Church growth isn't the goal; it's the outcome

March 24th, 2015

A recent parody poked fun at innovation in the church by pretending that an ancient church, 1,700 years old, had rebranded its name to match an American, nondenominational megachurch. It’s pretty funny stuff, and I congratulate the authors because parody is a persuasive rhetorical tool. The unspoken criticism of the image is directed toward church leaders who ostensibly advocate change on a trendline, with the accompanying loss of the church’s traditions.

I agree with the parody makers that such change is a bad idea. But not because new forms of worship are bad; rather, a lot of what passes for innovation in the church is a backward, outside-in approach to creative thinking, and invariably it fails.

It’s critical to understand what innovation is and what it is not.

Innovation comes from within

Change that works isn’t a trend to adopt or a technique to add or a committee or staff person to acquire. Innovation comes from within, from our inherent creativity. We’re made to be co-creators, in the image of God. Creativity is what we’re called to do and how we’re called to live. Part of the beauty of redemption in Christ is that we now have the freedom to rediscover the creative wonder we were given in the beginning.

Creativity is raw material. It’s the process of having new ideas with value. Most of us lose sight of our creativity and become content with following and maintenance and comfort and even consumption, and we lose track of our capability to generate new ideas.

Innovation is the process of acting on new ideas. When we create, and we make new things, we call the resulting deliverable “innovation.” Innovation is the resulting new product or program, the new service that leads to new attendees, the new communication system that keeps people plugged in better to the church, and so on. Innovation is the end result of creativity.

Innovation seems novel when creativity is latent

The problem is that, since we’ve lost sight of our innate creativity, in most organizations — education, business, and the church — innovation is scarce, and invariably meets with resistance.

This is perhaps why over 90% — almost all — congregations decline after their 15th year of existence. (Meaning, statistically speaking, there is a dramatic reduction in baptisms in congregations after their fifteenth year.) To use an old Texas saying, they begin to confuse Jesus and the horse he rode in on. They make holy the methodologies that they used at their inception, then the time and space around the congregation changes.

Jesus fought against the practices of the religious establishment of his day because they had done precisely this — they had come to value their methodologies more than their source.

The problem with the image above is that the basis for its mockery suggests that there is one perfect incarnation of a Christian congregation, aloft above time and space, when there is in fact not. There is a universal body of Christ, but the form that the body of Christ takes is through local congregations, and each congregation is Incarnational — it lives in a time and space, and as a result trades in ideas limited by that time and space. These ideas get old as time and space changes. What the church needs is people being who they’re made to be, creating.

When we create, we introduce new ideas

I don’t know many people who set out to upset those who prefer the status quo. I just know people who want to create. Creativity is what we’re made to do and who we’re made to be, as humans and as Christ followers. When we create, the things we make grow. When our focus is on making something new, innovation is what happens. To be creative, to innovate, is to be a change agent — not because it’s trendy, but because it’s what we’re made to do.

Church growth isn’t the goal; it’s the outcome.

Len Wilson is Creative Director at Peachtree, a large Presbyterian congregation in Atlanta. He blogs at

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