In Praise of the Plateaued Church

“It is a very difficult emotional experience to go through . . . a very devastating experience when it happens. Some people can deal with it, some people can’t.”

George Lucas, quoted above, realized he couldn’t deal with it. Caught in the middle of his Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies, Lucas was newly minted as a multi-millionaire and gaining traction as the force to be reckoned with in Hollywood.

There was more to his triumph than the actual films, of course. He owned several companies revolutionizing how film was edited, how it sounded, and how it was merchandised. Lucas was the architect behind the state-of-the-art Skywalker Ranch. Movie posters emblazoned with his name drew both investors and moviegoers alike.

But George Lucas’ self-created empire of success would strike back, throwing Lucas into a tailspin like a gunned-down X-wing. Success must not be for everyone. Maybe it’s not for me, or for you. And maybe we should praise God that this is so.

THE PROBLEM WITH QUANTITATIVE METRICS

Those of us who serve in ministry usually believe we are the kind of people who are able to “deal with” success if it comes to us. We see more people, more money, more space, and more programs as evidence of the Lord’s favor. We believe God is “blessing” a ministry when we have to put out more chairs than anticipated or when the church calendar is full.

We pray for more, because we think more, bigger, and louder will bring us closer to where God wants us to be. But what if “more” actually hinders our ability to draw near to him? What if, like Lucas, success actually makes our work harder, and our hearts more prone to wander?

I recently attended a conference where the speakers discussed the life stages and health of a local church. They argued that congregations that are “subtracting” (losing attendance) or “plateauing” (staying neutral in attendance) are clearly not healthy, sustainable forms of church life.

It’s no secret that we are called to make disciples, which means we should not be shy to pursue addition and multiplication in our church bodies. But this “more or bust” view of disciple-making is too quantitative. When Jesus called the twelve to go and make disciples, the instruction was not “bring them to your gatherings and fill the pews,” but rather to be a sent people (Matt. 9:38; Mark 3:14, 6:7; John 20:21).

Their work was primarily to baptize and to teach (Matt. 28:19-20). Gathering believers is obviously not the enemy (see the book of Acts), but it is also not the goal in and of itself. Disciple-making in the Gospels is thoroughly qualitative; it seems more concerned with depth than width.

RETHINKING “GROWTH”

Pastors and church leaders must wrestle with hard questions: Has the Lord failed churches whose attendance has not grown, who have not met their ministry budget yet again, who are not forming more community groups by the month? Is it truly fair to say that “stagnation” in a congregation is purely negative? There are certainly instances in which churches are “subtracting” or “plateauing” due to unfaithfulness or being off-track. But that may not be the case for every church who finds herself in this position.

Maybe it is not the failure of Christ to build his church—maybe it is his protection. Maybe “build” isn’t something we can measure.

To the pastor with a congregation traversing the plateau: Have you considered that the plateau is right where God wants you and your church body? Is it possible God knows where your temptable heart would be if you were brought to the mountaintop of ministry success, overlooking all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and asked to bow to success? No pastor can serve two masters, and God knows you better than you know yourself.

To the church member discontent that your church isn’t growing: Have you considered that those you are among weekly could be the ones God has called you to minister to? Is it possible God desires for you to sacrificially love these people, and that your church has potential for miraculous growth without adding one more person to the equation?

REFLECTIONS FROM THE PLATEAU

As I reflect on my own ministry, I am learning what it means to walk the plateau with the right perspective. Working with students, I have watched my ministry increase in size and decrease in size, spiking and falling like a roller coaster.

If someone walked in from the business world and evaluated our student ministry in this season, they’d probably say it’s “stagnant.” They would say so with a sneaking disappointment, perhaps ready to suggest areas of improvement.

We are a ministry that desires to see students saved. We want to reach our community with the gospel. We love evangelism. None of these truths are harmed by the fact that we are okay with God keeping us on the plateau if that’s where he wants us. We’ve seen growth, absolutely—it just might not be easy to record on a spreadsheet.

Don’t believe for a second that this kind of thinking comes natural to me. It’s a daily decision to die to my pride and my desire for significance. It’s the daily reminder that only God deserves the glory. These are not easy to take on the chin. But they are God’s means of grace. After all, is any pastor or church more in danger than when God leaves them to their pride?

FAITHFULNESS OVER FAME

Scripture calls us time and time again to faithfulness, even if we are few, even if the church is “stagnant.” There is nothing lacking in a little gathering (2 Cor. 8:15). It is God’s way to choose what is foolish in the world to shame our wisdom, what is weak in the world to shame what is seen as strength, so that no human being might boast in his presence (1 Cor. 1:27–29). Let us go to the harvest, yes, but let us also be faithful shepherds to those among us (1 Pet. 5:2). His ways are not our ways (Is. 55:8).

Skye Jethani sums it up well: “God does not judge our effectiveness. He judges our faithfulness.”

Dear pastor, God might never give you “more,” but he has given you some. You may never make a bigger splash in the pond of evangelicalism, or even in your own community, but he has given you a people. Dear Christian, if you belong to a church, you belong to a miraculous work of God, regardless of its head count.

When we are talking about the gathered people of God, the plateau is nothing to lament. It might be for your good and for God’s glory. It might even be something to praise.


Zach Barnhart lives in the greater Austin, TX area with his wife, Hannah, and their daughter, Nora. Zach serves as Pastor of Students and Spiritual Formation of Northlake Church and is a staff writer with GCD. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Middle Tennessee State University and is in pursuit of a Master of Theological Studies degree from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow Zach on Twitter or read more from him at his blog.