Church Growth: Must We be Passionate about Numerical Growth?
A few weeks back I posted on church attendance and the role numbers might play in evaluating ministry, both positively and negatively. I argued that unqualified numbers indicate little more than trends, can be misleading or even deceiving, and easily become a source of discouragement. One of the catalysts for my own reflection upon the church growth movement and its principles has been Andrew Heard. I have critiqued an aspect of his teaching (here), but in this post I want to interact with his point from Acts that being passionate about numerical growth is a necessary part of the gospel fabric and ministry. When presenting this at a conference, Heard admitted that being passionate about numerical growth leaves us wide open to compromise, providing a sort of tension. However I believe that being passionate for growth also requires careful qualification. I hope to develop that, in part, with this post.
Growth in Acts was a result of the church’s passion for Christ
Before we get to some of those qualifications, we must ask if does Acts does show that being passion for numerical growth is necessary for gospel ministry. I have written previously on the purpose of Acts, arguing that by embedding gospel sermons in narrative Luke’s aim was to: (a) call its readers to repentance and faith in Christ while (b) emphasising that the success of the gospel is owed to the Holy Spirit. More simply, we might say that Acts emphasises the word about Christ and the work of the Spirit. There is no denying that Luke records numerical growth throughout (Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1, 7; 11:24; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20). But in holding to the aforementioned twofold purpose of Acts, this numerical growth resulted from the faithful proclamation of Christ made effective by the Spirit, which is why we repeatedly read that it was the Lord who added to his church. To risk being accused of splitting hairs, I think we would do better to argue from Acts that the apostles were passionate about Christ and dependant on his Spirit, rather than passionate about growth and dependant on methods. With that in mind, let us consider two qualifications for the statement, ‘Being passionate about growth is a necessary part of gospel fabric.’
Numerical growth must be measured by real conversions to Christ
I mentioned some of the dangers of metrics in ministry in my previous post. One of those is the misuse of numbers; we can, as one commenter said, seek “data-comfort” through metrics. This is not to say that this will always be the case but we must ask both why we are counting on Sundays and what those statistics show. The problem with counting heads on a Sunday is that the number of people who attend services is not an indication of how many Christians belong to your church. Therefore what we can infer from numbers is confidence of growth, perhaps of “seekers” but not an indication of conversions. Commenting on Acts 2, John Stott writes, “Salvation and church membership belonged together; they still do." All of the numbers in Acts refer to conversions, not adherents or visitors. History tells us that tens of thousands of Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Pentecost and therefore we can safely assume that Peter addressed more than 3000 people. In fact, Acts 2:41 makes it clear that not everyone who heard received the word and baptism. The incredible number in 2:47 was not how many listened to Peter but how many came to Christ.
Conversions have little to do with us
Answering the question, “Who grows the church?” in The Courage to be Protestant, David Wells strongly expounds the sovereignty of God. He writes, “Nothing…is more absurd than the panic that now grips the evangelical church. It is terrorized by the specter of postmodernity. Reading today’s “how-to” literature, one has to draw the conclusion that the church’s days are numbered unless we rush in to prop it up with our own know-how. God, you see, has more on his hands than he can possibly handle.” Wells concludes that section of his book with an appeal for us to let God be God over his church, for this will liberate us from feeling or thinking we must do what we are incapable of doing: “We cannot impart new life.” Believing numerical growth can be unlocked by a better strategy comes close to unbelief. Wells continues, “We turn to structures and programs, appearances and management, advertising and marketing. Our preoccupation is with what we do and therefore with what we control.” Strategies, structures, and ministry models do not deny the sovereignty of God but the confidence we put in them to grow God’s church might.
My hope in writing this post is not to promote theological knit picking and it certainly is not to discourage being passionate about growing God’s church. But, working backwards through my points: we must remember the place of human effort and planning within the sovereignty of God. The most God-glorifying expression of our passion for growth will be seen in impassioned prayers for conversions. Finally, if we are truly passionate about growth we will preach Christ and him crucified, in the power of his Spirit. Nothing less will do. Nothing less will grow the church.