How Fast Does a Church Have to Grow to Take Over the World?

Between the time of Christ and about 300 years later Christianity took over the known world.  What started with Jesus and his 12 followers ended up conquering the Roman Empire.  When Jesus died he left 120 odd followers who birthed his church on the Day of Pentecost.  That church grew and grew and ultimately Rome bowed to it.  When you read about the early church in the book of Acts it really gives a picture of triumphant growth – the gospel spreading at an alarming rate.

So what rate did the church actually grow at?  Sure it was fast, sure the results were amazing, but what percentage each year did it grow by?

The sociologist and historian Rodney Stark has analysed the data.  And here’s the result – 3.5% per year.  And whilst there is some ebbing and flowing of the growth rate it is surprisingly consistent for long periods.

Yes that’s all, 3.5%.  That doesn’t sound like anything special to me.  Imagine that you went to a church with 100 people.  At the start of the year your pastor stood up and said, “Church, this year I’m believing that God will pour out his Spirit just like he did on the early church.  Let’s pray and work towards adding 3 more people to our congregation this year – no, 4 people!  Will you believe with me for that?  Can we do it???”  I think any pastor who cast that “vision” would get stunned silence from the congregation.  Talk about underwhelming!  And yet that is exactly what the early church did, and it resulted in a large harvest.

The reason that that growth rate was enough to bring the Roman Empire to its knees is because 300 years is a VERY long time.  When you have compound growth that’s what happens.

So what about today?  How is the church doing today in comparison?  If you live in a Western country you could be forgiven for thinking that the church is declining and in danger of vanishing all together.  That’s far from the case.

The missions encyclopaedia Operation World says that evangelical churches are growing at 2.6% per year.  (An evangelical church is, in short, one that believes that Jesus literally rose from the dead and believing in him is the difference between going to heaven and hell.)  That compares with overall global population growth of 1.2%.  But of course the overall numbers are huge compared to the estimated 6 million Christians when Emperor Constantine turned to Christ in 312 AD.  There are currently somewhere between 550 and 600 million evangelical Christians, and well over a billion Catholics, Orthodox and other Protestant Christians as well.

So our current growth of 2.6% is not that far off the growth of the early church of 3.5%.  In fact just a couple of decades ago evangelical churches were growing at 4.5% as huge numbers of new believers in East Asia, sub Saharan Africa and Latin America were added to the church.

Whilst there is huge variation from continent to continent overall the church is in very good health, and evangelical churches have just capped off a remarkable century of unprecedented growth.  And there is plenty more to come.

Of course there is nothing special about slow growth as opposed to fast growth.  If a church can grow fast so much the better – that means more coming to Christ, more lost sheep being found.  But I think we need to review out concept of what fast and slow growth is.

So imagine that you are a part of a church that is about to end the year in a pretty similar position to where it started.  Welcome to a church not unlike the early church.  That’s a church that can play a role in turning the world upside down.  That’s a church that can make a difference.  It’s a bit like the tortoise and the hare – slow and steady wins the race.


4 Comments to “How Fast Does a Church Have to Grow to Take Over the World?”

  1. I appreciate and was enlightened by that piece, John and Catherine. Good stuff. I think, however are there any stats or did anyone dare to document the quality of the additional 3.5% each time the church’s numbers grew. I think a grow rate of the 3% mark suggests that there is also time to work on the quality of the convert (discipleship) rather than focus on the next growth ‘conquest’, as some are so obsessed by. I think the TYPE of changes and the degree of commitment and public stance on faith were probably the reason why the influence traveled far and wide. There a definite muzzling going on today. Numerically, we’re growing, but there are warning signs out there that suggests that being the largest group of faith might start to mean less and less if it isn’t addresses soon.
    What do you reckon?

    By the way, HI – LONG TIME – HOW ARE YA? 🙂

    • Ron we are well!! I don’t think that there is any reason a church can’t do both discipleship and evangelism at the same time. I don’t think that doing one of those really well will mean that you can’t do the other well. There is simply nothing stopping any church that wants to being highly effective at both. But truly explosive growth is very difficult to maintain for a long time because you need to train alot of leaders, and that is not a rapid process. Good to hear from you!

  2. Love it! That is all

  3. Hear, hear. Great post John. Sometimes I feel like we (the church) have bought into the fast living ethos expounded by the world. The result is flash-in-the-pan movements, and cynicism from the lost; after all, to them it looks like the leader is in it for personal short term gain and a nice retirement fund (even if that’s not the case).

    We need to be in the race for the long haul. That is the order of things that God set up, and we shouldn’t try to buck it. Short term growth is not bad – we just need to remember to “not rejoice that the spirits submit to [us], but rejoice that [our] names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20, NIV)

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