Church growth is a touchy subject! Why touch it? There are many small, struggling groups that have precious saints meeting faithfully to please the Lord and serve one another. Surely the Lord is honored by their faithfulness. But in some cases, they fear that the light they have worked so hard to establish may go out simply for lack of people. This article is written to encourage such. Perhaps something will spark fruitful discussion; even the courage to step out of the comfort zone of tradition, and find new applications to well know scriptures.
Some years ago I heard an elder in a tiny assembly explain the small size of his group this way: “We don’t care about growth in size; our focus is on quality.” I remember thinking: “That sounds quite pious, but does the New Testament ever present the church with a choice between quality and quantity?” A healthy church grows in all ways. It may take time and be a bumpy road, but maturity and increase are both Biblical ideas. Incidentally, during the next year, that particular group disbanded.
Facing the Facts
Churches are like children; not loved in proportion to size, but loved because they belong to God’s family. Certainly, some huge churches seem to grow by compromising important Biblical teachings. And then there is the stigma of falling into the “church growth movement.” Some believe that living in the last days means the situation is hopeless; why even try? Small assemblies that want to grow should forget about all these worries, and seek to please the Lord by being all they can be with His help. This is the key. But are we really being all we can be? Are we reaching our full potential? Are we pretending that our time-worn traditions are Biblical principles that cannot be scrutinized or altered? Have we lost our relevance to the real world? Can there be revival?
Thoughts that Encourage
A quick reading of the history of the church shows that revival does happen.
Some great revivals have taken place in our own country in relatively modern times. Then there is the mighty working of God going on in various places today. One hears of the many thousands coming to faith in Christ in China; a recent figure released mentions 20,000 people per day! Churches are springing up in unprecedented numbers; the supply of Bibles is far behind demand.
It is true that the Lord promised to build His church (Matt. 16:18). But it is also true that He gave us responsibility to do our part (Matt. 18:20), and promised to be with us as we do it “until the end of the age.” At this writing the age has not ended. There is hope!
Having studied the subject of the growing church over the years, I’d like to briefly summarize ten traits that mark churches that grow, and then consider the question: “What can elders do to foster some of these qualities in their own local fellowship?”
Some of these observations will overlap, and I am purposely not including things that most evangelical churches share in common like prayer or breaking of bread, because almost all groups – whether growing or dying – practice these. Rather, let’s think about qualities that have a Biblical principle at the heart, but may gradually have become hollow formalities or are misunderstood or even ignored.
Marks of Churches that Grow
1. The leadership leads. This may sound trite, but it’s important. We have all heard the maxim “As leadership goes, so goes the church.” Elders must practice both passive leadership, “be examples to the flock” (I Pet. 5:3 KJV), and active leadership, “they watch for your souls” (Heb. 13:17); “feed the flock” (I Pet. 5:2), and “see that none render evil for evil…” (I Thes. 5:15). Nothing is more disheartening to the saints than elders who are too immersed in personal interests of family or business to shepherd the flock, or leaders who simply cannot muster the courage to make difficult but necessary decisions.
2. Quality spiritual food is a priority. Another famous saying, “The Word of God builds the church,” is absolutely true. The adversary has countless ways to distract a church from ministry that is both faithful to God and relevant to the people. False doctrines seep in, favorite themes are repeated while important doctrines are neglected, the time allocated for Bible teaching diminishes while entertainment increases, and so forth. But it remains true that the Word of God builds up the believers (Acts 20:32) and brings about “increase” in the church (Eph. 4:16). Therefore some elders must “labor in the word and doctrine” (I Tim. 5:17).
3. There is an equipping mindset. Gifted men may reside in the assembly or may be invited in to visit, but they are there primarily to train younger believers to function. [Some elders seem not to have noticed that this mandate is given to the evangelist, the pastor and the teacher (Eph. 4:11,12)]. Delegating responsibilities to younger believers, who may not perform flawlessly at first, is an important part of training. Servants laboring full time make it a goal to be “working themselves out of a job.”
4. There are opportunities for meaningful involvement. The key word here is “meaningful.” This is not about giving the people odd jobs or “busy work” to keep them occupied, but rather helping them to function in the core decisions and activities of the church. Ordinary people of the fellowship are equipped “for the work of the ministry” (Eph. 4:12). The discovery and development of spiritual gifts figures prominently in this endeavor.
5. The church fosters a healthy environment. This word “environment” is difficult to define in spiritual things, but it is so readily sensed by young and old alike that it merits prayerful study. It is a spiritual climate in which the Holy Spirit can work freely; where younger believers can “give it a try” and not be criticized; where people are more important than programs and where the church has a true family spirit.
6. There is a Biblical approach to outreach. In simplest terms the gospel is good news on the go. The church is not waiting for lost people to come looking for God. It is not trying to evangelize the saints! It is a family gathering where the people are trained and built up to carry the Good News out to the world. When lost people come in, they are most welcome, but the focus is not on them. They are watching the family of God in action, because all of the items in which the early church continued steadfastly (Acts 2:42) are clearly for Christians. Believers who love the Savior and love one another, will find more success in winning souls than any costly or intensive program can provide.
7. Biblical fellowship is active and dynamic. Perhaps no term is more misunderstood than “fellowship.” It does describe the Christian’s relationship to Christ, and it does relate to taking one’s place in a Biblical church gathering. But there is more, so much more! The many “one-another” responsibilities described in the New Testament are all parts of the wonderful body life of sharing together in the practical blessings of God’s grace. Going back to Acts 2:42, teaching, breaking of bread and prayer all refer primarily to a vertical relationship between God and the believer. But fellowship describes the limitless horizontal relationships among believers in the church. It is an absolutely crucial responsibility of any church to be strengthening unity by strengthening relationships, in the family, in marriages, and among believers.
In the next article, we’ll finish the list, and then think about some ways that elders might lead the church toward a more fruitful practical outworking of some of these ideas. But don’t wait for part II; there is no time to lose in getting started!