Church Growth: Must We be Passionate about Numerical Growth?

A few weeks back I posted on church attendance and the role numbers might play in evaluating ministry, both positively and negatively. I argued that unqualified numbers indicate little more than trends, can be misleading or even deceiving, and easily become a source of discouragement. One of the catalysts for my own reflection upon the church growth movement and its principles has been Andrew Heard. I have critiqued an aspect of his teaching (here), but in this post I want to interact with his point from Acts that being passionate about numerical growth is a necessary part of the gospel fabric and ministry. When presenting this at a conference, Heard admitted that being passionate about numerical growth leaves us wide open to compromise, providing a sort of tension. However I believe that being passionate for growth also requires careful qualification. I hope to develop that, in part, with this post.

Growth in Acts was a result of the church’s passion for Christ

Church growthBefore we get to some of those qualifications, we must ask if does Acts does show that being passion for numerical growth is necessary for gospel ministry. I have written previously on the purpose of Acts, arguing that by embedding gospel sermons in narrative Luke’s aim was to: (a) call its readers to repentance and faith in Christ while (b) emphasising that the success of the gospel is owed to the Holy Spirit. More simply, we might say that Acts emphasises the word about Christ and the work of the Spirit. There is no denying that Luke records numerical growth throughout (Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1, 7; 11:24; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20). But in holding to the aforementioned twofold purpose of Acts, this numerical growth resulted from the faithful proclamation of Christ made effective by the Spirit, which is why we repeatedly read that it was the Lord who added to his church. To risk being accused of splitting hairs, I think we would do better to argue from Acts that the apostles were passionate about Christ and dependant on his Spirit, rather than passionate about growth and dependant on methods. With that in mind, let us consider two qualifications for the statement, ‘Being passionate about growth is a necessary part of gospel fabric.’

Numerical growth must be measured by real conversions to Christ

I mentioned some of the dangers of metrics in ministry in my previous post. One of those is the misuse of numbers; we can, as one commenter said, seek “data-comfort” through metrics. This is not to say that this will always be the case but we must ask both why we are counting on Sundays and what those statistics show. The problem with counting heads on a Sunday is that the number of people who attend services is not an indication of how many Christians belong to your church. Therefore what we can infer from numbers is confidence of growth, perhaps of “seekers” but not an indication of conversions. Commenting on Acts 2, John Stott writes, “Salvation and church membership belonged together; they still do.” All of the numbers in Acts refer to conversions, not adherents or visitors. History tells us that tens of thousands of Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Pentecost and therefore we can safely assume that Peter addressed more than 3000 people. In fact, Acts 2:41 makes it clear that not everyone who heard received the word and baptism. The incredible number in 2:47 was not how many listened to Peter but how many came to Christ.

Conversions have little to do with us

Church growthAnswering the question, “Who grows the church?” in The Courage to be Protestant, David Wells strongly expounds the sovereignty of God. He writes, “Nothing…is more absurd than the panic that now grips the evangelical church. It is terrorized by the specter of postmodernity. Reading today’s “how-to” literature, one has to draw the conclusion that the church’s days are numbered unless we rush in to prop it up with our own know-how. God, you see, has more on his hands than he can possibly handle.” Wells concludes that section of his book with an appeal for us to let God be God over his church, for this will liberate us from feeling or thinking we must do what we are incapable of doing: “We cannot impart new life.” Believing numerical growth can be unlocked by a better strategy comes close to unbelief. Wells continues, “We turn to structures and programs, appearances and management, advertising and marketing. Our preoccupation is with what we doand therefore with what we control.” Strategies, structures, and ministry models do not deny the sovereignty of God but the confidence we put in them to grow God’s church might.

My hope in writing this post is not to promote theological knit picking and it certainly is not to discourage being passionate about growing God’s church. But, working backwards through my points: we must remember the place of human effort and planning within the sovereignty of God. The most God-glorifying expression of our passion for growth will be seen in impassioned prayers for conversions. Finally, if we are truly passionate about growth we will preach Christ and him crucified, in the power of his Spirit. Nothing less will do. Nothing less will grow the church.

