In my last article I attempted to answer the following question, “Whose responsibility is church growth?” I answered this question by concluding that this responsibility lies ultimately with God rather than men. I then made several suggestions as to how we might return to this perspective. Still this general discussion gives rise to many other questions, perhaps the most pronounced being, “Why are we so worried about church growth anyway?” and, “Where does the impulse itself come from?” I hope to answer these questions in this essay—what might be called “the questions behind the questions”—that we might gain greater insight into furthering Christ’s kingdom.
Church Growth vs. Kingdom Building
It is our Christian privilege to participate in church growth, for Christ’s command compels us. However, let us remember that church growth is concerned ultimately with kingdom growth. It is not concerned with local growth for its own sake, nor is it concerned with numbers for their own sake. Yet contemporary discussions of church growth are all too often concerned with (1) the local church to the practical exclusion of the universal church and (2) the numbers game.
First, by church growth, what we often mean is actually our church growth. We prefer this for several reasons: It can be seen and measured, and it validates what we are doing. However, this is not biblical. Instead, church growth concerns, not just local congregations, but the universal church. Yes, the local church is a like a suburb of the kingdom, but it is just that, a suburb. It uses its position in a neighborhood to proclaim the Gospel, serve the community, and proclaim social justice. However, many Christians run ashore when they focus on building their kingdoms (their local church) to the practical exclusion of Christ’s (His Church). We must remember that God’s kingdom is much bigger and grander than anything the local church can accomplish, and ultimately that is the point. Remember, it is Christ who will build His church, not men who will build their churches.
A second problem with church growth discussions is our emphasis on the numbers game. We are more concerned with attendance than we are souls. We have succumbed to the lie that “more is better,” and that true cultural influence requires us to have more people. Such notions are perpetuated by consumerism and a market-driven approach to church growth. We toy with the latest “strategies,” and have essentially made a game out of church. Meanwhile, the lost sit in our pews, are destined for hell, and have no idea that we have cheapened the Gospel. We have chosen instead to participate in a charade of numbers and figures.
However, we must remember that numbers do not equal success in God’s eyes. Recall the ministries of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and even Christ. Their ministries had little-to-no numerical impact yet they did more to actually set forth of a vision of God’s coming kingdom than many others who do have numerical success. In fact Christ’s ministry drove many away. Christ never set up church with a grand cathedral, multi-purpose building, light show, or edgy sermon title. He ministered to people where they were, and He never changed His message of repentance, forgiveness, and faith. Thus the kingdom-mindset is not about jumping on the latest trend-driven bandwagon to lure more people through the church doors. It is about advancing Christ and the pure message of His saving Gospel.
“How did Christ treat these questions?” you might ask. Throughout the course of His earthly ministry, many people turned from following Him. Certainly He had both small and large groups of disciples who followed Him—the twelve and the seventy, for example. Even so, through the course of His ministry Christ’s disciples left Him. Some left because they could not endure His message, and some because He would not provide them what they wanted. For example, we see in John 6:66 that “many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” These left because they could not endure His hard teachings.
Other disciples, however, followed Jesus because of what He could do for them. Though they could endure His message, they followed Him only as long as they benefited from His ministry (i.e. healing, miracles, crowds, popularity). People in our society are this way. They follow Christ so long as they benefit from Him. The church has presented Christianity as more about what a generic “God” can do to make my life better—and church growth has fallen into the same category. Oak Hills Church of Folsom CA pastor, Mike Lueken discovered this. He exclaims,
We had used the axiom ‘the message never changes but the methods always change’ as a defense for the unconventional, seemingly innovative methods we employed to try to communicate the gospel in our seeker days. Yet in understanding the gospel centered kingdom growth, we began to question this split between message and method. There is a symbiotic relationship between the message and the methods we use to preach it—the methods we use are part of the message. The style and strategy of the church shapes the message that people hear .
As explained by Lueken, we must use proper methods to convey proper messages. Although we may try to divorce the method from the message, thus differentiating between the two, the truth is that they go together.
“What does this have to do with Christ and His disciples?” you ask. Christ’s method is our standard. What was this method? He made disciples of a small group of individuals, that they might multiply themselves in the lives of others and take the unchanging message to the ends of the earth. This is our standard, our example. Nevertheless, we have tossed this idea out of the window. We have changed the method and compromised the message. We have made an attractional train wreck of worship services by focusing on the felt-needs of the sinner, rather than the Savior, and the methods we use rather than the message we cling to. Through this the church has developed a smorgasbord of options available in order to accommodate people’s perceived needs. And some of them have no business being categorized with Christianity, let alone a church! Yet they take center stage in many churches.
Clarifying My Heartbeat
It would be easy to misunderstand what I am arguing for. I am as concerned about the lost as anyone. I strive to be a dedicated disciple of Christ, husband, father and pastor. And I rejoice at a lost soul who repents of their sins and places their faith in Christ alone as their Lord and Savior. Thankfully, we have seen God’s hand of blessing in both numerical and spiritual growth in the local churches I have served. However, my fear is that we all are often too proud of personal numerical accomplishments, rather than being servants who preach salvation to the lost for the sole purpose of Christ’s glory.
Instead of focusing solely on numbers, we should focus on being effective in our preaching, diligent in discipleship, and humble in the pursuits of holiness. We focus on being bigger and more alluring; instead we should focus on administering the ordinances faithfully and promoting sound doctrine. If one observes society today, promotion and church growth have taken precedence over Gospel-driven, kingdom-building ministry. Yet even a quick look at the church’s history will reveal that this ecclesiological balance did not go awry until the twentieth century. The differences in church growth and kingdom building have left Christians and non-Christians alike scratching their head seeking answers.
The answer to these concerns is simply asking whose glory we seek. When man seeks to build his church, the glory, praise, accolades, and sense of accomplishment is easily attributed to him. This garners pride and honor for the pastor, church people, or local congregation. And this is where things have gone awry. The church is not, nor has it ever been, about bringing more glory and honor to men. It has always been, and will always be (whether we do so or not) about bringing complete glory to God.
Our ultimate goal in life is to bring glory to our Father. Our means and methods within congregations may be different, just as the talents and abilities of individuals are different, but our goal must be the same. For if our purpose is not supremely underlined by this motive, then whatever we try to accomplish will be lost. We must remember that church growth is about kingdom building, and we must not be too concerned with numbers. In conclusion, worrying about church growth is useless, for the growth of the local church is ultimately about the kingdom, and about glorifying the God who reigns in it.
 Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken, Renovation of the Church: What Happens When A Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2011), 57.
For Further Reading:
Rainer, Thom S. Surprising Insights From the Unchurched (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 2001.
Rainer, Thom S. The Book Of Church Growth: History, Theology, and Principles. (Nashville, B & H Publishing), 1993.
Reid, Alvin. Radically Unchurched. (Grand Rapids, Kregel), 2002.