During the past 16 years, I’ve been the pastor of (this) church. We’ve grown from 32 in attendance to over 5,000 members. Our budget has gone from $43,000 a year to $4.2 million….Will you let me help you lead your church to the next level? —brochure advertising a conference in Columbus, Georgia [1]

Too many are worldly enough to think in terms of numbers and statistics, forgetting that there was only one Christ, three special disciples, twelve in all—and one of these a devil. —William Still [2]

Francis Schaeffer describes well the American obsession with size in his famous 1974 essay, “No Little People, No Little Places.” Schaeffer’s insights and conclusions still ring true today.

If a Christian is consecrated (fully to God’s service), does this mean he will be in a big place instead of a little place? As there are no little people in God’s sight, so there are no little places….Nowhere more than in America are Christians caught in the twentieth-century syndrome of size. Size will show success. If I am consecrated, there will necessarily be large quantities of people, dollars, etc. This is not so. Not only does God not say that size and spiritual power go together, but He even reverses this (especially in the teaching of Jesus) and tells us to be deliberately careful not to choose a place too big for us. We all tend to emphasize big works and big places, but all such emphasis is of the flesh.[3]

This is not to argue that big churches cannot be places of humility, only that there are more important things to aim for than growth. Humility formed by the gospel ought to be at the top of the list. To that end, active church planting can wonderfully aid the church’s attempts to maintain humility. I offer this as a suggestion rather than a rule. When believers allow their local churches to become large and well known, the temptation to pride in their leaders becomes sharper and harder to resist. The challenge is for pastors, and often, this temptation to pride is faced by the two or three most influential families who gave much time and treasure to facilitate growth—they can gain an unhealthy sense of ownership.

The larger the church, the more reasons there may be to cling to and fight over things other than the gospel. The more beautiful the building, the stronger the opinions about how it should be maintained or altered. Often, the larger budget brings the more heated debate about its allocation (though small churches are by no means immune to this). The larger the church, the more it may tend to attract successful men and women from the community with mixed spiritual motives, and who may in time work their way into leadership. Large staffs make infighting and power struggles more likely to arise. Such growth in pride is not inevitable, but it is not uncommon either. Believers must be on guard.

If believers are on guard against such dangers and seek the growth of Christ’s kingdom as foremost, then they will be more likely to plant sister congregations, rather than growing their own church larger and larger. This is no guarantee against pride since one may take pride in the planting itself. Scheduling two morning services can also be a humble approach to meeting the needs of a growing congregation; it is a form of sacrificial service by the preacher, musicians, ushers, and so forth. However, if the decision to hold two services is meant only to grow the numbers of one’s own congregation, then I am afraid it may take on a Babel-like character, seeking to concentrate fame and power in one place, building one’s own little kingdom higher and higher. A modern American preacher’s ego can reach just as far into the sky as any medieval cathedral in all its gaudy glory. If believers flattened their own little empires and instead spread God’s glory far and wide through planting sister churches, they would better serve the kingdom of God.

The danger of pride is not lessened either by a multi-site model centered upon a celebrity pastor. I know the motives for such a model are often good, but one wonders how it promotes the cause of Christian humility to so elevate one teacher to the point that he is live-streamed into various satellite sites across a city or region. After all, it was Paul who said, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (I Corinthians 3:5–7).

When done well, church planting decentralizes power by spinning off a portion of one congregation and entrusting it to new leadership. Church planting intentionally sets up a sister competitor of sorts, which visitors may attend instead of the sending church. The sister church may grow at the planting church’s expense, in terms of both number and budget. In fact, that is the very goal. Instead of building large staffs in one place under the leadership of one leader, church planting spreads the glory around, remembering the oft-repeated dictum that “Ministers are like manure: pile them up and they begin to stink; spread them around and they do a lot of good.”

Church planting also helps ensure that congregations stay small enough to know one another as the family of God. Church planting is one way to prevent churches from turning into factories, by keeping them modest enough to remain gardens of real, authentic community, quirks and all. It is one way to learn continually not to despise days of small things and to trust God to keep laying new plumb lines (cf. Zechariah 4:10).

Church planting takes a good amount of humility, for it involves giving up resources and numbers and control that enable a church plant eventually to become its own congregation. I know how hard this is because my congregation has done it, sending out almost a third of our core members to begin a new work several years back. The two years following this sacrifice were two of the hardest I have endured as a pastor, particularly the toll it took on my self-vaunted humility. I discovered resentments and feelings of entitlement in the recesses of my heart that I did not know existed. Relationships were strained, and it was only by prayer and the patience of others that the congregation was sustained. Despite such a price, I was worried more about the dangers to our congregation if we had not planted; that we would grow to the point that real care and relationships would grow shallow as the pressure to add staff and services increased. We planted for the sake of humility, that the cause of the kingdom would take priority over our own reputation as a growing church. We wanted the gospel to go out more effectively and the means of grace to double, even as our own worldly prestige lessened. In a very real sense, it was our church saying Christ must increase, and we must decrease (cf., John 3:30).  That is how church planting can aid the cause of humility, as we put the Kingdom before our own size and reputation.

Excerpted from Rediscovering Humility © 2018 by Christopher A. Hutchinson. Used by permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission. To purchase this and other helpful resources, please visit newgrowthpress.com

[1] Received in the mail by the author, 1999. Names withheld intentionally.

[2] Still, The Work of the Pastor, 98.

[3] Francis A. Schaeffer, No Little People (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003; original 1974), 25–26.