FOUNDATIONAL PRINCIPLES OF CHURCH GROWTH
It hardly needs to be argued that “church growth” not theologically grounded
is not the growth of the church but something else. But if so grounded, there will be several biblical foundation stones underlying all methodology.
1 . God has already declared Hes desire and provision to save all people. This breath-taking affirmation is in the Bible’s best known verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life ‘ (John 3:16). This is reaffirmed by Paul: “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3). Peter says the same thing: `The Lord . . . is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). This means that God wants us to reach more and more people. He does not want to see a single empty pew in our sanctuary. He desires that our outreach extend to the last unsaved person in our community; or, on the missionary level, in our world. God is For church growth!
Our intercessory praying has been ordained by God as a link in the chain of divine method, but it should not be viewed as a means of persuading God to become interested in the people we are trying to reach. It is His prior interest which has created ours. If our concern in prayer is not purely the echo of His, then it is prompted by other than His motives. Perhaps all unconsciously we are striving in prayer for people that we might build our church.
2. Christ had already claimed responsibility for church growth. “I will build my church,” He declares (Matt. l6:l8. If what is built is the pastor’s and not Christ’s, then the product may be religious and it may be exciting, but it is not Christ’s church.
Christ will build His church with or without this or that pastor. If God can use him, He will. But if there are elements in his motives or in his spirit or in his life which make him unusable, God will set him aside and work through someone else. This applies not only to men but to movements and denominations as well. When God no longer has total control, when mere size becomes an end in itself, when the entity becomes a self-perpetuating institution instead of an instrument, or when self-aggrandizement and empire-building and dynasty-establishing take over, God just tacks on the door “Ichabod” and moves on to a channel He can work through. For it is Christ’s church, not ours; and Christ will not surrender or even share His prerogatives as its builder. We must learn to be his humble and obedient instruments and stop trying to harness His power as our Celestial Expeditor.
3. Christ’s appointed method is Pentecost. There are humanistic ways a congregation can be gathered and multifaceted programs put in place that only simulate the true church. An authentic church growth must be the work of the Holy Spirit through Spirit-filled men and women.
Without Pentecost the religion of Jesus Christ would either have vaporized in the first generation, or shriveled into an impotent sect of Judaism. It was only when the apostles were filled with the Spirit that they ceased being obstacles and began to be instruments. Self was out of the way.
Their preoccupation with rivalry and position was at an end. A new kind of power possessed them because it could now flow through clean channels. The result was continuous revival with rapid expansion, even in the face of cruel persecution.
Pentecost is still God’s method, and it is the rankest of follies to presume to substitute methods of our own. While the Day of Pentecost as a moment in history, with its unique inaugural] signs, cannot be repeated, its lasting essentials must continue to be experienced-fullness, purity, and power, in and through the immediate, personal, controlling presence of the Holy Spirit.
Ours is a supernatural religion from beginning to end or it is a fraud.
Our methods must be shaped by total reliance on the Spirit and profound faith in what He can do. I once heard a church leader tell pastors, “God can’t fill your church. ” That is the language of unbelief. While God probably will not fill the churches of lazy or unworthy pastors, He can do what in His sovereignty He chooses to do. The history of revivals is full of demonstrations of God’s ability to fill churches virtually overnight. What can be conceded is that the Spirit’s usual mode of building Christ’s church is more slowly paced, stone upon stone and block upon block (1 Peter 2:5); or as a body grows (Eph. 4:16).
The centrality of the Spirit as God’s method for church growth has its corollaries. One is a new dependence on prayer. Pentecost was the climax of a ten-day
prayer meeting. Thereafter the church proceeded on its knees. In the book of Acts, prayer is seen as the day-by-day operational procedure. It was the frequent and unfailing recourse of the apostolic church. When threatened they did not call a committee meeting to plan strategy; they called a prayer meeting (Acts 4). The disciples had marveled at their Lord’s prayer life, and once said, “Teach us to pray”; but in spite of this request, there is little evidence that prayer was very meaningful in their personal lives until Pentecost, when suddenly they were attuned to prayer because they were Spirit-filled. Prayer moved from a mere desire to center stage.
