It is amazing how feverishly we sometimes pursue things that aren’t real. Imagine a church growth conference for pastors in which there is more attention given to a Stanford economist than to the words of the Bible (really happened). Imagine a book outlining keys to an effective church—a book that attends more to the importance of a well laid out parking lot than to the importance of God’s word (really happened). Imagine a generation of pastors being trained to believe they are CEO’s—they are the next Steve Jobs, and are the ones to creatively lead their congregations to prosperity and influence (happens every day).
We speak of vision and creativity, of relevance and sincerity, all the while copying corporate models for monopoly. We speak of redemption and grace, of love and fellowship, all the while hacking our way to greater market share. We are careening at light speed in completely the wrong direction. It is no wonder we have little that is real to show for our efforts. But if these techniques aren’t the ideals for church growth, then what are?
1. Recognize who builds the church
In Jesus’ first description of His forthcoming assembly (ekklesia), He says “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). He doesn’t commission His disciples to build it, and He doesn’t call upon you and I to do it. He does it. Paul echoes these words in 1 Corinthians 3:6—yes, some plant and others water, but God causes the growth. God. So what are we going to do about church growth? That’s His problem. As Paul explains it, our responsibilities come in the form of planting and watering. So let’s do that and leave the growth to Him.
2. Stop trying to emulate the most infantile church in history
It is tempting to go back to the book of Acts and seek to recreate in churches today the fervor and dynamics of the early church. So we disregard the fact that the book is transitional and descriptive (not prescriptive), and we fail to consider that the book is describing the church in its infancy—in its most immature stage in history. So rather than press on to maturity, we want the good old days back. But there’s something about good-old-day syndrome: the good old days weren’t all that great. If God were so interested in us recreating the days of Acts, I suspect there would be more sudden deaths for sinful Christians (Acts 5). Thank God for His mercy in these days. Instead of trying to go backwards, lets pay attention to God’s directions and march ahead.
3. One kind of growth is mandated, the other isn’t
By the way—in Acts what was growing? Sure, numbers were increasing—you can’t have an “assembly” of zero. But Acts 12:24 described the word of God as growing and multiplying. God’s word was doing the work! Same thing in Acts 19:20: “the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing.” Further, Ephesians 2:21 uses a metaphor to describe the church as “growing into a holy temple in the Lord.” Paul later explains in 4:15 that “we are to grow up in all aspects into…Christ.” Colossians 2:19 reminds us that growth is from God. Peter is even more direct. We should long for the pure milk of the word so that we might grow (1 Pet. 2:2). He adds the imperative “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). If we are paying attention we realize that individual spiritual growth is necessary for the whole body to grow. And nowhere in these exhortations is there any concern on our part with numbers. In short, it’s about spiritual growth not quantitative growth.
4. Size doesn’t matter
If only we were a bigger church, then we could really make an impact for God. If only there were more people to build the ark. If only Abraham had a descendant. If only Gideon had a bigger army. If only David had more stones for his slingshot. If only God had sent more prophets…or chosen more apostles. If only. Do we get the point? God will use whom He will, when He will, for what He will. Are we available for His use, or not? He can do great things with little (and big) people. Let’s stop being paralyzed by our smallness (or our bigness) and start functioning. There is nothing wrong with being small, and nothing wrong with being big. Whatever size we are, let’s just do what He puts in front of us.
5. What is missing from the rebukes of the seven churches in Revelation?
Ephesus left their first love. Smyrna was told to persevere. Pergamum held to some false teaching. Thyatira tolerated false teaching and immorality. Sardis was doing the deeds of dead people. Philadelphia was faithful. Laodicea was lukewarm and spiritually poor. I missed the part in these exhortations where God rebukes the churches for being too small or commends them for being large. These exhortations and rebukes were all about purity of doctrine and purity of deeds. Shouldn’t we be focused on what He directs the churches to focus on? Or do we think we can do church better than Him?
