I’ve always been told that if a business or church isn’t growing, something must be terribly wrong. After all, healthy things always multiply and grow.

But frankly, that’s hogwash. It’s based on idealistic and wishful thinking. It’s a leadership urban legend. And a dangerous one at that.

Nothing in nature supports the goofy idea that healthy things always multiply and grow. In fact, in the natural order of God’s creation, it’s quite the opposite. The higher up the food chain, the shorter the period of multiplication. The same goes for growth. Living things grow to a size predetermined by DNA and environment. Then they spend all of their energy sustaining life at the size God ordained.

Some are ants. Some are elephants. Most are somewhere in between. But once any living thing reaches its prescribed size, it stops growing. It’s not a matter of health. It’s a matter of God’s design.

What makes the myth of endless multiplication and growth so dangerous when applied to organizations is what it does to the leaders and ministries who buy into it.

  • First, it puffs up the elephants. Have you noticed that the primary proponents of this myth are always theorists (those who love to describe the ideal without ever having to make it happen) or those of us who already have an elephant-sized ministry?
  • Second, it emotionally crushes the ants (and pretty much anyone who fails to measure up to the elephants). The result is a plethora of pastors and ministry leaders who feel guilty and inadequate for not growing beyond their gifting, spiritual DNA, and the fertility of the harvest field they serve in.
  • Third, it tempts those who face a slowing growth rate (or no growth) to take organizational steroids. Instead of accepting our God-ordained size and faithfully taking care of what we have, we panic and chase after the latest gimmicks and programs in the mistaken belief that bigger always means healthier. But as we all know, while steroids can make us bigger and stronger, they’ll never make us healthier.

So what do you think? How has the myth of endless multiplication and growth as the natural order of things impacted the way you lead, evaluate your success, and plan for the future?

24 Comments

  1. Jeremiah Curran on August 30, 2012 at 9:17 am

    Dang! Great post Larry! Thanks for sharing! Just what I needed to hear today!

  2. Jim Kennon on August 30, 2012 at 11:48 am

    Great post. I’m a relatively healthy individual who also happens to be 6’5″. I’m very thankful my DNA prohibits me from continued growth. I confess to often saying healthy churches grow. I think I’ll change that to “healthy churches are more likely to reach their potential.” Thanks!

  3. Todd Dugard on August 30, 2012 at 11:49 am

    I think you are assuming that the phrase/principle only applies to growth in a given local church.

    But if a church plant grows to 1000 people and caps out in that location (I’ll admit that that is a reality), multiplication still happens in the same way that it happens in the animal and plant kingdoms…through reproduction.

    And so, growth includes not just one congregation’s growth, but growth of new congregations from that original one.

    The phrase “healthy things multiply” presses the question: Is the church a church planting church? Any church that loses its way on the mission to evangelize and plant new churches does indeed have something terribly wrong.

    Healthy churches do multiply. And when they don’t multiply anymore, they are no longer healthy. And they eventually die (or they should). Just like animals and plants that aren’t healthy anymore.

    • Larry Osborne on August 30, 2012 at 12:14 pm

      Todd – Yes, I’m applying this principle and post to a local church. That’s the only way I’ve ever heard the idea that healthy things always grow and multiply applied. I have to say that I strongly disagree with your statement that a lack of growth and multiplication is a sign that someone (or any living thing) is no longer healthy. We don’t consider a 24 year old man who has stopped physically growing as “unhealthy.” Yes he will eventually die (all living things do), but he is not unhealthy. Same with a woman beyond childbearing age. She may no longer be capable of procreating, but that hardly means the she is no longer healthy. In most cases, she will have many more healthy years of life ahead of her. It’s the same same for churches, organizations, and businesses. To say that when they stop multiplying they are no longer healthy, is to lay down a principle that fails to match up with how God’s creation works in the real world.

  4. Jon on August 30, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    Larry, lets keep your illustration going … if this lady ends up sitting in a chair, watching tv and doing nothing do you still consider her healthy? Just because you stop growing taller or having kids is to miss the point of growth and multiplication. I would call her “healthy” if she is continually growing in knowledge, faith and in her walk with Christ. And I would call her healthy if she is still multiplying by being on the mission Christ called us all to – making disciples.

    I understand your concern with the term — size is not the only indication of health. But if a church is not making disciples (the job we were given by Jesus) how is that we think it is still healthy?

    • Larry Osborne on August 30, 2012 at 12:41 pm

      Jon – You’re changing definitions on me. If you want to redefine the meaning of “endless growth and multiplication” so that it simply means continually discipling people and growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord, then I couldn’t agree with you more. But that’s not how people use this cliche and myth. They use it to claim that a numerically plateaued church, ministry, or organization is unhealthy – and the same for a local church that no longer spins off new church plants. That’s the myth I’m debunking and the kind of growth and multiplication that all of my illustrations apply to.

