At the beginning of our church planting journey, I wish I knew that all growth is not good growth.
It’s a common challenge for leaders starting a new church. Where do I find people? How do I start with just my family and end up with a growing, thriving church? From a spiritual perspective, more people equal more disciples of Jesus. From a pragmatic perspective, more people equal better offerings and more volunteers. So whenever people walk in the door of a new church, the first reaction of most planters I know is joy. Joy is a perfectly normal reaction to every new person in the early days of a church, but wise planters learn to temper their joy with appropriate caution.
I learned this lesson the hard way. In the earliest months of our new church plant, people were scarce. Twenty-five folks listening to my carefully prepared message was a good day. One Sunday, all of the sudden, the 25 had swelled to over 60. I was filled with joy! Finally, we were turning the corner. Even more encouraging, the offering more than tripled! I immediately started dreaming about what we might do if the income stayed at this new level. We could buy desperately needed equipment and even think about hiring some staff.
Then I discovered that the 35 new people had all come together.
In fact, they were members of a house church that was looking for a place to worship on Sunday. Their leader assured me that they were compatible doctrinally and that they planned to become part of our church. I felt caution flags waving in my brain but I agreed to look for a way for our ministries to join forces. They started coming every week and the offerings were amazing. Surely, I reasoned, these people were part of God’s plan to grow His church.
One Sunday, following the worship service, their leader pulled me aside and asked if they could start using the building on Tuesday night for their Bible study. I told him they were welcome to join us for the mid-week Bible study on Wednesday. He said he would encourage his people to consider the Wednesday night meeting but they really wanted to have their main Bible study on Tuesday night, just like they always had. Now bright red warning flags were waving in my brain and I knew what I had to do. I explained to him that our church was young and right now we all needed to stay focused in the same direction and so for now, I would want them to be part of our Wednesday night study.
Very kindly and clearly he let me know that if we didn’t allow them to meet in our building on Tuesday night, he and his bible study would have to find another church to worship with. “And you know,” he warned, “ we bring a lot of money with us.”
I knew that all too well. But I also recognized that this was a defining moment in the life of this church. I carefully let him know that he and his group were always welcome to attend any of our regular meetings, but now was not the time for us to have competing bible studies. Because it went deeper then that. It was clear to me that this group had a completely different set of values than me.
The next Sunday, my little flock was back to 25 and the offering was as skimpy as ever. But I knew I had done the right thing. And time proved me right. Our church went on to thrive and that Bible study group went on to severely damage at least three other church plants over the next decade.