I have seen responses to surveys about church growth from several churches over the years, and I am always surprised to see responses like, “we don’t want to grow bigger,” or “if we grow to two services, we won’t know everyone.” These common responses go against our mission as Christians to make disciples. So how do we overcome our fear of growing churches? I think the parable of talents (see Matthew 25:14+) helps us in our thinking about church growth.
Jesus tells this parable about a master who gives three servants large sums of money (talents) to manage while he was away. Two of the servants invested the money and made a profit. When the master returned, he was pleased with them and gave them even more to manage. This was not a reward! The master did not give them a bonus to keep for themselves, but put them in charge of more to manage on his behalf. In other words, the servants’ work was rewarded with more work and more to risk losing for the master!
The third servant, the one given one talent, knew this was how the master operated. Instead of investing the money, he avoided risk by burying it to keep it safe. He may have been afraid of losing it all, but that is not the reason he gave when the Master questioned him. Instead, he said he was afraid because he knew the master was harsh and that the master reaped where he did not sow. In other words, the master was harsh because he did not do the work himself, and kept piling more work and responsibility on to his servants who were already working hard. The third servant was afraid of success and the extra responsibilities that would come with it!
I see the same fear of success in church members who do not want their church to grow. It is true that growing a church will take more work and incur more risk. A growing church means having more leaders and less individual control. A growing church costs more money to operate. The more successful a church gets, the more difficult and complicated is its task. Growing churches are rewarded with more work and more risk.
In spite of all these challenges, we grow the church anyway because we understand the true reward in this parable. The reward is not money, or physical gain, but entering into the master’s joy as we use the talents that God has given us to share the Gospel, and sharing the joy we discover with others. It is not enough to bury our talents and stagnate. God expects us to use our talents to share the Gospel and make disciples.
Of course it is extremely comforting to remember that the master knows what each servant is capable of, and gives them each talents according to their ability. May the Master’s joy conquer our fear of success!