4. Our hope of success is in the knowledge that the spirit is already at work. “When he comes,” Jesus promised, “he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement” (+ 1 John 16:8). This convicting ministry is going on even before we reach people. When we evangelize one-on-one, the Holy Spirit has gone ahead of us, is working with us, and will follow up after we have left. Some may have resisted and become hard, but their hardness is not because the Spirit has passed them by. Others may also resist our efforts, but their resistance will not be due to a failure of the Spirit to probe and move them even while we speak. It will be due to the person’s free choice. While the Spirit’s convicting power is unavoidable, it is not irresistible.
Unless blocked by sin, heresy, or unbelief in us, we can be sure that our public evangelism is accompanied by the immediate action of the Holy Spirit on the audience. The intensity of this action will greatly vary in degree, but the action may be counted on. The Spirit honors Christ when He is
presented and the Word when it is preached. The preacher may not feel this power; in fact, he may feel like a pulpit orphan. He may feel utterly impotent in his struggle to communicate, yet all the while the truth may
be finding its mark. The Spirit will always be working, if given the components of purity, obedience, prayer, faith, and truth.” It will bear repeating again and again: Expansion of a congregation that can be achieved by humanistic methods on their own is something other than “church” growth in God’s sight. If the Spirit hasn’t done it’ it is counterfeit.
5. The prescribed modus operandi has already been made known: spreading the Word by witnessing, preaching, and teaching in every language, with our ministry supported by holy living and good works. The form includes both the written word and the spoken word. While Pentecost is God’s primarymethod for reaching the lost, at its’ heart is this operational method of verbal communication.
Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified,” declares Paul (1 Cor. 1:22-23). The first fruit of Pentecost resulted from a sermon. Ours is a speaking religion. It is the method of communicating the gospel with the objective of persuading people to accept and act upon it.
Any form of coercion is unbiblical, for it violates the freedom that must mark a personal relationship with God. Human personhood must be respected at all times. God does and therefore so must His representatives. Only as People freely choose to believe and obey does their religious faith have either authenticity or moral value.
The church has always violated its own character and shamed its Lord when it has resorted to forms of compulsion. This is the sure mark of cultism and heresy.
The premise that God’s method is communication with a view to persuasion has within it a stern implication. It is that the tendency in some quarters to denigrate preaching is unbiblical. Preaching is not an ego trip.
It is not a brash arrogation of religious authority that presumes to tell people how to manage their lives. Preaching is rather an act of obedience to Almighty God, who has acted in Christ on our behalf and commissioned chosen servants to be His heralds. “All this is from God,” writes Paul, “who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). The preacher’s holy and wonderful calling is to say, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (v. 20b). What Paul writes to Pastor Timothy, God says to every other pastor: `Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2).
6. Church growth must be defined in terms of the new birth. Due to the legal and physical complexities of our age, formal membership in a local church has now become a usual procedure. But church growth cannot properly be defined simply in terms of the accession of new members. This is to turn the correct order on its head. The Word speaks significantly in the simple summary: The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47b). “Being saved” must be permitted to carry its full weight of meaning. They werebeing inducted into Christ. They were experiencing everything Jesus meant by the expressions “born again” and “born of the Spirit” (+ 1 John 3:3, 7-8). For them this involved repentance, public baptism in the name of Jesus, and the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). Furthermore, it involved a commitment to obey Peter’s command, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” (v. 40): in other words, a complete break with the world, including apostate religion.
The statement that “the Lord was adding to their number” means that Christ through His Spirit was drawing each convert into the fellowship of the body and inwardly conforming him to it. He sensed family. He belonged. He knew he belonged and other believers knew he belonged. In our day he would have `”Joined” formally; but if valid, the public joining would have been only a public acknowledgment of the spiritual union which had already occurred.
Should we not allow this basic truth to temper our lust for joiners, and to preserve in our minds a biblical perspective on church growth? Even in the early church there doubtless were camp followers-persons who hung around the assembly of believers, and at times were mistaken for them. But unless in God’s sight they had been “saved,” they were not in God’s sight in the church.
God does not add unregenerate persons to the fellowship. God sees church growth not in the increase of countable bodies but in the increase of those being saved, and whose relation to the church is solidly grounded on being saved.
