Dangerous Growth

When attendance is up, offerings are overflowing, conversions are leading to baptisms and believers are growing up in faith, God rejoices and so should we. Our Savior calls us to make disciples of all nations, and when we follow this call, things grow. Every church ministry has seasons of challenge, but we all love the times of growth and increase. 

As we all know, when God is at work, the Enemy of our souls is always looking for ways to turn blessings into curses and fruitfulness into failure. I have to admit that all 10 of the temptations in this article have come knocking on the door of my heart and ministry. I don’t write this article as a theoretical exercise, but from a lifetime of battling against these enticements. And sometimes, I have eaten the fruit or stepped into the trap. I write praying that when your ministry enters a time of great success and fruitfulness, you will be prepared to avoid these same pitfalls.

With this in mind, let’s look at 10 common strategies and temptations Satan uses in times of ministry success.

1. Defining success in worldly categories.

Our world defines success by numbers and status. So much of life is like this—hit specific numerical markers and you are a success. Fall short and you are seen as a failure. Church leaders are tempted to see their value and effectiveness based on last week’s numbers. There is nothing wrong with keeping attendance and celebrating numerical growth, but it can become a drug that screams, “More, more, more,” until we believe that size and success are the same thing. 

2. Keeping up the same trends.

“Last year we had 4% growth in Sunday attendance and 5% increase in the number of kids engaged in our children’s program.” Knowing this is helpful. Rejoicing in it is good. Feeling like we have to beat last year’s numbers is a dangerous disposition. 

We are in a very fluid time in history when things are changing rapidly. A church might be doing everything right but decrease in size for a season. Don’t let the temptation to grow every year lead you to panic, be depressed or manufacture numbers that are not healthy. Press on, be faithful, worship God, grow believers and reach the lost.

3. Becoming a professional.

When a church grows larger, it is easy for the lead pastor and key staff members to shift from seeing themselves as ministers and servants to church professionals. Behaving in a professional manner, working hard and seeking excellence are all good things. But church staff is first and foremost called to serve, love, connect, equip God’s people for ministry and mobilize the body of Christ to share his good news.

4. Growing your platform.

One of the most sinister temptations of the Enemy is to entice leaders of growing churches to center on themselves. Of course, no pastor or church leader will admit this is what they are doing. Some don’t even realize what is happening. They will assure you that their “brand development,” “social media presence” and “platform” are all for Jesus. 

It is so easy for this to slowly shift and become a self-promoting activity that takes up a lot of time and cultivates soil where pride can grow like weeds. The church is the beloved bride of Jesus, and our focal point should always be the glory of God.

5. Forgetting to reach lost sheep.

Another thing the Enemy does when a church is growing is keeping our focus exclusively on people who are already in the family of God. When we shuffle the deck and move people from one church to another, there is no net kingdom gain.

What Satan hates is when people leave the kingdom of darkness and receive the grace of Jesus. The church of Jesus, his universal family, grows when new people bow their heart and knees to Jesus the sacrificed Lamb of God. Don’t let your focus be only on the found, but remember the call to find the one lost sheep. 

6. Putting it in neutral.

When we feel like we have succeeded, there is a temptation to back off the explicit mission Jesus has given us. Sometimes ministry “success” can lull us to sleep, and a season of great growth and productive ministry can be followed by a time when exhausted ministry workers take a long nap and don’t wake up until things are declining. You might need a time to regroup and recharge, but never shift into neutral and coast.

7. Over-delegating.

There are pastors and leaders who are face-to-face with church members and spiritual seekers. They are willing to do whatever it takes to move the church into the world with the good news of Jesus. Then, as things grow and resources are plentiful, they hand over most of the ministry to other people. Don’t get me wrong—delegation is essential in a growing church. Wise leaders share the work with God’s people and gifted staff members. But we can be lured into over-delegating. Instead, keep working hard and let your hands get dirty. Although leaders should not try to do everything, be sure there is nothing you won’t do. 

8. Buffering yourself from the people you are called to serve.

I try to stay available to staff and church members. This is tough, and there are times I need to pull the shade on my office door and have my assistant protect me so I can study, pray and respond to lots of communication. But leaders in the church need to be accessible and connected to those they serve.

This does not mean we try to meet every need and spend time with every person in the church—we can’t. What it does mean is that we listen for the leading of the Spirit when there is a need we are called to meet. Every leader needs to stay connected to the congregation they serve, no matter the size.

9. Believing it is all about you.

Pride is deadly. Believing that the growth or effectiveness of a church is all about the leader is dangerous stuff. Yes, God uses our gifts, but at the end of the day, when success comes, God gets the glory because he is the source. When many people come to faith in Jesus, it is the work of the Spirit. When finances are plentiful, it is the Maker of heaven and earth that provided. Leaders in the church are under-shepherds and Jesus is always the Good Shepherd. Let’s keep our eyes on him and be sure he gets the praise and not us.

10. Ignoring counsel or challenge spoken in love.

As a church gets more and more “successful,” there is a small voice that can begin whispering lies that make us believe we have figured out the secret code for success, and we are tempted to stop listening to others and learning from them. We should do the exact opposite.

When things are going great, our hearts should be humble and our ears open to hear and learn from others. We should surround ourselves with people who know more than us and who are ahead of us in the learning curve. The longer we are in ministry, the more we need mentors and people who will speak the truth in love. I encourage you to ask two of three close ministry friends if they see any of these temptations in your life. The honest truth is that all of us have blind spots and others can often see dangerous patterns in us before we recognize them in ourselves.

My prayer is that when God blesses you with seasons of success, growth and exciting movement forward on the mission of Jesus, you will remember these warnings and avoid these pitfalls. I also pray that you have the courage and humility to invite wise input and listen to warnings shared by trusted and godly friends.