Church Growth: The Place of Metrics in Evaluating Ministry

Attending a conference, denominational synod, or church planting seminar, you do not have to wait long before you are discussing numbers and attendance. It’s not even that people specifically ask how big your church is. It is more that the question: “How’s it going?” either has the implied meaning of ‘how many people are attending your church?’ or we instinctively answer with statistics. I do not yet know what to make of this instinct in myself or that when I ask about your ministry all I am really interested in is how many people are coming. But I know it is not healthy, and I am fairly certain it is not biblical. Paul does not mention the size of a church once in his epistles, apart from celebrating their growth. And in Christ’s seven letters to the churches in Revelation it is the unimpressive and beleaguered churches that are commended (Smyrna and Philadelphia), while the influential and powerful churches are rebuked (Sardis and Laodicea).

Church metricsDiscussing the place of numbers in evaluating our churches and ministries, Marshall and Payne write, “Numbers can be a blunt instrument for evaluation. On their own, they don’t tell the whole story. Good numbers can be a sign of spiritual health, or they can indicate that you are running a non-demanding, people-pleasing ministry that lots of people like” (The Vine Project). Numbers do not tell the whole story, yet the way we speak and evaluate each other’s ministries I wonder if we actually believe that. After all, it is far more impressive to say your average Sunday attendance is closing in on 1000 than to admit that you are seeing little maturity in your church. Read that quote from The Vine Project again: numbers alone indicate nothing. Let’s not forget that Joel Osteen pastors the biggest church in America. So in this short post I hope to outline a few of my thoughts on and concerns regarding numbers.

They can be misleading

I wrote a post a couple of years ago asking if Satan can grow the church. I was not referring to pastors selling their souls or children to the devil in order to have bigger churches—though I reckon some might be willing to do that. In the post I looked at Jesus’ parable about the wheats and the weeds in Matthew 13. The conclusion I drew was that Satan is able to mislead God’s people by giving them what they desire most, so long as it draws them away from finding satisfaction and significance in Christ. I concluded that post by writing, “[Satan] revels in a church where attendance is the mark of faith and its leaders worship growth.” We must remember that we may grow a large ministry only to have most of it ripped up and burnt. The warning for everyone here is to pursue genuine gospel growth, and if you read the other ‘kingdom parables’ in Matthew 13 you will learn that that is often slow.

They make a cruel master

Church metricsWhen the first question regarding an event or service is, “How many people came?” you are setting yourself up for discouragement, or perhaps false confidence. On paper alone attendance is powerful, both to puff up and to pull down. Forgetting for a second the trap mentioned in my first point, let us consider a second trap, one that Satan I am sure also sets: discouragement. Consider the statement, “Only 20 people attended the prayer meeting.” Sure, that might be disappointing when you consider what percentage of your church 20 people represents, but 20 Christians did gather to pray. They surrendered their time and submitted their requests to our Father in heaven, and surely that cannot be an absolute discouragement. But when numbers are the primary measure of our ministries we will be crushed by disappointment and grow discouraged, often in spite of the work of God before our eyes.

They indicate trends not transformation

This is an important point that brings us back to Marshall and Payne’s above. Numbers can indicate if the church is growing, on a plateau, or in decline, but little more. When attendance is dropping we must ask some hard questions about that ministry or event. If the numbers have stayed exactly the same we need consider change and innovation. And if there is a growing trend we should ask if we are merely filling seats. However, in all three cases the numbers reveal trends and not conversions or Christian maturity. Therefore, in closing, I agree that numbers can play a useful role in helping us evaluate our ministries, through the force of undeniable statistics. But we cannot let numbers deceive us with false growth, nor can we allow numbers to rule over and discourage us.

Romans: The Righteousness of God

The men’s group that I am a part of has started reading through Paul’s epistle to the Romans and a few weeks back we considered Romans 1:17, ‘In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”’ The question we discussed was one that has been asked throughout church history: how is the revelation of God’s righteousness good news?

RomansBefore his Turmerlebnis, or conversion, German Reformer Martin Luther understood what this verse meant, in part, and he hated it, deeming it decidedly bad news. Luther felt that God’s righteousness can only show up our own unrighteousness and wrestled with the claim that its revelation was desirable. In the Institutes, discussing the law, John Calvin writes, “It shows God’s righteousness, that is, the righteousness alone acceptable to God, it warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns, every man of his own unrighteousness” (2.7.6). If we advance no further than this view of God’s righteousness we can hardly call it gospel.

