Almost all churches have one thing in common when they first start out: sky-high idealism. “We’re not just going to impact our community or our city or our country,” they cheer; “we’re going to change the whole world!”
People pray big prayers, they give big dollars, they donate big-time hours, and they believe God is quite capable of doing absolutely anything through them. That is, until reality sets in. Over time, church leaders and congregations alike are dismayed to learn just how much energy and enthusiasm it takes to keep the machinery of a growing church chugging along. They become frustrated that they don’t have adequate staff or volunteer support. They feel pinched on the resource front and struggle just to get bills paid each month. Slowly but surely, that “God can do anything” feeling fades, bold prayers quit getting prayed, and the beginning of the end is near. Without necessarily intending to, they drink the deadly hemlock called incrementalism.
You know you’ve ingested a little incrementalism when innovation is no longer welcomed in your environment. Blue-sky days? “Aw, they’re a thing of the past.” Taking a few flyers? “We don’t even let the youth department do that anymore!” The biggest financial dream is a 3 percent increase over last year’s income, because anything more than that would be going out on a wild limb of faith. Very slowly, and quite subtly, you find yourself increasingly satisfied with nothing more than incremental growth. And from there, things really start to go downhill.
I keep reminding pastors that the normal attrition rate for most churches is about 10 percent each year. That means you can be doing everything flawlessly—producing awe-inspiring worship services; effectively pointing people to faith and growing them up into dedicated followers of Christ; joyfully serving those who are poor; graciously providing shelter for those who are homeless; diligently caring for orphans and widows—and because of elderly people dying, career transitions, and people moving to new neighborhoods alone, you’ll lose ten out of every hundred attenders each year. Toss in the shutdown of a manufacturing plant in your community, and that attrition rate could double.
You can understand my frustration, then, when pastors tell me they’re “trusting God” for 3 or 5 percent growth this year. “Really?” I think. “That’s tantamount to planning a funeral for your church.”
Incremental thinking, incremental planning, incremental prayers—it’s the kiss of death. Don’t fall for it.
Hybels, B. (2008). Axiom: powerful leadership proverbs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.