzntzXAhXIRt8KHeF6ACMQ6AEITTAK#v=onepage&q=xavier%20thousands%20baptized%20orient&f=false)

[5] The Great Controversy, p. 217

[6] Ibid., p. 225

[7] 1 Cor. 12:12; Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18

[8] The Great Controversy, p 461

[9] “Performance-enhancing drugs: Know the risks”, Mayo Clinic , https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/performance-enhancing-drugs/art-20046134

[10] The Great Controversy, p. 463

[11] “Treatment by fire,” or, in plain English, the two fires that in 1902 destroyed the Battle Creek Sanitarium and, a few months later, the office and factory of the Review and Herald Publishing Association

[12] Testimonies for the Church, 8:138

[13] Eph. 4:13

[14] Matt. 6:27; Luke 12:25

[15] Matt. 6:28; Luke 12:27

[16] Gen. 9:1; Psalm 127:3-5

[17] The Desire of Ages, p. 330: “In the heart of Christ, where reigned perfect harmony with God, there was perfect peace. He was never elated by applause, nor dejected by censure or disappointment. Amid the greates opposition and the most cruel treatment, He was still of good courage.”

[18] 1 Kings 19:14

[19] 1 Kings 19:3, 4

[20] Gen. 15:5

[21] 2 Sam. 24:2-17

[22] Spiritual Gifts, 4a:92

[23] Luke 14:23