In his magisterial commentary on Romans, Douglas Moo provides a few options for understanding the “righteousness of God,” which explain Luther’s original disdain for the verse. Moo says that it has been understood to refer to the God’s attribute of righteousness and his just activity. Neither of these filled Luther with much hope, because he was a man well acquainted with his own sinfulness. But Moo offers another historical interpretation, one which both Luther would eventually champion: a righteousness attributed to us by God. In fact, upon consideration of these three options we hardly need to treat them as mutually exclusive, since Paul combines them in Romans 1-3.

Turning back to Romans 1:17, and the question over God’s righteousness being revealed in the gospel, a basic exercise in exegesis sets our course. For in the immediate context, Romans 1:16, we read, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Notice that the same gospel that reveals the righteousness of God (1:17) is the powerful salvation of God for all who believe (1:16), not those who possess their own righteousness. So the revelation of God’s righteousness in the gospel must mean more than simply his righteousness or his just activity being displayed; it is somehow related to those who have faith in Christ.

It is when we reach Romans 3:21 that Paul brings these ends together. Having repeatedly shown in 1:18-3:20 that we do not possess a righteousness of our own, Paul writes, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested” (3:21). This righteousness does not come through the law but faith and belief in Jesus Christ (3:21-22). But how does faith reveal God’s righteous character and behaviour? The answer: God shows his righteousness in giving us the righteousness of Christ, in justifying us “by his grace as a gift” (3:24). Paul concludes, “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). Drawing our minds back to 1:17, the gospel reveals the righteousness of God in at least two ways: firstly we see that he is just, not merely forgetting unrighteousness but punishing it in Christ (3:25); secondly we learn that he is the God who justifies those with faith.

InstitutesWe have covered much ground in a short space. Our original question was how is the revelation of God’s righteousness a good thing, since alongside it our blemishes and sin are made clearer? Added to that was another questions, how does our faith in Christ reveal God’s righteousness while also achieving salvation (1:16)? The answer to these questions comes in Romans 3:21-26, for in the gospel God’s righteousness is manifest. This happens as he simultaneously works in a way that is perfectly just and justifies those who are not perfect. Thus Calvin writes, looking at Romans 5, “God, to whom we are hateful because of sin, was appeased by the death of his Son to become favourable toward us…As by the sin of Adam we were estranged from God and destined to perish, so by Christ’s obedience we are received into favour as righteous” (2.17.3). “To God be the glory forever” (Romans 11:36).

Doodle: Keep Preaching to the Choir

“Now I know I’m preaching to the choir,” is something I have caught myself saying in the pulpit on numerous occasions, teaching on the importance of belonging to a local church. We say similar things when we discuss passages in small group that emphasise meeting together, encouraging other Christians and living in community. It is a cliché and therefore about as useful as it is original. When we meet together to hear God speak – as the Bible is read, taught, and applied – we may be the metaphorical choir but that does not make us any less in need of being convicted by the Spirit. Imagine a believer in the church who received the letter to the Hebrews shouting, after 10:25 was read, ‘Hey, we’re here; stop preaching to the choir.’ It’s ridiculous because God’s Word gathers us and addresses the gathered. Furthermore, you need only read Hebrews 10:24 to see that merely meeting together is inadequate, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together.”

ChurchThere is more to being a part of the church than meeting together. We must make no apology when emphasising the value as well as the purpose of meeting together, as if all of those who are gathered are committed to stirring one another up to love and good deeds. The gospel we preach does not simply say, ‘Come to church.’ That is the nominal poison believed and preached in many South African churches, especially among older generations. No, the gospel says that Christ has saved us for himself and to minister to his people. We need to keep preaching to the choir because there are people regularly attending church who play no active role in encouraging others. If people are uncomfortable with the demands of Jesus then it may be because they do not know or love him. Certainly, one of the ways we show our love for Christ is by being concerned for the interests of his people (Philippians 2:19-30). Keep preaching to the choir.

Christ taught that the numerical size of local churches is a fraught statistic, attendance can mean very little. Therefore, just as we do not apologise for preaching Christ and him crucified week after week, we should not baulk at challenging the gathered church about their personal investment in the local church. We preach the gospel Sunday by Sunday because it is a grave mistake to think the church visible is the church invisible. In a similar way, we keep seeking to convict Christians with regards to their love for God’s people, or lack thereof. Just as we keep preaching to spiritual corpses (Ephesians 2:1-3) we must keep preaching to the choir. We must regularly call for faith and repentance, not forgetting that all Christians still have much repenting to do. So keep preaching to the choir.

