Everybody likes growth, don’t they? Most of us seem to want our churches to grow. And by growth, I think we often mean qualitatively in maturity in Christ but typically mean quantitively in number of people. Growth is often what we’re after.
As such, it is not uncommon to hear people praying for growth. Asking the Lord to grow our people. Asking him to grow our church. Asking him to cause our people to know and love him more. Asking him to bring new people in who will come to know him and serve alongside us in the ministry. I doubt there are many churches who are not praying prayers like these, in some way, shape or form.
But few of us realise what dangerous prayers these are to pray. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not sinful prayers. There’s nothing wrong with praying these things at all. Assuming we are praying them because we are concerned about the glory of God being seen in his church, of course we want our people to grow in their knowledge and love of the Lord Jesus, to grow up to spiritual maturity in him and for unbelievers to come, hear the gospel and put their trust in Jesus. These are good things to pray. But they are dangerous things to pray.
What do you think happens when people in your church start to become more godly and Christlike? I mean, practically speaking. What will happen? We often imagine that will make our life easier. They will become more active members of the church. They will engage with the Word on levels we had not seen before from them. All entirely possible.
But just think about what that means for you for a moment. More Christlike, godly people tends to means our deficiencies will be noticed where they previously weren’t. Not in a nasty or malevolent way, but in a way that people who want to glorify God notice when things are not as God-glorifying as they might be. People hungrier to engage the Word in ways they didn’t before means more awkward questions, thorny issues being wrestled with, demands of sermons scratching where they now itch. People suddenly fired up for Christ will have all sorts of ideas about how they might personally glorify him by reaching the lost and discipling those who are already believers. They will have all sorts of ideas for which they want approval and oversight and a host of other things.
Then think about what growth in number means for you. What happens as more people pour into the church? There is a greater number of problems to address. When people who have never seen the inside of a church start coming in, they have all sorts of ways of behaving and acting in church because they have no frame of reference. Guess who will have the joy of sorting out and sifting through those many and varied issues?
And as you increase in number, especially if it is across cultures and nations and language groups, you will increase in the number of people who might suddenly find problems with other people. Some of the first issues cropping up in the early church were those cultural issues between Jewish and Gentile Christians from different nations. The more of any set of people started jumping in, the more the problems multiplied. As the church got a handle on one set of issues, another suddenly popped up from leftfield as a new group of people came in. You may have become a pastor to teach the Bible, but if you are praying for growth, you can guarantee a fairly significant chunk of your time will be conflict resolution.
As a church full of people from different cultures and backgrounds, we frequently hit on these sorts of issues. Why do we mainly sing in English and not so much in Farsi (though we do sometimes sing in Farsi)? Nigerian believers are more used to being quite expressive when they sing but most of us stand with our hands in our pockets (even though if they want to clap and dance a bit, that is absolutely fine). Is it alright for us to eat bacon sandwiches as Christian people in a predominantly South Asian Muslim area? The more people we add, the more scope for new sets of people doing things that are culturally alien, or difficult, for another set of people. The problems simply multiply the more people we have in the room.
That is the danger of praying for growth. We often think of growth as the magic bullet. More people must equal more money, more ministry power, more outreach, bigger, better, greater. And it may well mean those things on some level, though not always. But equally, more people means more problems, more conflict, more issues to address. Praying for growth is great, but it is most definitely a dangerous thing to pray.
If we are aiming for an easier life, a nicer ministry, prayers for growth are absolutely not the thing to pray. More people will mean more conflict, more opinions, more sin, more issues, typically more work. But if we are not aiming for personal comfort or an easy life, but are truly driven on because of the glory of God, more people means kingdom growth – both quantitively and qualitatively – through which the Lord is glorified. Whilst those prayers for growth may be dangerous, it is a danger that we may want to face.