Growth and the Local Church (part 1)
by Rick Shrader
The church growth movement, in its effort to help the church accomplish the Great Commission, may have actually done more to hinder than to help. What started off as an effort to get as many people under the sound of the gospel as possible, has often ended with churches full of merely professing believers whose lives remained unchanged by the faith they profess, while the church itself is nothing more than a gospel tabernacle designed more for the lost than the saved. Franky Schaeffer, in seeing this change take place in churches wrote,
However, the constant activity-oriented nature of the church today, which is more like some combination health club-golfing society-bowling tournament-Sunday school service-inspirational message-fellowship-Jesus advertising machine-growth program all rolled into one, does not seem to have very much to do with the institution we read about in the New Testament.1
Whether one agrees with the solutions the younger Schaeffer preferred to follow or not, his observation of the problem was acute. Evangelism, which is to take place in the world (since the field is the world, cp. Matt. 13:38), now only takes place as we can coax unbelievers into the church. Since unbelievers have no abiding interest in the things of God, it takes more and more stimulation to get them to come and then to stay for any length of time. There are many brighter and more exciting lights on the boulevard if the church fails to meet the challenge. What started out as a desire to win the lost ends up with the lost people holding the church hostage to unconverted desires, demands and direction from the world.
Many have observed that this phenomenon may also be the result of the church’s own self-centered desire for fame and fortune. For almost half a century now, books have been published advertising the fastest growing churches and Sunday Schools; pastors of these large churches are invited to speak in impressive settings; large budgets allow gifts to be given to institutions which in turn reward the leadership with recognition. As a result, the church’s main goal is to keep the cycle going so that it does not lose its place at the table of important persons and churches. Never have the apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthian church been more appropriate: For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise (2 Cor. 10:12).
Only one church in the New Testament, the church at Jerusalem, was anywhere near the size of today’s mega churches. Five thousand members by today’s standard would hardly qualify for the term “mega” church. The other churches described in the New Testament would not rank large enough to be given any preferential treatment today. Beside this anomaly, the real difference between the church at Jerusalem and today’s mega churches is that the church did not seek to be large, and there were certainly no other churches to which they could compare themselves. Rather, they sought diligently to be what God wanted them to be, and they happened to grow. Other churches at that time did the same but without such growth. Growth was not considered as a factor for how the churches evangelized, operated, or behaved among the lost. They saw themselves as stewards of a truth for which they would give their lives when necessary.
When the church had to deal with sin among the members and God took the life of Ananias and his wife Sapphira, the book of Acts records, and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s porch. And of the rest durst no man join himself to them: but the people magnified them. And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women (Acts 5:12-14). Unbelievers wanted nothing to do with such a religion as that, but true seekers were drawn by the conviction of the Holy Spirit. When the apostles returned to the church after being beaten for preaching the gospel in public places, the book of Acts records, And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name. And daily in the temple and in every house they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ (Acts 5:41-42).
The New Testament shows that this activity was normal for all the churches but did not result in the growth which the post-Pentecost church had experienced in Jerusalem. Christ commends the church at Smyrna for their similar faithfulness to the Word of God, and assures them, I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life (Rev. 2:9-10).
Similarly, the apostle John, who was their brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ (Rev. 1:9). Growth and success in the world’s eyes could wait for heaven, faithfulness came first. And, of course, what we know is that such faithfulness was what was truly successful for the gospel in the long run.
What is it, then, that has happened in our own day and age? Why have we departed from this simple stewardship of the gospel and the Word of God? There are no doubt many reasons to be given, but I will list some that ought to be obvious to us.
1) The church is a called out group of people who have voluntarily believed, not a kingdom of people who have been conquered against their will.
The word “church” is somewhat of a misnomer to our understanding of the New Testament organism. The study of the church is called “ecclesiology” because the New Testament word for the church is “ecclesia” (ekklhsia) which means “to call out.” It is used one hundred and fifteen times in the New Testament and almost always refers to the local assembly of saints in a given locale, such as the church of God which is at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10). It can also refer to the entire body of believers who have been called out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9). Our English word “church” is a substitute for the Greek word, coming from the old English “Circ” or the Scottish “Kirk.”2
Premillennialists have not generally equated the church and the kingdom of God. If they have, they never lose sight of the great difference between the two. W.B. Riley wrote, “The discrimination between the Church and Kingdom voices itself not alone in the matter of time—the one the institution of the present, and the other the institution of the future—but equally in terms and phrases.”3 The kingdom of God will come to earth when Jesus Christ returns and sets it up; the Church exists now and is currently being built. His kingdom will be universal over every person on earth, converted or unconverted; the Church exists within the world as a called out assembly of believers. The kingdom will be a theocracy ruled with a rod of iron in universal righteousness and peace; the Church is an organism ruled by the Word and Spirit of God and is persecuted by the world. We are not building the kingdom of God today except in the sense that we are inviting people to make reservations to be there. The kingdom itself will only come when the Lord comes.
