by Tom Wacaster
Were I to ask a business man if he had a successful year last year, likely he would gage success on “numbers.” That is to be expected; for who in his right mind would even suggest that his business was a success had said company lost inventory, or even worse, dollars? To a car dealer, successes is measured in the number of cars sold; to a financier, success is measured in interest earned, or stocks bought and sold. But you cannot measure church growth in numbers. Genuine church growth falls outside the realm of the tangible. Admittedly there are tangible indications of church growth – but the tangible signs of growth can be misleading. Jesus warned the church at Sardis, “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou are dead” (Rev. 3:1). What is it that gave Sardis a “name that thou livest”? Was it the attendance figures for the year? Perhaps it was the number of baptisms; or the many mission endeavors in which she was involved. Perhaps the congregation had appeared in one of the brotherhood periodicals of the first century as being among the “fastest growing congregations in the brotherhood.” But the numbers were deceiving, were they not? Keep this in mind, beloved: Our Lord does not measure true success by tangible numbers! In all the letters to the seven churches of Asia, not a single one is commended for numbers, neither are any condemned for the lack thereof! Do not misunderstand, beloved – we cannot avoid increase in numbers when the church is growing – but numbers for numbers sake are not an accurate barometer of true church growth.
If we focus on numbers we will not develop a climate conducive to the kind of growth God desires. To illustrate, let us suppose an eldership has a desire to increase the attendance by 20% over the next twelve months. Simple math would demand that a present attendance of 100 would need to be at 120 by year’s end. So, the goal is set, and every effort is put into achieving that end. Suppose that by year’s end there has been an increase of only 1-2%, or even worse, no increase at all. The temptation would be to examine the methods being used to achieve the desired increase, and conclude, “We must be doing something wrong!” Along with the temptation to re-evaluate the “method” would be the danger of minimizing those things that are truly important (and scriptural) and focus even more on the increase in numbers. Why not, instead, focus our attention on those things that the Bible teaches us will provide for spiritual growth, and trust in God to give the increase? Has our Lord not promised that if we will sow and water that He will give the increase? “So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase” (1 Cor. 3:7). Paul was not minimizing the work of the evangelists, but was emphasizing the importance of focusing our attention on the source of genuine increase – increase, we might add, that can be measured in tangible figures. Notice that it was the preaching of the gospel to which Paul focused our attention: “I planted…Apollos watered” (vs. 6). With these things in mind, we humbly suggest the following spiritual truths that will help us maintain and develop a climate for church growth.
First, the leaders of a congregation must give attention to developing a positive atmosphere for church growth. As the spiritual climate about us continues to deteriorate we find ourselves saying (if only among ourselves), “Nobody will listen to the gospel anymore.” Or, “People are just not interested.” A steady diet of such negative thinking will erode and rob any congregation of its zeal to seek and save the lost. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that Romans 1:16 (“the gospel…is the power”) and Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things in Christ”) are still in the Bible.
Second, leaders must give attention to developing an attitude of trust among members. Fault finding, constant criticism, and internal strife will ruin the growth of a congregation. A good diet of spiritual milk combined with instruction in areas such as congregational cooperation, brotherly love, and trust in God will go a long way to a healthy climate for spiritual growth.
Third, leaders must give attention to old fashioned evangelism. If a farmer wants a larger crop, he gives attention to planting more seed. Neglect in this area will result in a small harvest and/or a discouraged and disappointed farmer. While elders have a great responsibility to address the spiritual needs of the flock, undue attention to the “felt-needs” of the members will result in a small harvest of souls if for no other reason than the fact that it draws our attention away from that which can and will provide growth. Let us not neglect the great commission (Matt. 28:19-20; Mark 16:15).
Fourth, leaders must strive for excellence among themselves and the congregation. Mediocrity does not attract people – it repels them. We seek for excellence in the products we buy, and the service we expect from those in the secular realm. It is our duty to give the very best to God. “And having gifts differing according to the grace that was given to us, whether to … ministry, let us give ourselves to our ministry; or he that teacheth, to his teaching; or he that exhorteth, to his exhorting; he that giveth, let him do it with liberality” (Rom. 12:6-9). Our desire for excellence should be apparent in our worship, our teaching, the building and grounds, etc. Anything less falls short of the right climate for church growth.
Fifth, leaders must be flexible while remaining steadfast and unmovable. There are some areas that must not change. The word of God has been “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and any attempt to deviate from the God-given standard will be disastrous (Gal. 1:8-9; Rev. 22:18-19). Thus we encourage one another, “Be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). But when it comes to the method for growth, we must be flexible, willing to adapt to the changing times. God has given us the amazing world-wide-web (better known as www.com), mobile phones, Ipods, Ipads and email to help us reach the billions of lost souls around us – we would be foolish to ignore these wonderful tools because we are locked in mind set that says, “Well, we never did it that way before.”
Finally, leaders must lead the way in demonstrating a serving spirit while expecting the congregation to follow in their train. Adapting the words of the late John F. Kennedy, “Don’t ask what the church can do for you; ask rather what you can do for the church.” I feel sorry for those anxious souls who give no consideration to working with a small congregation that cannot provide this program or that program and choose instead to place membership with a large congregation that has activities that meets their selfish, and in many instances, their fleshly desires. When a congregation focuses their attention on programs that appeal to whims and wishes of its members rather than the desires of God, they are well on the way to producing a climate contrary to church growth.
These suggestions are not exhaustive. But the wisdom that is from above attests to these important truths. May God help us to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord (2 Pet. 3:18) and do all within our power to develop and maintain a climate for growth where we labor and work in the Lord’s kingdom.