Is church growth all about the pastor?


Yesterday, I read a provocative article on this subject by David Murrow. He writes:

Can I be brutally honest? When it comes to church attendance, nothing matters as much as the ability of the pastor to deliver good sermons. If a pastor is good at his job, the church grows. If he’s bad at his job, the church shrinks. Sounds unspiritual—but it’s true. It shouldn’t be this way—but it is. Each week is a referendum on the pastor’s ability to deliver an inspiring sermon.

Murrow goes on to say that, although it pains him to say it—he wishes that it were things like the community’s love for one another that kept people coming—”when it comes to putting men in pews, nothing matters more than pastoral quality. Every other consideration pales in comparison.”

I appreciate Murrow’s stance, his taking the “tragic reality” approach to addressing an ugly question. Pastors should be greatly concerned with the quality of the sermons they preach, and poor preaching is always detrimental to the health of the church.

But how do you define “good” and “bad” preaching? 

Based on the article, it seems that good preaching is entertaining preaching, and bad is boring. In other words, the more entertaining or inspiring (however you want to define that) your preaching is, more people will come and they’re more likely to stay.

But if your sermons are dull or don’t captivate me in the way I hope they will, then watch out. Attendance will drop and your job’s on the line.

You can see the problem with this coming a mile away, can’t you?

When our ideas about preaching are defined by the oratory skill of the one delivering the message, and not the content itself, compromise quickly follows. Some compromise by sanding down the rough edges of Scripture, as the seeker movement has often been accused of, giving people inspiring or uplifting talks that resemble the dreck spoon fed to viewers of daytime television. But others compromise by going in the opposite direction, thinking if they can just be wild and offensive enough, people will come just to see what they’re going to say next.

And, of course, it works. Sort of.

There are massive churches in America built on both of these ideals, and thousands of preachers look to their leaders to see what they “should” be doing differently. But if I were a betting man, I’d be willing to say many—perhaps even most—of those churches aren’t all that healthy. Why? Because they’ve embraced the truth as Murrow sees it and made the preacher the main attraction.

And you know something? Pastoral quality does matter. It matters a lot. But if we’re measuring on sermons, we’re completely missing the mark. You know why?

Because even a blasphemer who’s a good public speaker can deliver an inspiring message.

He can grow a church into the thousands, even tens of thousands. But what he has in oratory gifting, he falls short of in the only pastoral quality that really does matter, biblically: character.

I’ve written on this in the past, but it bears repeating: the only thing the Bible consistently holds up as the measuring rod for pastors is not their skill in preaching, though they must be able to teach. It is their character.

Who they are matters far more than what they can do. 

But we don’t like this, so we try to give measurements Scripture doesn’t for how to evaluate church growth. And it always comes back to numbers.

But we don’t have to choose that. And make no mistake, it’s we who are imposing that measure, not the Lord.

Instead, we see that the Lord shames the strong by choosing the weak things of this world. We see him bless the humble, and oppose the proud. When he speaks to the seven churches in Revelation, he rebukes all but one, the smallest and most seemingly insignificant one at that.

So, is church growth all about the pastor? Honestly, who cares? Be more concerned about the character of the man who is leading, rather than how many seats are filled. Because, really, the only one holding you to a number is you.

6 thoughts on “Is church growth all about the pastor?”

  1. The fact that church growth is indeed, among other things, about the pastor should be a sign to us that we have departed from the Scriptures on the subject of church. I was a pastor and one of the things I learned was that it is impossible to build a church relying only on doing what the Scriptures say. That should tell us something.

  2. I read the same article yesterday and had similar thoughts. T’he author seemed to emphasize the elements of preaching that are entertaining or inspiring and leave off other important matters.

    But you seem to downgrade teaching ability in comparison with character. You write, “[T]he Bible consistently holds up as the measuring rod for pastors is not their skill in preaching, though they must be able to teach. It is their character.” I agree that character is essential. But the one distinguishing quality of a pastor/overseer is his ability to teach, his aptitude for teaching, his skillfulness in teaching (1 Timothy 3:2, didaktikos, “skillful in teaching,” BDAG). Exemplary character is a necessity for pastors, but it is also generally required for all Christian men. Anyone who aspires to be a pastor ought to be skillful in teaching, not as an afterthought, but as an essential ability.

    And, as a general observation, all else being equal, the more skillful the teacher, the larger the congregation.

    Furthermore, though I did not entirely agree with the article either, I think you were unfair to the author. If a person were only reading your reaction to the article, one might think the the author implied that character didn’t matter. Most readers, I think, would not get that from a charitable reading of what the author was trying to say, not what he wasn’t trying to say.

    1. I think this a fair critique of my response, Andrew. On the first point, perhaps it would have been better for me to include the word *primary* in discussion of the measuring rod for pastors, although I do mention there that they must be able to teach.

      As to the second point, again, I think this more-or-less fair. Although I did mention above that the author wishes this was not the case and accepts it more as a “tragic reality” rather than an ideal, I could have probably emphasized that aspect more.

      My greater concern in writing the article (which Murrow’s piece raised to the surface in writing this) is how we keep using the wrong measurements to determine success in the church. When we focus only or even primarily on numbers, we too easily and quickly overlook some of the more serious problems that are either on display for all to see or just under the surface waiting to erupt.

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