Church growth. The topic is a healthy topic that all church leaders discuss, pray over and evaluate regularly. There are two major ways to evaluate it, and churches tend to fall into one of two errors: (1) evaluating church growth by numbers or (2) evaluating church growth by maturity of the members. These are two sides of the same coin which a healthy, Biblical church must exemplify. Mature believers will be reaching out to the lost and bringing in new believers, and in order for a church to reach out to a lost world the believers must be mature and capable of witness. Finding the balance is extremely difficult, however, and without intentional prayer and planning, one or both of these __ will be overlooked and neglected.
Growth by Maturity.
Jesus came to the Earth and spent three intentional years with eleven guys who would spearhead the entire movement we now know as Christianity. He taught them truths, He shaped their worldviews, He exemplified love, servanthood, righteousness, and every fruit of the Spirit. He taught them, He prayed for them, and He bore with them when they just didn’t get it. He invested Himself and loved them, teaching them the deep things of God and helping them learn how to walk obediently. In short, He made disciples out of them. He made “Christians” or mini-Christs. He replicated Himself in them. His final words as He was leaving the world and commissioning them were,
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
– Matt 28.18-20
Jesus sent the eleven (plus Paul) out to do exactly what He had done for the past three years: make disciples. He told them to go to every single people group, to baptize new believers, and to teach those new believers everything that He Himself had taught them. How were they supposed to do that? They were supposed to go about it just like He had. Live life together, teach them, preach boldly, allow the Holy Spirit to preform signs, instruct, rebuke, discipline, pray over them. Jesus showed them how to do what to do by doing it Himself.
It took Jesus about three years to make disciples who were trained, well versed in the Scriptures and capable to go out in the power of the Holy Spirit and to make their own disciples. He utilized those three years to send them out practicing and utilized their successes and failures as teaching points, such that they were fully equipped and prepared to do the work of the ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit and without the physical presence of Jesus.
They were mature. They were trained. They were prepared. They knew what to do.
Growth by Numbers.
We would be remiss to neglect the fact that after Jesus returned to Heaven, we are regularly given account of the actual numbers by which the young church was growing.
– Acts 2.41
– Acts 4.4
Should we measure our success by numbers? Yes and no. There is no target range; there is no magic number by which we should be growing. It is healthy and wise, however, to keep track of our members and what is happening in our congregations. Are people coming and leaving after a short while? Are people stagnant? Are we bringing in believers who are just transferring from other churches? Or are we actually reaching the lost, seeing them baptized and discipled?
We are commanded to preach the Gospel. To plant seeds. To sow broadly. To tell everyone. Beyond that, it is God’s responsibility to cause the growth. We should be ready, willing and excited to jump in and be a part of the disciple-making process whenever possible, but it is God alone who changes hearts and we cannot force someone to submit to, know and love God. Only He can do that. We plant, God causes the growth.
“So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.”
– 1 Cor 3.7
We see from example and from the teaching of Jesus, however, that it is God’s plan to make disciples of all nations and when we share the Gospel, He will cause growth in some. Yes, some of the Gospel seed will fall on bad soil and produce nothing or false growth, but there will always be some who respond. God has already prepared the hearts of many. He has promised us that the harvest is plentiful and ready, all we need to do is get out there and join Him in the reaping.
And [Jesus] was saying to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”
– Luke 10.2
In short, if we are not reaping a harvest it is because we are not sharing.
Now, we might begin to protest: Our culture is post-Christian, people don’t want to hear it, I don’t know how to share, I don’t know where to meet people, blah blah blah…
Here’s the deal folks. The New Testament Church was a hated, discriminated and murdered group of people. The Jews were against them. The Romans were against them. The pagans were against them. And not just in the, “I don’t want what you are selling” type of way, but in the “I’m going to throw you in jail, rape your wife, murder you” kind of way. It was so bad, in fact, that much of the New Testament was written to people who were chased out of their towns simply because of what they believe. Much of the New testament was written from jail. Much of the New Testament was written to encourage people who were in jail or taking care of other believers who were in jail. These believers read the promises of the New Testament about persecution as literal, not just the possibility that someone might mock or laugh at them or hurt their feelings.
They had thick skin, they had experienced real persecution, and yet they continued to share the Gospel and their numbers continued to grow. By the multitudes. Why? Because Jesus had truly transformed their lives and they could not help but talk about Him. We know the reality: when something amazing happens, we can’t help but talk about it. Did you meet the girl of your dreams? You let everyone know. Did you get into your favorite college or find a job after months of searching? You post it on facebook, instagram and call your mom. Did you get in a car accident and yet were miraculously saved? You take pictures of the mangled wreck and show it to strangers. We talk about the things that rock us, shape us, and the things that we know. If Jesus has rocked your world, you will talk about Him. If church is just something you do, then it may or may not come up in conversation. Like that TV show you watch when nothing else is on, or that chore your mom asked you to do.
The disciples’ world had been rocked, their lives transformed, and even though it cost 11 of the twelve their very lives, they kept on talking about it. The New Testament Church was scattered across the known world, running for their lives, but they kept talking about Jesus because He transformed their lives and they loved Him and could not help but talk about Him. This is maturity, folks. Not being able to recite the entire Bible. It is knowing, abiding in and loving Jesus. Yes, people will be impressed if you can recite huge chunks of Scripture and they will value your knowledge if you can explain intricate doctrines and history, but the whole game changes when the focus is Jesus and what He has done in your life and on the cross.
Numerical growth must be all about Jesus. We can draw a crowd for a while with entertaining speaking, good music, community events and lots of singles for others singles to meet, but those things will fade. If Jesus does not come in and transform these lives, then we have done them no service. In fact, we have probably done them a great disservice and will bring judgment upon ourselves for placating a sinful world and helping them to believe that they are eternally secure when in fact they are not. Yes, we should engage the world, and yes at times facilitating events like sports or family outings will enable us to have those real conversations. But let us always be purposeful to have those real conversations. Lives are only transformed by the Gospel.
Has Jesus transformed your life? Is He working in your life today? Are you telling people about it? Are you sharing the Gospel with the lost and helping younger believers grow in knowledge and obedience? Are you growing in depth and in numbers? We must go deep before we can go wide. If we go deep we will naturally go wide. If we go wide without going deep we will dry up. If we go deep without going wide, we are disobedient and have not truly gone deep, because going wide is a natural byproduct of going deep. Let us therefore get busy about going deep and let it pour out into our daily lives so that we naturally go wide.