Since John Calvin kicked off this short series of posts thinking about our gifts and using them to serve the local church, I will quote him as we finish. “And this is the place to upbraid those who, having nothing but the name and badge of Christ, yet wish to call themselves Christians…Either let them cease to boast of what they are not, in contempt of God; or let them show themselves disciples not unworthy of Christ their teacher” (3.6.4).

Why We Don’t Serve in the Church

Last week I wrote a post unpacking part of John Calvin’s Institutes on gifts, the local church, and self-denial. Calvin shows that God is the giver of all that we have, including our gifts. If you are wealthy that is because God has been generous. If you possess a unique skill, your Creator installed it. Whatever you have it is not yours but God’s. Because he is the one who gives us our gifts he determines their end: the good of his church and ultimately his glory. The latter of those ends is impacted by how we use our gifts, our attitude and motivation. God is not glorified when we boast in our gifts—however public or impressive the demonstration. We also fail to give him due glory when we refuse to recognise that he is behind the gifts we see applied in the local church. In short, when we realise that our gifts are from God for service of his church and act accordingly God is worshipped.

Off the back of a few conversations about the previous post I felt the need to write a follow-up, exploring a few of the reasons people do not serve the local church with their gifts. I am sure you will be able to add your own observations to the list below, and I invite you to do so, for mine is certainly is not comprehensive.

We believe that our life is our own

The phrase ‘self-denial’ conjures up images of monastic misery and joyless perseverance. Yet for Calvin it was an unavoidable conclusion of believing the gospel, “We are not our own masters, but belong to God” (3.7.1). Citing both Romans 12:1-2 and 1 Corinthians 6:19 Calvin argues that God made us his own and therefore we should pursue his glory, indeed this is why he brought us to himself and his people. This truth is the root of self-denial, for if we belong to God we can forget ourselves as we find what God made us for. “Let this therefore be the first step, that a man depart from himself in order that he may apply the whole force of his ability in the service of the Lord” (3.7.1). Perhaps the most serious reason we are slow to serve in the local church is this, and it demands honest self-examination: I still believe that my life is my own. Once we understand that Christ has made us his own (Philippians 3:12), Calvin says seeking the Lord’s will – increasingly, though not always effortlessly – follows and we will serve others for the glory of God (3.7.2). Self-denial is not begrudgingly serving others; it is the glad service for which God made and saved us.

Our view of being gifted is shaped by the world

People are celebrated for being exceptional and we are constantly pointed to the achievements of remarkable people. This has lead to us misunderstanding the word ‘gifted’, limiting it to a small group of hallowed individuals in the local church. But that could not be further from the truth. Passages such as Ephesians 4:7-16 have long been used to perpetuate this error by creating elitism within the local church. Some look at Ephesians 4:11 and believe God is elevating the word or teaching offices above all others. However if you read the very next verse we learn why God gives gifted teachers to his churches: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (4:12). If you spend all your time marvelling at a mouth, discussing the shape of its lips and how straight the teeth are, but never recognise that the mouth is designed for nourishing the body, you will starve. Likewise, the word ministries are not to be marvelled at but put to use, teaching the church how to use their own gifts in service of others and equipping them for ministry.

We think too narrowly about gifts

This is linked with the previous point, for it is also an aspect of churches drawn to exceptional gifts but indifferent to the more mundane expressions of love and service. This was at least part of the problem Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Without entering the debate about the continuation of gifts such as tongues and healing – you can read some exploration of prophecy here, and here – let us note something undeniable: Paul does not limit gifts to the ‘spiritual’ set. He reminds the church that the Spirit apportions many gifts to create a body where each member has a valuable role (12:11-26). There is no place for division, instead we should honour the less impressive members and gifts in Christ’s church (12:21-25). Another point often overlooked in churches that boast the more spectacular gifts and manifestations is 12:31-13:13. Though Paul does call on Christians to “earnestly desire the higher gifts” he speaks of a “more excellent way” (12:31; also see 14:1). What is that? Love. Sacrificial service of God’s people using the gifts God gave you, regardless of being noticed for it. Unfortunately 1 Corinthians 13 has been misappropriated by so many lazy wedding preachers meaning that when we read 13:4-7 we forget that Paul is referring to relationships in the local church. Love shown practically in God’s church is a gift, one that surpasses the powerful and ostentatious ‘spiritual’ gifts.

