Is Growth the Goal of the Church?
We work to grow the body of Christ toward maturity and health. A byproduct of that, under the right conditions, would be a certain amount of numerical growth. Organisms grow. Healthy organisms, generally, grow well. If the church is healthy it will be reproducing and new disciples will be added.
But, really the question today is whether or not numerical growth ought to be a key goal for the church. I’m going to say no. There are some good reasons we should resist setting that as our metric for success.
The goal of growth for the church that is mentioned in the New Testament has to do with maturity. In Ephesians chapter 4, Paul repeatedly speaks about the church reaching maturity as it grand design. A church striving toward maturity, truth and doctrinal soundness will not always tread the same path of a church bent on upping their numbers.
When Paul speaks about the church growing in 1 Corinthians 3 he says explicitly that growth is in God’s hands. He writes, “ I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (1 Cor. 3:6 ESV) A few verses later he likens the work of church leaders to builders and warns that we must build with quality materials and that wood, hay, and stubble will burn on the day of judgment. That seems to be a clear message. We build for health, not impressive numbers.
Not by Trickery
Paul was adamant that the church should stand on the gospel and by no sleight of hand. As he talks about the gospel in 2 Corinthians 4 he says this, ‘But we have renounced disgraceful underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Cor. 4:2 ESV)
If we focus on numerical growth we can be tempted to try to gain a crowd by smoke, mirrors, and light shows. We can try to reap a harvest of the spirit by an appeal to the flesh. Someone has said what you win them with is what you win them to. If the church peddles a kind of gospel show with lights, sounds, and special effects, then that is what people will interpret as the essence of the faith.
Preaching Word/Sound Teaching
Paul said this to Timothy, “…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, “(2 Tim. 4:2-3 ESV) Paul seems to imply that there will be seasons when doing what is right for the health of a church will potentially shrink the number, because some won’t be willing to endure sound teaching.
We can want to grow and pray for growth without obsessing or focusing on that as our definition of success. Our goal is to be faithful servants of Christ, build with quality materials, preach the word in season and out, and let God give whatever increase he chooses to give.
That has been our pledge to you from way back. By all means redouble your efforts to share your faith, invite the unchurched, and pray for the church to grow. But we will seek that growth toward maturity that Christ commands and as he defines it, not as the world dictates.