There are probably two types of Dead Men readers, and I want to step on all twenty of your toes: you are probably either the missional Christian (who obsesses over church growth) or you are probably the theology Christian (who obsesses over church depth). Which of these two categories you fall into will determine the goals and direction that you lead your local church. So, by the end of this article, my goal is to clearly and convincingly compel you towards a better goal than width or depth.
After all, daring and audacious goals don’t always have to be about size and numerical growth. I don’t say this because I think church growth is a bad goal for local churches. I really don’t. When people become frustrated with churches that succeed in the task of numerical growth, they usually retort: “It’s not about the numbers!” Have you heard that phrase before? A statement like this forgets that numbers represent people, and every Christian agrees that we long to see people come to love Jesus. Still, something feels wrong about the statement “It’s about the numbers!” I think, or at least I hope, most churches would be slow to print this slogan onto a banner and hang it up in the sanctuary as the church’s vision statement. There’s good reason for this hesitancy, and in part, I think it’s because most Christians recognize that church growth has two directions: width and depth.
Church growth goes both down and out. Churches that obsess over width, hoping to become the biggest church in the city, often compromise deep theology. On the other hand, churches that obsess over depth, hoping to become the smartest church in the city, often compromise mission. Of course, this is a generalization. Yet, this forces a question that church leaders need to answer: is our church’s goal to be the biggest or the smartest church in our city?
How would the members in your church answer that question?
Let me humbly propose this to us, church leaders and members: the goal for our churches should be neither of these two options. It’s not because I don’t value new believers (and church growth). It’s not because I don’t value deep believers (and church depth). It’s because I think there’s a way forward that acknowledges the good in both: we should long for our churches to be the most joyful churches in our cities.
Please, take a moment to pause and slowly re-read that last sentence.
I mean every syllable of every word that I wrote in that sentence: I want my church to be the most joyful church in my city. But let’s get our categories straight: the joy I’m writing of is a distinct, long-lasting, and rugged variant of joy. It’s not the type of joy that is undirected and aimless. That’s naïve joy. Neither is it the type of joy that can be robbed by difficult circumstances. That’s circumstantial joy. And it’s definitely not the type of joy that is acquired through material satisfaction. That’s superficial joy. The type of joy I’m writing about is joy in Jesus. When joy in Jesus is the aim of the church, I believe the Spirit blesses the church with a capacity to grow both in width and depth!
There are pragmatic, facile reasons to pursue your joy, reasons that are becoming more and more documented in the world of pop-psychology. Here are a few noted in David Murray’s book The Happy Christian:
- “Optimist Salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 33 percent.” Happiness leads to competence.
- “Student freshmen’s happiness levels predict their income nineteen years later.” Happiness leads to success.
- “Unhappy employees take fifteen more sick days a year.” Happiness leads to productivity.
None of these reasons are bad reasons to pursue joy, they’re just, well, superficial. Shallow. Glib. They fall short of the ultimate aim of the Christian life and give the impression that the human experience is trite. Motivation that springs from these reasons can unwittingly diminish life to a reductionist equation like if I can act joyful, I can get ____________. Ironically, I’m convinced that our churches will never experience joy in Christ if we stalk joy for reasons other than Christ. The best reasons to chase after your joy are the Biblical reasons: because God demands it and God distributes it.
God demands your joy, he doesn’t merely suggest it: “Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” (Psalm 32:11). God distributes your joy because he contains it: “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). As a church planter, the church I am helping to plant is championing this vision by explicitly articulating and crafting it into our vision statement: “Frontier Church exists for the glory of Jesus and the joy of Des Moines.” In other words, when you join our church plant, you’re imperfectly enlisting in the mission to glorify Jesus by making our city joyful in Him. Our city is big and, no, we probably aren’t the city’s most joyful church. But we’re endeavoring.
So, church leaders and members, let’s endeavor to lead our churches into greater Christian joy if we desire to see our church grow in width and depth.
Pursuing joy in Jesus propels the church towards depth. In 1 Peter 1:3-6, Peter writes a pocket-sized systematic theology of the Christian faith, and his conclusion is “in this you rejoice.” May our pursuit of joy never cause us to turn to cheesy skits or superficial sermons, but instead, may it march us forward into the spring of rich theology. But pursuing joy also propels the church towards width, too. We are happiest about whatever it is we share most. That movie you saw and tweeted about? That song you can’t stop talking about? When we experience joy in Jesus, we can’t help but blather on and on about him (that’s Iowan for mission), and it is in these missional activities that the church grows in width. The command “Be joyful in Jesus!” differs only in rhetoric from “Share Jesus with people!”
It’s not wrong for you to long to belong to the smartest church in your city. As a faithful reader of Dead Men, I can bet that you rightly value the importance of intellectual doctrine and theology. Neither is it wrong to want to be the biggest church in your city. Again, as a Dead Men reader, I imagine that you prioritize local mission in your city. But if you want both church growth and church depth my suggestion is to resolve yourself to neither of them as your chief goal. Consider how millions of Christians have historically answered one of life’s most piercing questions: what is the chief end of man? Surely, friends, the answer is the same for our churches as organizations as it is for us as individuals: to glorify God by enjoying him forever. And consider what distinction Moses saw when he looked at the people of God and was stirred to exclaim, “Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD” (Deuteronomy 33:29)? Surely, the answer to this question was and is the enduring, undying, abiding joy they possessed in their savior: “Happy are you, O Israel!”
For goodness sake, help your church aim to be the most joyful church in your city!