6. Church function is not for professionals only
Our megachurch culture models for us that only the best and brightest should ever teach, sing, or serve. Only those with precision training need apply. In fact, listen to some megachurch gurus talk about how they run their churches and you would swear they were record label execs or movie producers. That model certainly doesn’t seem to match Scriptural perspectives on church administration. Ephesians 4:11-12 explains the saints are to be equipped (by the word, see 2 Tim. 3:16-17) for the work of service. The saints. All of them. Certainly, there are different roles and gifts—that is made clear in 1 Corinthians 12. The body is not one member but many. Now let me be clear, I am not suggesting that megachurches are somehow automatically deficient because they are large—they aren’t. Please refer back to #4. But the megachurch culture is another matter. That culture depends heavily on elite personalities and performances (an approach that serves Hollywood well enough, I suppose). We need to be on guard against that temptation. We are not in the entertainment business. Consequently, it is not about us and what we bring to the table. It is about Him and His word.
7. There is no gift of evangelism
What a wonderful way for us all to be absolved or our responsibility to share His gospel, His word, and His love with others—let’s pretend there is a gift of evangelism that only some have. If I don’t have the gift, I can’t be expected to communicate His gospel, right? After all. He didn’t give me the gift! Well, we would have to pretend, because there is no such biblical gift as “evangelism.” Certainly there are evangelists given to the church (Eph. 4:11), but that is very different from only some being given the qualification to share the gospel. Believers are called on to be “always ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is within you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15).
8. The primary ingredient for a healthy church
Colossians 3:16 describes the lifeblood of a healthy church: “let the word of Christ richly dwell within you.” This is what Jesus was talking about when He said, “he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). If a church isn’t centered on God’s word, then it isn’t centered properly. Like Ezra, who sought to learn God’s law, to do it, and to teach it (Ezra 7:10), we should be immersed in His word (Col. 3:16), in doing it (1 Tim. 1:5, James 1:22), and in teaching it as we have opportunity (2 Tim. 2:2). Positionally, we believers are in Him. If our practice doesn’t reflect that, then we are functioning more like a cancerous tumor than a healthy and growing body.
9. In the world, not of it
In 1 Corinthians 5:10 Paul reminds us that we are in the world and are expected to interact with people in the world. He models concern for the lost when he describes himself as a slave to all (1 Cor. 9:19) in order to help as many as possible come to know Christ. If as Christians we are not interacting with unbelievers, how in the world can we claim to love them? How can we claim to be interested in their spiritual well being? We must avoid the temptation to retreat into the comfort and security of likeminded people and, instead, get out there and get busy loving people.
“What are we going to do about church growth?” Well if we must be concerned about church growth, we should go show Christ’s love to people who don’t know it, and just see what happens.
10. Teach people how to fish
Finally, an exhortation to all those in the church who are involved in teaching others: stop feeding people past their infancy. Certainly new believers, like infants, need help being fed. But as children grow and develop teeth and hand-eye coordination, so spiritual toddlers need to begin to learn to feed themselves. As teachers we need to give them the tools for handling the Bible for themselves. We need to train them up in the Scriptures for their own spiritual independence. If we continue feeding people beyond their spiritual infancy, then we create spiritual dependents rather than disciples. We become spiritual gurus without whom they can’t live or function. We become the spiritual parents who won’t let them grow up. And when they flail about in immaturity—that is on us. As Paul said, “the things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful [or believing] men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). Give a person a fish and you make him dependent. Teach him how to fish and you make him independent.
But you know, there is something quite interesting about kids who grow up and become independent. Often they leave home and start families of their own. As spiritual kids grow up and become independent, it is reasonable to expect they might do the same thing: leave home and start families of their own. Of course having the kids grow up and leave doesn’t help us with our local church growth initiatives. You see, in order to maximize our numbers we need to keep as many people hooked as possible. So maybe it’s better to keep them chained in immaturity. That way they will need us longer and won’t have the confidence to grow up. That way we can always be the ones to guide them. Sounds like a plan. It must be a good one too, because lots of churches are using it.