Who’s Afraid of Church Growth?
Is church growth bad? It can be. If it’s the result of phony converts and if it’s the craving for increased fame and finances, something’s wrong. Sadly, some church growth today is predicated on such questionable results and inordinate motives. However, is it possible that we can overreact to cases of abuse? Is it possible to view church growth in a more positive light? If we want to be biblical, I think we must.
Church Growth in the Book of Acts
The NT often speaks of the church’s “spiritual growth” or maturation. That’s an important and vital subject. The kind of “church growth” I have primarily in mind, however, is “numerical growth.” It’s the kind of growth alluded to in the book of Acts where we read the following:
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls…. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:41, 47).1
And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women (Acts 5:14).
So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily (Acts 16:5).
Certainly, Luke the inspired church historian is not recounting a crisis in the church in order to alarm his readers. Rather, he’s recording God’s blessing on the church in order to encourage his readers. And I don’t think was he boasting in a sinful way. Instead, he’s rejoicing that souls are being saved and the new covenant community is increasing in number.
Church Growth in the Heart of Paul
The apostle Paul highlights a personal passion in 1 Corinthians 9 and 10. It’s not just a passion for preaching the gospel. Nor is it primarily a passion for building up the saints. Nor just a passion for studying theology. Nor is it, at this point, a passion for church order and worship. Nor simply a passion for holy living.
Paul’s Passion to Win Souls
Paul had a passion to win souls to Christ. He underscores this repeatedly in chapter nine:
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak (1 Cor 9:19-22a).
Paul says, “I want to win, win, win, win, win people.” And if we have any questions as to what Paul means by “winning” people, he clears that up for us in the second half of verse 22 where he writes,
I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.
Some Christians, especially those of the Calvinistic and Reformed stripe, might take issue with Paul’s choice of terminology. “Paul,” they would say, “don’t you understand that you can’t win or save anyone? Don’t you understand, Paul, salvation is of the Lord? Paul, aren’t you preaching a man-centered theology when you start talking about winning and saving souls?”
How would Paul respond? First, I think he’d remind us that he’s the guy who wrote the letter to the Romans and the letter to the Ephesians where he affirms that God takes the ultimate initiative and determines the final results of salvation (see Rom 9:18; Eph 2:8). Second, he’d tell us to read 1 Corinthians 9 and to get our terminology (and theology) in line with the Bible.2
Paul’s Passion to Win as Many Souls as Possible.
Once again, note carefully the language of 9:19 -
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.
Observe also Paul’s remarks in the following chapter:
Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved (1 Cor 10:32-33).
Paul wasn’t burdened to see a few sinners saved. He wasn’t just concerned to see some sinners saved. Paul had a burning passion—a passion that drove him to live like an athlete (1 Cor 9:24-27)—a burning passion to see “more of them” won to Jesus Christ.
Church Growth and Reformed Churches
In light of the considerations above, I believe that the subject of church growth is a noble and biblical subject. Unfortunately, though, the subject of church growth is viewed with suspicion and treated as a kind of “taboo” by some in Reformed circles.
Schemes and Innovation
For example, if one reads the entry for “Reformed Baptist” on the “Theopedia” website, the first “common trait” listed is the following:
The centrality of the Word of God: the church takes no part in human schemes for church growth, nor searches for popularity, but sows the Word and trusts God will make it multiply.3
Similarly, a paper entitled “What Is a Reformed Baptist Church?” asserts,
As modern day reformers, Reformed Baptists are calling on all churches everywhere to repent from their man-centered ways…. We say with no sense of carnal pride that much that goes on in the name of church growth and innovation is an insult to the Spirit of Grace and the Word of God.4
In principle, I don’t disagree with these statements. We should reject methods for church growth that are patently unbiblical. Nevertheless, is it possible that some in Reformed circles may have overly narrow views of what constitutes biblical methods for church growth? Is it possible that we spend too much time focusing on the negatives of the so-called “church-growth” movement and not enough time looking for ways in which we can do our part to contribute toward church growth?5
The “Faithful Remnant” Mentality
Moreover, in our reaction to the so-called “church growth” movement, we may be throwing out some of the baby with the bathwater. We can begin to assume that smallness in-and-of-itself is a sign of spirituality. As one pastor recently argued,
Let us remember that Jesus said, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12: 32). Note that He did not say “big flock,” but rather “little flock”—so we should not be concerned about numbers.6
I think we should be concerned about numbers and, therefore, should jettison the kind of “faithful remnant” mentality expressed above (not to mention the unwarranted exegetical method!). Does it have to be quality versus quantity? Can’t we pursue both!
