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5 Signs Your Motives For Church Growth Are Bad

church growth

You probably have an immediate reaction to the concept of church growth.

You might get really excited about it, or maybe you wince and launch into a list of criticisms in your head (or on your keyboard).

Personally, I’m committed to helping churches reach more people because I long to see everyone in a personal relationship with Christ. Which means I love to see churches grow, and I will do whatever I can to help them reach more people.

In fact, I’m launching a new course designed to help church leaders scale church growth barriers. (You can join the waitlist here.)

And yet almost every day, I hear from people on social media and in the comments on this blog who rail against the idea of church growth.

The critics of church growth say a number of things, like:

  • Growth is all about ego.
  • Big churches provide no community.
  • Growing churches create consumers, not disciples.
  • Big churches steal all the people from little churches.
  • Church growth is unbiblical.
  • Don’t grow a church big. Plant more small churches.

If you study the comments, there’s often a critical, even cynical tone to almost all of them.

I will forever be a supporter of growing churches and a champion of churches trying to reach more people. I’ll also be the first to admit you have to manage things very carefully when you’re leading anything that’s growing.

The critics are right insofar as sometimes growth can lead you into poor motives.

I believe they’re wrong insofar as thinking that church growth is bad.

But as any leader who’s led anything that’s growing knows, you have to manage your inner motivations carefully.

Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons can be almost as dangerous as doing the wrong thing.

And I think if you drilled down a little more closely, even the critics might realize that some of their criticism is born out of hurt, insecurity or jealousy.

When it comes to motivation, I’m not sure you can ever be sure you’ve got your motives 100% purified. We do live on this side of heaven, after all. Think of it, as Andy Stanley says, as a tension to be managed rather than a problem you can solve.

So what are some signs your motives for seeing your church grow have gone bad?

Here are 5.

1. Growth has become the mission

Growth for growth’s sake is rarely a good thing.

Instead, healthy growth is always a byproduct of something better.

When you become hyper-focused on growth, or expansion (think multi-site) for the wrong reason, it’s easy to let growth become the mission.

That might even work for you for a season, but ultimately making growth the mission is an empty pursuit. You end up leading people nowhere, except to an organization.

When growth becomes your mission, you become like the salesperson who wants to close the deal more than they want to help you. Eventually, the smart people catch on and leave.

There’s also an irony in this: churches that make growth their mission usually stop growing. People sense it, and they bail.

2. People don’t really matter anymore

If growth becomes your mission, people eventually matter less and less.

You start to see them as a means to an end, not one of the main reasons you exist.

While Christ, of course, is the center, great churches prioritize people.

What the critics of growing churches often miss is the reason churches grow over the long run is because of the way they help connect people with Christ and with each other.

Serve people well, connect with them deeply,  help them grow spiritually, and you’ll eventually reach more people.

If people no longer matter to you, you’ll soon find yourself with fewer people.

3. Your self-worth rises and falls with the numbers

A sure sign your motives for growth have gone south is that your sense of self-worth rises and falls with the numbers.

A season of growth makes you feel invincible.

A season of stagnation or decline makes you feel worthless.

As Tim Keller has so poignantly put it, when work is your identity, success goes to your head, and failure goes to your heart.

The same goes for growth. Success goes to your head. Failure goes to your heart.

Your identity should be firmly seated in who you are in Christ, not your latest quarter.

I realize we all struggle with success and failure, and that bad seasons should concern us and great seasons should cause us to give thanks.

But a well-motivated person doesn’t see their self-worth soar and plummet with the numbers.

You’re not as good as your last success or as bad as your last failure.

4. All You See Are Numbers

When I’m not healthy about growth, I’ll look out over a Sunday and only see empty or full chairs.

Similarly, in unhealthy moments on this blog or over on my leadership podcast, I’ll just look at the stats and forget there are real people behind each digit; people God loves, people with feelings and struggles, people who matter to God and should always matter to me.

On my good days, I see faces. I listen to stories. I see God at work. On my bad days, I see digits and charts.

How do you combat this? In addition to regularly confessing it before God and checking in with close friends, I have a few little hacks to keep my heart right.

When I’m preaching I usually have about 15 seconds where I’m standing on stage and the lights are still low as the title packages finish. I’ll look out over the congregation, pick one of two faces out of the crowd and really let who they are sink into my heart. I’ll often pray in that moment right before I say the first words of the message.

In the digital space, I’ll read some reader or listener emails, scroll through the comments, click on a few profile pics of readers or listeners and let who they are really sink in, and pray for them.

It helps. Even with critics.

The easier it is to only see numbers instead of people, the harder it gets to see God.

5. You live in a state of constant comparison

When growth for its own sake takes over your soul, you will almost always be consumed by comparison.

When you’re not growing, you:

  • Resent the growth of other churches and wonder why you’re not growing like they are.
  • Infer bad motives about other leaders who are more successful than you.
  • You think God owes you because he’s clearly not being fair to you.

Conversely, when you’re in a season of growth, you:

  • Feel superior to people who aren’t seeing the ‘success’ you are.
  • Assume others aren’t as wise or faithful as you are.
  • Think God must be blessing you because of how good you are.

God isn’t good because things are good. God is just good.

The grace of God is an uncontrollable thing. It comes to us when we least deserve it in any season and, frankly, in every season.

And you’re certainly not better or worse than other leaders. And if you happen to be more gifted in an area than someone else, that should prompt gratitude and a desire to leverage your gift as much as possible, not arrogance.

Reminding myself of these things usually snaps my motives back into line.

Some Help With Reaching More People

Breaking 200


Keeping our motives around growth pure is paramount.

You can have all the right motives, but still, find yourself needing help in reaching more people.

85% of all churches in North America never reach more than 200 people. Why is that?

Surprisingly, the reasons are far more structural than they are practical. Lots of faithful, praying leaders who love Jesus and have good motives would love to reach more people. 85% never do.

The good news is the problem is solvable.

Next Tuesday, September 19th, my new course, Breaking 200 Without Breaking You, releases. I’m so excited to get this resource into the hands of leaders who want to reach more people for the right reasons.

The course provides strategies on how to tackle eight practical barriers that keep churches from reaching more than 200 people.

So whether your church is 50, 150 or 250 in attendance, the principles will help you gain the insight you need to break the barrier more than 85% of churches can’t break.

Join the wait list today and you’ll get a free bonus, plus you’ll be among the first to gain access to the course when it goes live.

What About You?

What helps you keep your motives in check? Not other people’s motives, your motives?

And what are some signs you’ve seen that show you your motives need checking?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

5 Signs Your Motives For Church Growth Are Bad


  1. Frank on September 16, 2017 at 7:18 am

    Carey, here’s #6: We need to grow to meet budget. The church I attend is dying because it had forgotten Jesus’ great command. Now, all of a sudden, when it cannot meet budget, month after month, the church leaders have decided to embark upon a church growth plan, which consists of nothing more than a bunch of feeble marketing tactics (limited by budget) to reach the unchurched. I quit attending the “Evangelism” Committee meetings because I am the only member who keeps bringing up the Great Commission as being our purpose — not meeting budget.

  2. Nigel on September 13, 2017 at 8:01 am

    Hi Carey, this is great. For me I look at who’s there and say, ‘Well God you obviously want/need these people to grow closer to you before we start putting more into the mix.’
    Always remain humble, God has put you there to care for His flock.

  3. Keith on September 11, 2017 at 1:14 pm

    Solid post Carey! Thank you for writing. I’m going on 2 years as a church restart pastor, and I’ve been itching for more people to come discover Jesus through our local church. This was a great reminder to celebrate growth, but not be motivated by the wrong reasons.

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