CHURCH GROWTH

T. Pierce Brown

During the last half-century I have preached many sermons on church growth, and have attended many lectures, seminars, workshops and meetings built around that theme. There is no question that God wants the church to grow, numerically and spiritually. My present judgment is that we, even when speaking the truth about the things that help churches to grow, often have focused on the wrong things. Since the concept about which I shall write may be hard to grasp, and my communication skills are not adequate to the task, I invite your most careful attention and critical analysis.

As I study the preaching and programs of the early church, I am convinced that the Apostles and inspired men never thought or spoke about church growth, per se. They knew what we know, but sometimes overlook, that church growth will take care of itself (or God will take care of it) provided each individual Christian grows properly.  Most of us know that, but probably have not been aware that the very fact that we often focus on church growth instead of individual growth has caused some of the problems we now have. We may have overlooked the fact that when we think of church growth we may be primarily concerned with the number. In individual growth, we are concerned with the spirituality.

When Paul said in 1 Cor. 3:6, “I planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase” he said something far more profound than we may realize. God will take care of the church growth if we properly take care of the planting and watering. If we get focused too much on the growth of a plant, we may decide to make it grow by pulling on its top, or by trying to design some method of artificial growth that may cause a monstrous product, destroy the plant or make the fruit of little nutritional value.

When we buy a bus to take young people on retreats, devotionals, or skating parties, we do it because we are concerned about church growth, which involves keeping our young people involved and interested.  There is some value in our young people doing “fun things” with each other, and with those of other congregations. However, if our primary concern and focus is on developing the spirituality and the mind of Christ in our young people, helping each one to see Christ more clearly, love him more deeply and serve him more earnestly, we may find ourselves planning programs in a different way. If our primary focus is on finding ways to “hold our young people” and thus increase church growth, we will almost certainly find ways to increase church growth numerically without giving primary concern to increasing individual spiritual growth.

There is a value in having a “fellowship meal” at the church building or in the home of some member. We do it because we enjoy being with each other, eating good food, and hope that this will contribute to church growth. I have been involved in those for about half a century, and never remember one that I did not enjoy. But if we ask how much this contributes to the development of the mind of Christ in each individual, and how much it equips each of us to carry out the primary tasks to which God assigns us, we might plan activities differently.

Jesus said, “This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting” (Mk.9:29). Is it possible that we have acted as if “this kind can come forth by preaching and feasting” and have focused on the wrong things? By “wrong things” I do not mean to imply that it is a sin to meet and eat. I do mean that Paul says in Rom. 14:17, “For thekingdomofGodis not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” It would be appropriate for each elder and preacher to examine the purpose for which various things are done. Then when it is done, examine the results and see if we have achieved our goal. We may also ask, “Was our purpose in doing this to enjoy ourselves, to help the church grow, or is our purpose to increase the spirituality and ability of each member to function as God directs?” Can we not do both? Of course, but our question is, “Where do we start with our primary purpose and focus?”  My point is, if we start with the latter, we will discover the church will grow, but it will grow, not because we are trying to “hold the members together” with things they enjoy, like eating and drinking. It will grow because each member has grown more Christlike and is more concerned about fishing for men and doing the things that will “lift up Christ and draw all men unto him.” If we start with the former, it may grow numerically, but will be anemic spiritually in many cases.

If you have not seen my point so far, let me try to make it clearer by an illustration. No preacher is worthy of his salt that does not recognize the validity of Paul’s statement in Galatians1:10, “Do I seek to please men? For if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.” Any preacher whose focus and primary purpose is to please his listeners should get another job, such as shining shoes or digging ditches. However, if his focus is on pleasing God and preaching the pure and certified Gospel (Gal.1:11), he will discover that he does please all those who have properly exalted Christ. In terms of our emphasis today, if he is focused on trying to make the church grow, he probably will be concerned with trying to please men. He may decide it can be done by building family life centers or fellowship halls, having lots of “fellowship meals” or “fun activities” for the young people, or doing thousands of other things that may have some value. I am not suggesting that all these things are wrong. I am suggesting that we examine the purpose for doing them and ask some hard questions about whether they accomplish the primary things Christ wants of us.

Years ago in my preacher training classes, I taught principles of articulation, posture, gestures, proper grammar, etc. But I would try to emphasize this, “Do not worry about how to wave your hands around in emphasizing your point (once you have learned some basic principles concerning that), but concentrate on the message and your gestures will take care of themselves.” Always when a student would focus on his gestures, his posture, or even his grammar, he would lose something valuable. Once after I had tried so earnestly in a sermon to exalt Christ, a man came down the aisle with a glowing smile. He said, “I enjoyed your sermon so much. You did not have a single grammatical error.” What a tragic loss because he focused on the wrong things! It would have been even more tragic for me if I had also done so by being primarily concerned about my grammar.

Perhaps the whole point could have been made just by giving an exegesis of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 6:25ff. It is important to plan to have the proper things to eat, drink and wear. Our problem, as theirs was, is in focusing on those things. He says, “Seek ye first thekingdomofGod, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mt.6:33). We have known that all along, but we may not have known that concentrating and focusing on church growth may lead in one direction. Focusing on things that will make us individually function more effectively in the kingdom of God, and those things that make us more Christlike (fulfill God’s righteousness) may lead in another. Often our problem is not that we have chosen the bad way, but that we have substituted the good for the better, or the better for the best.

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