We are not encouraged to discover our gifts

servingIn 1 Corinthians 12:11 Paul says that the Spirit has diversely apportioned gifts to everyone in the local church (also see Romans 12:6). We may not believe that, because few of us feel exceptionally gifted, like the powerful preacher in the pulpit, and we cannot speak in tongues or heal the sick. But listen to the apostle Peter, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). Now while Peter’s list does include the more public gifts such as speaking the oracles of God he includes serving in the same sentence (4:11). Peter also mentions loving one another (4:8) and hospitality (4:9). I will admit that I have given too little thought to the gift lists in the New Testament, but I also wonder if most of us have failed to give enough thought to God’s varied grace so that we might serve his body. In many churches today it feels like you are either a minister of the word (in home groups, church meetings, or evangelism) or you serve tea. But surely Christ did not give the former group to equip us to serve tea (Ephesians 4:11-12). God has gifted each member of his body for purpose. Discover your gifts and use them in service of your brothers and sisters, to the glory of our heavenly Father.

John Calvin: Our Gifts and the Church

Though wisdom and my recent less than prodigious blogging record suggests that I should not commit to any sort of writing project, with this post I am setting out on series of articles reflecting on John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Reading through his tremendous work in 2017 proved to me the practical value of solid systematic theology, as I found myself drawing on it in pastoral situations as well as for preaching. In writing these posts I hope to impress that value upon my readers.

Under the headings below I have summarised part of Calvin’s teaching on the use of our gifts in the local church, which is strikingly embedded in a section on self-denial. The setting of gifts under the heading of self-denial will seem strange to many Christians today, since gifts are usually paraded about, elevating individuals in the believing community. This creates an ungodly discontentment with the gifts God has equipped us, along with an unhealthy elitism, both of which are unbiblical and far from the mind of Christ.

Our gifts are from God (3.7.4)

Calvin notes that God calls us to esteem others above ourselves (Philippians 2:3-4), applying ourselves to doing them good. God calls us to this because naturally we are only concerned for ourselves (Philippians 2:21). Furthermore, Calvin says, we long to tower over others, which we accomplish through unfair comparisons and self-flattery. We all serve the “kingdom in our breast.” Ironically we attempt this self-aggrandisement through the things we have received from God, the abilities that might set us apart from others. Therefore, alluding to 1 Corinthians 4:7, Calvin writes, “We are instructed to remember that those talents which God has bestowed upon us are not our own goods but the free gifts of God; and any person who become proud of them show their ungratefulness.” Calvin frequently picks this theme up throughout his Institutes, quoting Cyprian elsewhere, ‘We ought to glory in nothing, because noting is ours’ (2.2.9).

Our gifts are for others (3.7.5)

Because the gifts we have are not ours, Calvin writes, “Whatever benefits we obtain from the Lord have been entrusted to us on this condition: that they be applied to the common good of the church.” Our talents, abilities, wealth, skills, and time do not ultimately belong to us; they are given by God for his church. Calvin discusses our gifts under self-denial because without renouncing ourselves we will never give wholly to others, doing Christ’s works of love. “We are the stewards of everything God has conferred on us by which we are able to help our neighbour, and are required to render account of our stewardship.” God has been generous to every one of his children in the church, both saving them and equipping them with gifts (respectively Ephesians 2:8-10 and 4:11-16). So we must remember that we are accountable for what we do with what God has given us, all of it. It is to this point that Jesus told his parable of the tenants (Luke 19:11-27).

Our hearts determines the value of our gifts (3.7.7)

Under 3.7.6 Calvin touches on the image of God to convict us when we are slow to use God’s gifts in service of others. If we deem someone unworthy of our efforts, “the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image.” This, Calvin argues, means that the love we must show others requires that we look first to God, paradoxically, and not people. If we love him then we ought to love and serve those made in his image. This brings Calvin to a conclusion, in 3.7.7, dealing with our attitude as we serve others, not forgetting the two points above. There can be no pride when it comes to our gifts, nor arrogance in our use of them. Once we have properly understood that all gifts we possess are from God for others we should learn to give freely, not under compulsion. When we serve others we must refuse to consider those helped as indebted to us, since we are merely being generous with what God has given us (1 Peter 4:11). Finally, what limits should be set on service and the sharing of God’s gifts? Calvin says only the end of our resources and the rule of love.