“Your church is either growing or dying; there’s no in-between.” I’ll never forget when an experienced pastor said this at a pastor’s conference I once attended years ago. He was right. Churches are dynamic—composed of people who are complex, complicated, organic, changing, unpredictable. No church stays static or linear long-term.
Every church leader wants the church to grow. Growth is not bad; growth implies progress and many times is a sign of health. Living things need to grow; if they are not growing, then they are dying. The New Testament advocates spiritual growth, individual growth and corporate growth.
Peter the Apostle wanted individual Christians to grow personally in their faith and so exhorted them, “like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). The Apostle Paul wanted the church to grow corporately, local churches as well as the universal church, and so he wrote to the churches of his day saying,
we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in loveEphesians 4:15-16
God Himself is an advocate of spiritual growth, as He has been building His church for 2,000 years, with the goal of bringing it to full maturity some day. Paul describes the corporate body of Christ, the church, as a spiritual temple that God is growing: “the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:21-22). Additionally, Jesus’ last words to His disciples before He went back to heaven amounted to a mandate for spiritual growth, or spiritual reproduction, known more commonly as the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Jesus commanded His disciples to go into all the world, preach the gospel, win converts, advance the kingdom, baptize new disciples, plant churches, spread the Word, infiltrate every corner of the world with His gospel, and reproduce. That is growth.
The disciples took Jesus at His word and they obeyed. They did not recoil into a holy huddle in Jerusalem, remaining a cul-de-sac of the privileged few, hoarding gospel truth and blessings to themselves. They aggressively went into the community, beginning in their own backyard, and saw explosive growth, beginning in Jerusalem and then spreading all the way to Rome and Spain. Twentieth-century America did not invent the “mega- church.” The first church in Jerusalem quickly became a mega-church.
The first church started with 120 people on the day of Pentecost, fifty days after the Passover when Christ died (Acts 1:15; 2:1). Peter preached the gospel that day to a huge crowd of Jews and 3,000 people responded, believed, were baptized and added to the first church in Jerusalem! Just like that, they became a mega-church. Within a few days the church grew even more at a rapid rate as “the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:27). Notice, the church was growing as “saved” people were joining; it was not growing by having unsaved seekers attending.
Peter and John were key elders in this first church. And as they preached in the community they found resistance and were arrested. Nevertheless, God blessed the preaching of the gospel and the first mega-church grew even bigger, quickly expanding to 5,000 men, not counting women and children (Acts 4:4). By today’s count, the first church of Jerusalem then had 15,000 plus people. All this amazing growth happened within months of the church’s existence!
The Modern Church Growth Movement
It is clear that God and the Bible are not opposed to church growth. But when we talk of “church growth” today there is much confusion and misunderstanding. Church growth today usually does not represent the model of church growth found in the New Testament. “Church growth” today refers to a movement; a distinct philosophy and a stigmatized method, personified in a few prominent personalities. Much of what passes for church growth philosophy today is driven by secular man-made principles that issue primarily from sociological observations, marketing schemes and corporate business models. These customer-driven ideals are then integrated with some biblical jargon and then are passed off and propagated as being Christian in nature, when in fact they are not.
The church growth movement of today is ubiquitous and amorphous—it seems to have leaked out everywhere into mainstream American Christianity and is not monolithic in nature, so it’s difficult to profile. It has many faces and countless proponents and advocates. It’s ecumenical in appeal, pragmatic in application, non-doctrinal in its content, and as a result it acclimates across a wide spectrum of denominations, churches and parachurch organizations. The church growth philosophy continues to mushroom, morph, and reconstitute itself as time goes on, so what it emphasizes today differs somewhat from when it first began in the 1950’s.
Back to the Bible
With respect to the current dialogue, and confusion, over church growth there is an urgent need to go back to the unchanging gauge of truth in the Bible. For the Scriptures clearly outline the key to church growth. And the main truth about church growth came from the lips of Jesus Christ, the Architect, Lord and Savior of the church. It is found in Matthew 16:18 where He declared emphatically to Peter, “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
Every Christian, especially pastors and church leaders, should desire growth in the church. But that growth needs to be properly defined. Increasing enrollment is not necessarily true growth. Big numbers do not equate with truth or success automatically. For example, the largest religion in the world is Islam, which boasts more than one billion adherents.Islam is growing numerically, but not because it is being blessed by God. On the contrary, Islam is a false religion and an enemy of the truth, God and the church (John 10:1; Matthew 7:15-16; 1 John 2:21-23; 4:1-6). The same could be said for Mormonism which continues to be one of the fastest growing religions in America. So the litmus test for true, biblical growth is not determined by a superficial tally of heads in the church pews on any given Sunday.
In fact, just the opposite scenario may be true, for the Lord Jesus Himself said, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). Simply put, Jesus said that there are more people choosing to go into false religion, which leads to hell, than there are who go into the true church, which leads to salvation. True believers will always be in the minority—few will find it.
Jesus Himself did not experience massive sustaining growth over the course of His three-year ministry. All but a few rejected Him and screamed for His blood. John says categorically that “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11). The apostle Paul, church planter and evangelist extraordinaire, was accustomed to rejection, slow results, and even desertion on the mission field and even in church ministry. At the end of his life he said, “all deserted me” (2 Timothy 4:16). Yet he was God’s apostle and was faithful in ministry to the end.
Christians will always exist as a remnant in this cursed world (Philippians 2:15). Although some would contend that there exists a “moral majority,” the fact is that in this life there is no “Christian majority.” This side of heaven, phenomenal numerical growth will never be the norm for the true church of Christ.
On the contrary, the church, believers, and Christ will be despised routinely by the majority of the world (Matthew 5:10-13; John 15:18-25). Satan is the “god” of this fallen world and will continue to blind people spiritually en masse until he is cast into the abyss (2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 Peter 5:8; Revelation 20:1-10). Christians will continue to be outcasts and strangers in this cursed world (Philippians 3:20; Hebrews 11:13-16; 1 Peter 2:11), given over to persecution, scorn and ridicule (Philippians 1:29; Colossians 1:24; 2 Timothy 3:12; 1 Corinthians 4:10-13).
The above truths may seem grim or pessimistically defeatist, but the reality for the future of the church is just the opposite. The church is guaranteed ultimate and ongoing success by Christ Himself, despite the aforementioned obstacles.
With those sobering reminders said, a more balanced definition of true church growth is better understood. True church growth is measured in spiritual terms and in accordance with God’s will as dictated by Scripture. True church growth amounts to being an obedient church. And an obedient church is a healthy church, and God will bless a healthy church by residing among that church and working through it. And being healthy and obedient is not necessarily synonymous with exponential growth rates in attendance. God will sovereignly add to His church numerically at the rate He sees fit (Acts 2:47; 5:12-14; 6:7; 9:31). It is His church. Our task is to obey Him. And obeying Him means heeding what He has revealed to us in the Bible.