Grandma Buchan was a very wise woman, and she had a fascinating theory on church growth. Well, actually, her theory had to do with restaurants, but many of the same principles apply to churches.
“Jimmy, I never go to a restaurant if the parking lot isn’t full,” she told me firmly one day.
I had never thought about restaurants that way. In fact, it seemed to me that there should be other considerations.
“But, Grandma, I don’t always like busy restaurants, because you have to wait longer for your food.”
Granny couldn’t be dissuaded, though. “No, Jimmy, if a restaurant has a lot of customers, I know the food must be good.”
At the time of our conversation, it never occurred to me to ask Grandma about her thoughts on church growth. But as a pastor, I later adapted her theorem: Churches tend to grow when they serve good spiritual food.
There’s a lot to be said for this axiom. I remember when our college fellowship group was attracting members away from the very boring and very liberal chapel program on campus. The college chaplain wasn’t very happy about this, of course, but I told him that people were simply gravitating to where their needs were being met.
I’ve been on the other end of this principle, too. What if you’re a pastor whose members are leaving to attend a church down the street? It’s particularly painful when you’ve poured your heart and soul into someone who then departs for greener pastures or a better show.
If Granny were still alive, I would love to bring up some questions about how her theory applies to churches. For example, the McDonald’s drive-thru is almost always busy. But I surely can’t say the food is good, at least not nutritionally. Aren’t there churches just like that—serving food that’s high in sugar and fat, making people obese and clogging their spiritual arteries as the years go by?
Yes, people tend to gravitate to what meets their needs, but they also can gravitate to junk food.
How does this apply to your church? Is it just a feel-good congregation, or is it truly offering good spiritual nutrition? Is it a place of genuine relationship and accountability, or is it more akin to a McDonald’s drive-thru?
As we can see in John chapter six, Jesus’ earthly ministry demonstrated both sides of Granny’s principle. On the one hand, huge multitudes were following Him, because He was serving good food, healing people, and meeting their needs.
But toward the end of the chapter, the crowd was reduced down to the original 12 disciples. Why? Because Jesus wasn’t going to let His ministry become like a McDonald’s drive-thru. Rather than being content to entertain people or feed them junk food, He gave them some “hard sayings” that day: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (v. 53).
So we need to allow God to deal with us on both sides of this issue. If few people are being attracted by our ministry, we must ask ourselves whether we’re truly serving good food.
However, if huge crowds are coming, we may need to preach some “hard sayings” and see who the real disciples are. Let’s make sure our congregations aren’t just filled with drive-by Christians, coming for the junk food. Instead of just providing a momentary spiritual high, may our “worship experiences” promote long-term spiritual growth.