Often in church life, I have experienced different people and groups of people who have a major concern for church growth. Church growth gurus and books are everywhere. In our age, the church has taken on a secular business model – measuring metrics such as growing numerically, giving increases, and explosions of ministries. I want to be clear – I am not against church growth. I pray every day for the Lord to bless the church I serve in with numerical growth. I pray every day for the Lord to give me grace to trust Him and become a more generous giver, and that He would allow the other church members to have the same burden of increased generosity. I pray every day to the Lord for our ministries at our church to be thriving, flourishing, and God glorifying. So, I am not saying these are bad, in fact, I affirm that they are good!
Where I am concerned is that the only thing we are focusing on is outward growth. I have had recent conversations with some close brothers about the reasons, the why, behind our different teaching ministries we have as a church. In one discussion, it became known that some of the other church leaders want our small group ministry, which is traditional Sunday School, to be only evangelistic. That philosophy is one that says the small group must function in such a way that it becomes the method of evangelism for our church – in essence, the Sunday School is an outreach ministry. Again, don’t read something I am not saying. I do not mean that this is wrong as one goal for the small group ministry. I only mean to say that it ought not be our only, or even primary goal for the small group ministry.
I am convinced, according to the Holy Scriptures, that the primary reason to gather together and study God’s Word is to help and exhort the body of Christ towards godliness and holiness. Some examples in the Bible of God’s people gathering for spiritual growth through teaching ministries (Bible study, preaching, Sunday School, etc.) are:
- In Acts, when Barnabas and Paul first begin their missionary work – “So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul (Paul), and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the Church and taught a great many people (Acts 11:25-26a, ESV, emphasis mine).”
- To the Ephesians, Paul wrote “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13, ESV, emphasis mine).”
- Peter, in his last words to the group of Churches in his correspondence – “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18a, ESV, emphasis mine).”
- The first glimpse of the believer’s gathered together in the book of Acts – “And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42, ESV, emphasis mine).”
These are but a few instances in the Bible where we see God’s people gathering together to teach one another in God’s Word, to train each other, and to build each other up in the faith. In our Student Ministry at Colgate Baptist Church, we are studying through the book of Acts on Wednesday nights (our corporate youth gathering). Recently, I preached (to youth, for over 30 minutes, and they ate it up!) on the first Christians in Antioch. Acts 11:19-30 gives us a pattern of proper church life, and a three-fold emphasis for the mission of the church:
- Spiritual Birth – In Acts 11:19-21 (I will let you read this passage, it is too long to quote here), the church members were sharing the gospel with people. See? I am PRO evangelism! I pray that the Lord will give us a fervency for sharing the gospel through relationship building, bold truth telling, and holy living! As this happened in the book of Acts, the Lord adds to the church! Over an over again, the theme in Acts is the Lord building His church – “And there were added that day about three thousand souls (2:41)”, “And the LORD added to their number day by day those who were being saved (2:47)”, “But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand (4:4)”, “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord (5:14)”, “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of disciples multiplied (6:7)”, and so on! I want to be careful, because I want to make sure you know I see evangelism – or the sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and calling people to repent and believe – as a good thing and a necessary thing for Christians to do. My disagreement with the above philosophy is that the gathering of the church is not meant as the way to do evangelism. I hope that will become more apparent in the last emphasis.
- Spiritual Growth – In Acts 11:22-26, the focus is on Barnabas and Paul and their teaching, exhorting, and training the people of God with the Word of God. This shows us the reason for coming together – learning! As Christian’s learn the truth of who God is through faithful exhortation in teaching and in preaching, the Christian grows! How can we grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ? By corporately and collectively gathering together, engaging, listening, meditating, talking about, and thinking about the small group lesson or the pastor’s sermon. I was involved in a church once that had small group ministries that met throughout the week in homes. The studies were geared around the sermon from Sunday morning! The point for God’s people to gather is to worship God – to love God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. This is, I believe, what Paul meant in Romans 12:2 – “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (ESV, emphasis mine).” The more we know God (mind), the more we love God (heart, obedience)!
- Spiritual Overflow – In Acts 11:27-30, the Christians at Antioch learn of a famine “over all the world (v. 28)”. They sent relief to believers in Judea by sending Barnabas and Saul, along with relief – materials, supplies. What was this? A mission trip! When Barnabas and Saul get to their next temporary residing place, they aren’t only giving their physical supplies, they begin the process over at #1! In Acts 13:5a, it says “When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews (ESV).” The process began again, as a result of the overflow of the believers in Antioch.
These points of emphasis , I believe, are a holistic, Biblical pattern of Church life and growth. As the gospel is proclaimed (on the outside, in our jobs, to our neighbors, to our friends, to our waiters, etc.), new spiritual life is formed (by God), and spiritual birth takes place. People are born again! As people are born again, the church takes on the role of growing and maturing those believers, as well as continuing to evangelize other areas. As these new believers are discipled, they mature and grow, and as they mature and grow, they begin to overflow that which has happened in them. They begin the process in other people.
Church growth is important, but it isn’t the only point of emphasis. Maybe for a season, the body of Christ may need to focus on intensified discipleship efforts for its own members. Maybe for a season, there will be a heavy emphasis on evangelism and missions. But, I believe, there will always be a working organism with a three-fold mechanic – seeking spiritual birth, helping spiritual growth, and encouraging and participating in spiritual overflow (repeat).
Some good resources for these points are:
- Listen Up! A Practical Guide to Listening to Sermons by Christopher Ash
- Creature of the Word: the Jesus-Centered Church by Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson, and Eric Geiger
- Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples by Francis Chan
Have a comment/different philosophy? We’d love to hear from you!
Post written by: Aaron Hale