God’s Part and Our Part in Church Growth
Of course, God ultimately determines the numerical growth of a church. Paul himself acknowledged this when he wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor 3:6). But that fact didn’t prompt Paul to adopt a kind of “Keswick” approach to church growth where he passively “let go and let God” do something about it. Rather, Paul not only preached, but he preached to persuade (2 Cor 5:11).7 Moreover, Paul contextualized his manner and method without compromising his message in order to increase the effectiveness of his preaching. Paul described this as seeking “to please everyone in everything I do” (1 Cor 10:33).
What should we do?
To begin with, we should pray for and cultivate a greater passion to see souls saved–not just a few but as many as possible! Ours should reflect the sentiment of C. H. Spurgeon who is reputed to have prayed, “Lord, hasten to bring in all Thine elect— and then elect some more.”8 Consider also John Calvin’s thoughts on church growth. He not only desired numerical growth but urged God’s people to do what they could to promote it:
Therefore, in keeping with the teaching Luke gives here [Acts 6:7-9], let us learn that we constitute a true church of God when we try our best to increase the number of believers. And then each one of us, where we are, will apply all our effort to instructing our neighbors and leading them to the knowledge of God, as much by our words as by our showing them good examples and good behavior…. That is not said only to preachers and those who expound the word of God. It is the charge of all Christians in general.9
Next, we should give more reflection to the subject of “contextualization,” that is, adapting or accommodating our manner and method of communicating the gospel to our target audience. Of course, contextualization can be abused and turned into compromise. But it can also be ignored or dismissed without warrant to the detriment of the church’s growth and testimony. As one writer remarked,
People who argue strongly that the church should not be concerned about numbers are basically expressing a position that may suggest that Jesus is not interested in people.10
With the help of God and guidance of biblical principle, let’s not be afraid of church growth but rather welcome it!
- Biblical citations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. [↩]
- I don’t think we need to choose between the two. The great Calvinist preacher Charles Spurgeon certainly didn’t sense a contradiction. He firmly believed and frequently proclaimed God’s sovereignty and the doctrines of grace. Yet he also gave a series of lectures on evangelism, which was later published as a book entitled The Soul-Winner. In the end, it matters not whether it’s Calvinistic or Reformed to speak of ”winning” or “saving” souls; it’s biblical, and that’s sufficient. [↩]
- See “Reformed Baptist” (accessed Oct 11, 2012). [↩]
- “What is a Reformed Baptist Church?” (accessed Oct 11, 2012). [↩]
- For an assessment of the “Church Growth Movement” that attempts to be fair and acknowledge the good as well as the bad, see Ed Stetzer’s recent three-part series: “What’s the Deal with the Church Growth Movement” — Part One; Part Two; Part Three (accessed Oct 15, 2012). Thanks to John Divito for making me aware of this series. [↩]
- M. H. Reynolds Jr., “A Message for the Faithful Remnant.” (accessed Oct 11, 2012). I’m not certain whether Mr. Reynolds is a Reformed Baptist pastor. However, I’ve heard his “few equals faithful perspective” echoed frequently by Reformed pastors. [↩]
- See Timothy Keller’s excellent message on “Persuasion” (accessed Oct 11, 2012 [↩]
- According to William Y. Fullerton, Charles Haddon Spurgeon: A Biography (1920). The quote is drawn from the end of chapter 8, “An Intimate Interlude” (accessed Feb 9, 2012). See also Lewis Drummond, Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers, 3rd ed. (1992), 122. [↩]
- Calvin’s commentary on Acts, in loc. [↩]
- Harold J. Westing, Create and Celebrate your Church’s Uniqueness (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1993), 169. [↩]