  5. Todd Dugard on August 30, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    Larry: If you’ve narrowed the definition to churches that only speak of numerical growth, I agree. But it is reckless to toss out the phrase because some abuse the concept.

    All churches must be involved somehow in reproducing themselves…numerical growth at home, spinning off church plants (as you put it) locally, as well as the supporting of church planting regionally, nationally, globally. Otherwise we’re putting aside the Great Commission in local churches that have capped out in growth.

    Everything dies in its time. People stop growing, stop multiplying, stop being effective and they die. Plants and animals too. That’s where your illustration breaks down. Too many people will use your reasoning to excuse the lack of mission in their local church. Churches that are unhealthy and dying or are already dead should plead with God for a breakthrough in their midst.

    We shouldn’t be perpetuating the myth of the zero-impact church.

  6. Jon on August 30, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    Todd, you said much more clearly what I was looking to say. Something that isn’t growing and multiplying is not “alive” … and to take the illustration to where it matters most … a church that is ok with not having any impact in the world is not alive.

    The danger of the saying is to make it mean that only big things matter … and again that is where I completely agree with the warning, Larry. A church of 100 may be having a HUGE impact and in fact be growing and multiplying the gospel – let’s not despise the small. But to give any sized church a pass on fulfilling the mission of Christ is never a good thing. Even if it might discourage the ant it is still the hard mission we have been called to (and I am in an ant sized church!).

    I also agree that the elephant can’t just rest on it’s size either … is that large church still about gospel growth? – that’s the key.

  7. johndavidson1 on August 30, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    Larry I appreciate this post and have felt extremely uncomfortable for a long time with the statement “healthy things grow” as it relates to churches. This discussion begs another question and it precisely relates to Todd’s statement that “everything dies in its time…that’s where your illustration breaks down.”

    The question is, does it necessarily stand to reason that a healthy local church will live forever? Todd indicated that your illustration breaks down there, so I’m assuming he expects every local church to exist forever, but I don’t think that has to be true. It is possible that a local congregation might fulfill a purpose in a community for a given period of time and then dissolve, merge into another church, etc. I think we get into trouble when we try to make hard and fast rules about what form and evolutionary path a church should take. They’re all unique creations of the Holy Spirit and He should be expected to use each one uniquely.

    • Larry Osborne on August 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm

      John – I’d agree with you that no local church is supposed to last (or live) forever. Local churches are simply outposts and temporary gathering places in God’s greater kingdom.

      As you correctly surmise, my post is simply a rebuttal to the goofy idea that healthy living things (and by implication healthy local churches) will have endless numerical growth – never plateauing in size and never ceasing to spin off and plant new churches.

      The importance of spiritual growth, the great commission, and the gospel mission are simply not the subject of this post (mainly because they aren’t the focus of cliche that “healthy things always grow and multiply”). Those are subjects that I’ve dealt with in some of my previous books and other posts, both past and future.

  8. Karl Vaters on August 30, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    Larry, thank you so much for your post. I’m the pastor of a small church and I’ve been making this argument for years. I actually use the grasshopper/giant analogy from Numbers 13:32-33 in a very similar way you used the elephant/ant analogy.

    At the risk of sounding like I’m advertising (but I guess I am, in a way) I’ve written a book on this topic, entitled “The Grasshopper Myth”. A chapter from the book will be featured in Enrichment magazine (the national trade journal for Assemblies of God ministers) in January. I’m using the book, which will be out in December, as the first element of a two-step approach to starting a ministry to support Small Church pastors. The other step is a blog I’m currently building at http://www.TheNewSmallChurch.com.

    This is a lot to ask from a guy you’ve never heard of, but after my blog gets set up I’d love to link to your blog, and I wonder if I can do a quick (4-5 minute) interview with you for it. I live fairly close to you, in Fountain Valley (next to Huntington Beach) and I’d be willing to meet with you at your convenience. It wouldn’t take any more than a half hour. We could shoot it anywhere.

    If you go to my website, even though it’s just at the beginning stages, you can get a better idea of what I’m all about.