If therefore we are going to work with God as His instruments, we had better make every effort to make sure that those we take in as members are being added by God. Otherwise what we call the church will deviate further and further from God’s approval. What is the value of “church growth” if what we are “growing” is something other than what God identifies as the church? We should take very seriously the biblical distinction between building with “wood, hay or straw” as against “gold, silver, costly stones” (1 Cor. 3:11-15).
All of which reminds us that the church is not a field for evangelism.
We reverse the divine order and bring upon ourselves multiplied debacles and disasters when we gather people into church membership on the assumption that we will get them saved later. They will destroy the church rather. Being unregenerate they could not do otherwise, no matter how well intentioned they might be as persons. “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).
7. The prescribed method prohibits racism, parochialism, and provincialism. Central to any discussion of the theology of church growth must be the Great Commission. To abandon the missionary emphasis is already to have abandoned God’s prescribed course for His church, and to doom the church to atrophy. For the church is more than a local body of believers; it is the body of God’s people everywhere. A pastor’s necessary commitment to his particular flock may tend, if he is not watchful, to result in tunnel vision, by which he sees nothing beyond his flock. He becomes indifferent to the church across town, and even more seriously, indifferent to the cutting edge of evangelism on the other side of the world. The pastor who has a proper church-growth vision will avoid parochialism and maintain the broad view, which means that in building his own congregation he will be continuously building into them a world vision. While a pastor may feel that he is carrying out the Great Commission by fulfilling it in his particular corner, he will become small souled, and his people will become small-souled, if he does not, while reaching people at home, keep his and their eyes on the fields abroad.
History shows that there is no better way to assure growth and prosperity at home than to develop a strong missionary-mindedness. Money given to missions and prayer time spent for missions always seems to double back in blessing to the local church.
THE QUESTION OF AUXILIARY METHODS
At this point we need an eighth proposition in our theological summary: The Spirit desires to guide pastors in their search for specific methods. This returns us to the question of strategies and their legitimacy. We began with a warning against a human-oriented perspective of church growth, and we sought to show that church growth begins with God. God is Joy church growth and has made available through the Spirit all necessary resources for its achievement.
Where then does human strategy fit into the scenario? To what extent is it consistent with the spiritual nature of our mission to utilize purely secular bait? To what extent are we to reach people by moving them into the sphere ofthe church’s influence by indirect stages-appealing to something they are interested in, such as church athletics, in order to win them to Christ?
THE EARLY CHURCH IDEAL
Let us look briefly at the utter simplicity of the early church in Jerusalem. The church devised no programs.
They called no conferences to invent organizational structures for the purpose of improving their evangelizing techniques. The apostles preached and taught daily, the believers listened and practiced. Church life was fervent yet uncomplicated: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). The bread-breaking and eating took place in each other’s homes as well as in more public places. Their exuberant joy, obvious love for one another, and their unmistakable discovery of something wonderful brought them into “the favor of all the people” (v. 47).
Therefore, we may say that the rapid growth of the church in those early days was traceable to four factors:
a. The initial surge of Pentecostal power was still flowing, and the Spirit was moving not only in anointing the speakers but by supporting signs and wonders of which the book of Acts is full.
b. The behavior and radiant faces of the Christians were convincing to the observing populace. This made a profound impact.
c. The gospel seed was falling on ready soil. After all, the residents of Jerusalem were for the most part Jews, profoundly religious, and strong believers in a coming Messiah. Many had seen and heard Jesus and could not escape His pull on their hearts. In spite therefore of the bitter opposition of the Sanhedrin, the mass of people, including many priests, were highly receptive (Acts 6:7).
d. The church was aggressive in its evangelism. “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 5:42).
This is still the ideal formula for rapid church growth. For reasons not understood, populations in different parts of the world have been peculiarly prepared by God, even without the advantages which the Jews had.
When reached by the gospel the flow of grace seemed to pour in to fill the hungry void, with mass movements resulting.
It is when Pentecostal fires smolder that the church has to cast about for novel methods to compensate for its own spiritual loss. Then come the programs, schemes, gimmicks, and manipulations to gather a few stray converts.