The New Testament does not speak about church properties or buildings, nor does it regard the size of an assembly important. There is no passage where instruction is given as to how the church should enlarge itself or grow to a certain size, or set a goal for growth. This is not to minimize evangelism, but rather to emphasize that the preaching of the gospel was considered a sacred task to keep people out of hell, not as a means of enlarging someone’s ministry. The size of the mixed multitude of believers and unbelievers on Sunday morning is not the size of the church. That can only be equated to truly born again people.
Where ever the gospel has gone, God has been calling sinners to Himself. When they respond, they become part of the called out group of people. This group is always smaller than the populous. Even the five thousand in the Jerusalem church was miniscule compared to the general population of Jerusalem. Though the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to any who believe, it is hidden from those whom Satan has blinded. As C.I. Scofield wrote, “This world, so far as we know, has never seen a converted city, or town, or even village.”4 It is simply not the Church’s purpose to make earthly citizens conform to Christianity’s standards by teaching, training, coaxing or coercing. Entrance into the Church is only through conversion.
2) The Great Commission is to preach the gospel, not convert the nations.
The Lord’s commission to His church is to preach the gospel to every person in the world! Go ye therefore, and teach (lit. “disciple”) all nations (Matt. 28:19); Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature (Mk. 16:15); But ye shall receive power after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth (Acts 1:8). As incredible as this request seems, we should not misunderstand the Lord’s intention. He did not command His disciples to convert every person, but to preach the gospel, to be a witness to every person. Our job is to take the good news to people, it is up to them and the Lord whether it will be accepted or rejected.
When the kingdom of God comes, His “will” will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The world will be converted by the coming of Christ’s kingdom. It will be changed spiritually, governmentally, economically, and in almost every other way possible. But it is the church’s job to take a message to every person; a message which can be, and usually is, rejected. When Jesus commanded the disciples to “baptize them,” He did not mean to baptize the nations (as infant baptism attempts to do) but to baptize those who fully make their own decision to become disciples.
The church does not fail when people refuse to be converted. Paul wrote to the Romans, from Jerusalem, and round about unto Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ. Yea, so have I strived to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build upon another man’s foundation (Rom. 15:19-20). He had “fully preached” the gospel, but obviously not everyone in those parts had been converted. But Paul had fully evangelized them! Shortly after he wrote those words, Paul passed through the area of Ephesus and said to the leaders of the church, And now, behold, I know that ye all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more. Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men (Acts 20:25-26). Not because everyone had been converted, but because he had faithfully given them the truth regarding the gospel of Christ and His coming kingdom.
Scofield writes, “The evangelization of the world, then, and not its conversion, is the mission committed to us. To do this, to preach the gospel unto the uttermost parts of the earth, to offer salvation to every creature, is our responsibility.”5 We pass through this world as sojourners and pilgrims headed for our final destination, the kingdom of God. Along the way we are to evangelize the world though we will not see its conversion until that kingdom comes.
We would not minimize the church’s responsibility to teach and care for those who come to Christ and are under its care. The local church, the body of Christ existing as a holy temple within a hostile world, is the most wonderful place to be in this age! There the believer finds brotherhood, acceptance, fellowship and help. There he can find the joy of the Lord among brethren who also have repented from the old life and are striving to become like their Savior in this life. But it is because they all possess the Spirit of God that this can be accomplished.
The church growth movement often attempts to accomplish in the world what only the kingdom of God will be able to accomplish. John MacArthur writes,
Contrary to the thinking of many people, the true church of Jesus Christ is not a visible human organization run by a hierarchy of officials. It is not a social agency to meet the needs and demands of the community or simply a convenient place in which to be married, buried, or baptized. It is certainly not a religious social club in which people of like-minded beliefs and standards get together for fellowship and occasional service activities.6
And So . . . .
The church need not gage its success on the size of the congregation or the number of people who have truly been converted, and certainly not on the number of people it can gather into an auditorium on Sunday morning. Its success or failure is measured by how it built on the foundation, not how many; whether it evangelized, not whether it converted the nations. The most effective means for the true success of the church, then, is to be light in darkness, holiness among ungodliness, awake to righteousness in a world that is asleep in unrighteousness, salt in a world that is mundane to the things of God. Salt is effective, not because it is so much like food, but because it is so unlike it.
3) The New Testament preacher is a herald of God’s message, not a diplomat to negotiate with his hearers.
4) The church is a body of worshipers who meet for spiritual purposes, not a corporation to do worldly business.Notes: 1. Franky Schaeffer, Addicted To Mediocrity (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1981) 86. 2. The word “church” refers more to the building than the people. The Greek “kuriakon” means “the house of a lord.” The English “circ” means “circle” and may refer to the circular shape of those houses of worship. See Emery Bancroft, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968) 259-265. 3. Wm. B. Riley, The Evolution of the Kingdom (New York: Charles Cook, 1913) 43. 4. C.I. Scofield, Addresses on Prophecy (Greenville: The Gospel Hour, nd) 21. 5. Scofiled, 22. 6. John MacArthur, First Corinthians ( Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1984) 277.