  9. this went thru my mind | on August 31, 2012 at 11:06 pm

    […] * The Myth of Endless Growth by Larry Osborne [required reading]; * Reflections on a Red God by Dan […]

  10. Mike Ramondetta on September 4, 2012 at 8:34 am

    Great post and great discussion. I think what you (Larry) said about “It’s a matter of God’s design” is a great truth about God’s sovereignty. Speaking of churches–it’s His (Jesus’) church not ours. Our best well intentioned efforts in our unique community with the resources and people we have been given, may not produce the outcomes we thought or hoped for. At the end of the day God is in control and whom He wants to increase He will “add the church daily as such that should be saved.” We just need to focus on Him, and be faithful in the Spreading of His Gospel and making disciples. Oh yea and be careful not to do too much comparing (elephants vs. ants.) PS Love your book “Sticky Teams!” Thanks

  11. Tom Garasha on September 10, 2012 at 11:03 am

    I would agree with you Larry except I believe you are using lower room metrics as Wil Mancini puts it. If we are only looking for external growth due to size and multiplication then I can agree. But the Body of Christ and it’s leadership need to be life long learners. That means a healthy interior. Even if the church isn’t multiplying for a season or has stopped growing numerically their needs to be growth in the inner man. Holistically the principle should apply.

    • Larry Osborne on September 10, 2012 at 2:19 pm

      That is my point. No one who talks about the need for endless growth and multiplication is talking about the internal – they are always talking about the external number of people and churches that can be identified to a local ministry. And the assumption is that any lack of numerical growth and multiplication means lack of health.

  12. Erik Williams on September 10, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    Thanks for looking out for us ants, Larry! =)

  13. J on September 26, 2012 at 11:40 am

    I appreciate your point. I am an “ant” who experienced serious burnout being part of a church whose leader was all about numbers and growth engines to achieve those numbers. When God called me to start a ministry, it was looked at as a “growth engine,” not as a ministry to meet needs and draw people to Christ. Many people bought into this pastor’s “cause,” but those that did worked themselves to burnout and were even mistreated by leadership. So many of what I would call “quality” people don’t even want to go to church anymore. I sure didn’t. I have been in a different church for 6 years, and never has there been a period of my life where I haven’t “served” at church, except now. I’m afraid to because I don’t want to serve in any church unless it means making a true, eternal difference. My heart can’t take it again.

  14. […] “The myth of endless growth,” by Larry Osborne […]

  15. Todd on May 17, 2013 at 5:55 am

    I would point everyone to Dawson Trotman’s message, “Born to Reproduce,” for a great look at God’s design for reproduction in the spiritual reality. Along with Mark chapter 4, I believe it brings God’s heart and design for Kingdom growth to life in a very clear and compelling way.

    It’s not about the size of the local body, but a healthy, maturing local body that has as it’s goal reproduction, not size. Kingdom advancement, not building their own “tower.”

    Great discussion here!! Thanks, Larry for getting it going.

    Trotman’s message can be found here in audio form.
    http://www.discipleshiplibrary.com/dawson_trotman.php

    or here in PDF…
    http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CC4QFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fksustumo.org%2Fresources%2Fgrowingbeliever%2Fborntoreproduce.pdf&ei=tyeWUcH9HdP_4AO_vYGQCw&usg=AFQjCNE4jc0U_-DSCRg_zYopX_6UJvkVTA&bvm=bv.46471029,d.dmg

  16. Andrew Lundgren on May 17, 2013 at 9:55 am

    John Maxwell makes the same point in “21 Laws” with the Law of the Lid as it relates to leadership: a guy like me will never have the leadership ability to make it to the White House, but I can help lead in ministry, at home, and other places.

    Interesting why so many apply the plateau principle to so many other areas of life and yet not to the church.

    Miss you guys in Vista, Larry. Thanks for your ministry.

  17. rikmaxedon on May 17, 2013 at 11:44 am

    I am a bivo church planter of a church of about 65 or so. We are now 6 years old, Your post is wonderfully written and nourishment to my sometimes inferior feeling soul.

  18. Pat on May 20, 2013 at 9:48 pm

    Thanks so much for this post. Our church is in a rural setting that’s also self-sufficient in its affluence. Our numerical growth has plateaued, and we’ve seen so many consumers go to other churches. We seem to make an impact through our missions committee in supporting missionaries on the foreign field and we’ve engaged in sending out short-term missionaries, but we live under this cloud of misconception and insecurity due to the pressure to test our church health numerically.

  19. kjc on May 30, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    Great post, bro Larry is the man, the book sticky teams is awesome.

  20. What to Read | Transforming Leader on June 14, 2013 at 5:02 am

    […] The Myth of Endless Growth by Larry Osborne I’ve always been told that if a business or church isn’t growing, something must be terribly wrong. After all, healthy things always multiply and grow.  But frankly, that’s hogwash. It’s based on idealistic and wishful thinking. It’s a leadership urban legend. And a dangerous one at that.  Read More. […]

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