Preaching Articles

How should we define church growth?

In the last couple of years or so, I’ve read more and more about pastors seeking ways to grow their congregations – to increase their numbers. I’ve seen advertisements about seminars that will help pastors learn “the secrets”, “the ways” and “the strategies” for attracting more people to their churches. And from what I can tell, pastors are flocking by the hundreds, maybe thousands, to these seminars.

But is this where our focus should be?

There is something in those of us who teach and preach the gospel that we may sometimes feel as if we’re letting God down if our churches are not bursting at the seams, if we’re not running hundreds and scheduling two and three services each Sunday to meet the demand – like some of the “successful” churches.

But isn’t this is how a person running a business thinks? The bigger the better? In business, size is one indicator of success. But a church is not a business – at least not in this sense. And size is not an indicator of success.

Comparing ourselves with ourselves

As ministers of the gospel, we’re sometimes guilty of comparing ourselves with ourselves, to use Paul’s analogy (2 Corinthians 10:12). This is especially true when we meet with fellow pastors. “Last Sunday I had 300 people in my morning service. How about you?” And the pastor who had 53 sits there wondering what he’s doing wrong.

Now let me ask a question: Why do you want to see your church grow in numbers? Put another way: What is motivating or pushing you to want more people to attend your church? For me, this is really the heart of the issue.

Teaching is paramount.

If Jesus is our standard could it be we are losing our focus – missing the mark – when we look at numbers. Jesus tells the apostles in Matthew 28:20 to “teach” all nations – to make “disciples” – in every nation. The Greek paints the image of students in a classroom who are taught to be scholars in the teachings of Jesus.

Think about this for a moment: Jesus spent three and half years training 12 men to carry on His work. Three and half years of in-depth teaching, day after day, week after week, month after month, etc. And they understood Jesus’ teachings in the same way he understood them. And they were willing to die rather than renounce Him or what He had taught them. Now that’s uncompromising commitment!

We should be seeing this same attitude in our churches.

But we’re not. In general, our churches are places where people are not mortifying the flesh (dying to themselves). They are not sacrificing their wants and desires for Jesus. Is this not what Jesus did for His Father (John 5:19, 30) and the apostle did for Jesus (Matthew 10:28)?

And the primary reason why most Christians today are not doing this is because they are not being taught the necessity of doing so. Instead of focusing on their spiritual lives, many churches cater to their emotions – coffee bars, lounges, high tech visuals, sermons that are “scripture lite”, concert-like worship, etc.

Our churches, first and foremost, should be training centers.

Churches should be places where scripture is taught line upon line, precept upon precept (Isaiah 28:9-11) – with the purpose of making disciples who, without apology or compromise, will take what they’ve been taught and then turn around and teach it to others. And then the others in turn teach others and so on.

Our churches should be places where the people are challenged to dig into the Bible themselves at home. They should be like the Berean Christians and study the scriptures themselves to make sure that what we are teaching them is doctrinally sound (Acts 17:11).

If we are not training people who are in our churches right now to be scholars in the teachings of Jesus, they will not be prepared doctrinally or be spiritually mature enough to be His ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20). It will be impossible.

Think about the role of an ambassador. She is the official envoy of the country, or in our case, the kingdom she represents. She is a diplomatic agent of the highest rank and is authorized to speak for the kingdom she represents. Why? She knows, inside and out, how the kingdom operates, what the kingdom values and what is important to the “deity” of the kingdom. Can we really say this about the Body of Christ in general?

So should church growth be our focus?

Let me ask it a different way: should “growing” our churches be our focus?  

The answer is “Yes” if it means “growing people” to be scholars in the teachings of Jesus.

The answer if “Yes” if it means “growing people” to fulfill 2 Timothy 2:2 – “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit the same to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.”

The answer is “Yes” if it means “growing people” to understand what it means to live a life of sacrifice – a life where “not my will” but “your will” be done.

Pastors must be willing to walk the path alone.

Do you remember Jesus’ teaching about eating His body and drinking His blood? It was so hard that the Bible says “many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?” (John 6:66, 67)

When it came to what He believed and what He taught, Jesus drew a line in the sand. If the disciples and apostles believed His teachings and followed them, great! But if they didn’t, He was willing to continue the work of the Father without them. He was willing to go from 70 to 12 to 1. Let that sink in.

I believe this is an aspect of the path to spiritual maturity that’s lacking in our churches today. Too many of us are unwilling to teach the full, uncompromising gospel because we don’t want people leaving our churches and taking their money with them.

Again, we have lost our focus. The Bible says “But my God shall supply all your need” (Philippians 4:19). The Bible doesn’t say your church shall supply all your need. The size of your church’s checkbook is not the size of God’s checkbook. Can I get a witness?!?!

In most articles like this, the author will give readers a list of recommendations to consider for approaching the task. I am not going to do that – well, not in the way you may think – because I don’t know God’s vision for your church.

What is God’s plan for your church?

The Lord has a unique plan for your church with guidance and direction specifically designed for it. One person fully understands all of the nuisances of that plan – the Holy Spirit.

If you don’t have a plan or a program in place that is purposefully designed to teach line upon line, precept upon precept what Jesus taught, then my recommendation is simple: take some time away from your duties to seek the Holy Spirit for the plan and guidance for implementing that plan for the people you are shepherding.

And when you get the plan and the guidance, be ready for Satan’s attack. And I’ll tell you right now what the first attack will be: a decrease in the number of people who attend your church. Write it down. Look for it. Take it to the bank. It will be a ploy to distract you from completing your assignment.

Remember the question I asked earlier? “What is motivating or pushing you to want more people attending your church?” If you back off of your assignment to help your people become scholars in the teachings of Jesus you’ll know that spiritual growth for your people was not your heart’s desire. Of course, God will know that too.  

Let’s make sure our hearts beat with the heart of our Father. Let’s make sure that we teach those God has entrusted to us to be Berean Christians who spend time with the scriptures so that their faith is aligned with the author and finisher of our faith, Jesus Christ.

Barry O. Johnson is an associate minister at Grace Christian Center in Dayton, OH. He is on the faculty of Grace Ministries Bible College. He preached his first sermon at 18 but spent the next 30 years working in academia. He was ordained to ministry at age 54 and at age 61 is about to have his first book published. He will celebrate his 41st anniversary this year, has two adult sons and an adult daughter who is in Heaven.

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