And the problem is compounded many fold when the church seeks to evangelize, as today, in an environment that too often is either hostile or indifferent. So it becomes a scramble to find ways to get attention, for the church believes that if only the unchurched can be brought into the sphere of the church’s influence many will find the Lord. While the contemporary church has all the resources of Pentecost available, it seems, too often, to have forgotten how to utilize them. Therefore, it feverishly resorts to secular props.
But the answer is still revival. The pastor and church that will pay the price for precipitating revival in first century proportions will obtain first-century results. And in some places exactly this is being done.
PAUL’S “ALL THINGS”
We have come full circle. While praying for revival and seeking to keep in step with the Spirit, are there strategies which the Lord would be pleased to have the church use and which He can bless to make a difference?
Strategies which can be learned from society and which may have the smell of the secular world on them?
A biblical basis for a possible answer is Paul’s
strategic principle: “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some ‘ (1 Cor. 9:22b). The context shows that this strategy is two fold: First he seeks to serve all in order to win some; second, he identifies himself with the group he is with in order to win them to the Jew he finds common ground with them as a Jew, whereas to the Gentile he seeks the common ground of freedom from the Mosaic Law. He adapts himself to the person or group he is working with. Yet he is not a chameleon, for there is no compromise in his moral principles or changeableness in his fundamental objectives. He does not participate in the errors or sins of others as an evangelistic strategy. He does, however, stand with them at the point of their need and their understanding and seeks to lead them from that point. His identification is such that they sense a bond with him. He is constantly seeking bridges of communication and community, which will provide access to their hearts. He refuses to hide behind unnecessary barriers, but seeks their removal whenever possible without compromise.
If Paul were pastoring today, would he haunt hospital corridors not
just to minister but to win people? Would he knock on doors? Would he advertise? An affirmative answer carries a high level of probability. We already know by his own testimony that he taught them not only publicly but from “house to house” (Acts 20:20). But would he in addition utilize church athletics , dinners , concerts, service club activity as soul-winning strategy? Here we are not on sure ground. We know that he would major on prayer, person-to-person evangelism, and preaching (probably fiery!). But the extent to which he would resort to attention-getting devices-bait to get folks within his reach-is a debatable question. His “by all means” principle would suggest that he would stop at nothing that he thought would work so long as the Spirit endorsed it and it did not cheapen his cause. That, he would believe, would be counterproductive.
Paul certainly would seek to protect the sanctity of Christ’s name and the dignity of the church. Some strategies are Madison Avenue-born not altar-born. Gimmicks that are perceived as gimmicks by the sophisticated create an impression of deception. It is doubtful therefore if Paul would resort to subterfuges as evangelistic strategy. While he would utilize honorable and honest means of getting attention and bringing people into the sphere of friendship, he would not use ruses that might appear to be tricky or deceptive. His flat denial of such methods is clear enough (1 Thess. 2:3).
Perhaps the sum of the matter is that since there are barriers between the unsaved and the church, barriers of prejudice, misunderstanding, fear, and indifference, it is not only legitimate but obligatory to seek very human ways of removing these barriers. To put it differently: a deep psychological and spiritual chasm separates the world from the church. While the Spirit is already striving out there, it is consistent with the Spirit’s ministry and the Great Commission for the church to seek ways to build bridges across this chasm. The fundamental bridge must be love, but love manifested in friendship, neighborliness, helpfulness, and genuine involvement. This may include playing together as a beginning. When we have played with people, it will be easier to pray with them. Hence a modest, carefully controlled athletic program could conceivably be an evangelistic net by which Christians become “fishers of men.
” The danger would be in permitting such secondary activities to become the tail that wags the dog.
As for organization, per se, the early church organized as need arose.
The very multiplication of numbers (Acts 6:1) made it impossible to carry on in the simple way that at first was adequate. An acute problem arose that was managerial in nature. In response the first “board of deacons” was established.
But multiplication produced the organization; organization did not produce the multiplication. It never has and never will. At the most, it can provide a frame for Spirit-motivated activity and contribute to operational efficiency and internal harmony. Pipes help water reach the point of need; pipes do not create the water. Organization is needed to channel spiritual power, but organization cannot create spiritual power. The prayer closet is the source for that.