Dr. Charles Revis, Executive Minister, ABC of the Northwest

I believe that Jesus wants his Body, the Church, to be healthy and strong. Not in a self-aggrandizing way. Not in a prideful, self-congratulatory way. Rather Jesus wants his church to be healthy and strong so that it is effective in making committed followers of Jesus out of common, everyday pagans. As this goal becomes it’s number one priority the church will grow—it’s a normative corollary to health. Sick churches do not grow, except in some rare circumstances. Healthy churches grow, almost without exception. (Some of the exceptions would be a declining community, or a church in the midst of a turn around.) Growth, as it is for any living organism, is integral to health, and it is Jesus’ plan for his church.

Unfortunately, the short-comings of the church growth movement have caused some to dismiss growth all together. No doubt there were many failings associated with the church growth movement, not the least of which was too much emphasis on human-centered techniques for gathering a crowd and labeling that growth. However, the corrective for dealing with these failings is not to discount the importance of growth, or entirely dismiss it. Growth matters. We would be wise to pay attention to it.

As I’ve conducted church assessments it has become all too apparent that many churches are oblivious to their growth trends. In one instance when asked about average worship numbers one pastor reported an average worship count one hundred above what the actual numbers revealed. In reality his church had been in steady decline for seven years and he seemed oblivious to it. In some instances churches have stopped counting baptisms and conversions. Usually this is a way to ignore current reality.

In fact, as I have observed unhealthy churches I am always surprised by how little they are concerned with growth. This tendency is motivated in part by denial. Perhaps if the decline is ignored maybe it will self-correct, they reason. Or, excuses are offered for the decline: Our community is not growing; some of our best people have moved away; the new mega-church has taken away many of our members; our building is in a poor location; we don’t cater to the masses. And, here is the worst one: We concentrate on quality not quantity.

I know that whenever there is a discussion about church growth someone will always argue against actual numerical growth. I would be the first to affirm that we should be concerned about more than mere attendance expansion on a Sunday morning. In most cases growth is multi-varied—growth in one area leads to growth in another. I affirm the assertion of Dr. John Vaughan who has identified four areas of growth as imperative:

  • Internal growth (nurture growth)
  • Expansion growth (growing larger through evangelism)
  • Extension growth (growing through the birthing, maturing, and multiplication of multitudes of new congregations of born-again believers committed to reproducing healthy, God-honoring, New Testament churches among all peoples in this and every generation)
  • Bridging growth (growing through cross-cultural birthing, maturing and multiplication of new congregations of born-again believers committed to reproducing healthy, God-honoring, New Testament churches among all peoples in this and every generation)

Having identified these various dimensions of growth I contend that expansion growth is paramount. We need to pay attention to it. We need to strive for it. I offer two biblical reasons for this affirmation. First, Jesus promised that he would build his church and the gates of hell would not be able to destroy his church building project. (Matt 16:18) Jesus continues to make good on his promise. The world-wide church is larger today than at any other time in history. In third worlds countries the church is expanding at an unprecedented rate. It is reported that the largest churches in the world are organized networks of house churches with the largest of them reporting over 400k (in China, Vietnam, and northern India). The next largest churches, some are over 250K, now exist in Korea, Ivory Coast, Chile and Columbia. The Christian church continues to expand at a mind-boggling pace in places other than the U.S.A. If Jesus is growing his church in such an unprecedented way why should we not join him in what he is doing?

Second, Jesus’ final marching orders to His followers were to go and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19-20). As long as there are people in the world who are not yet disciples there is work to be done. When God grants us success at that work it means more will be added to the numbers that comprise the church (Acts 2:47). Growth is the result of focused efforts in evangelism and discipleship.

Actually, there is a third reason I believe in the growth of the church. This reason is less obvious, yet no less important or biblical. If I am growing in my love for Jesus I will be growing in appreciation for all the treasures that are mine in Christ (Eph 1:3, 18-19; 3:18-19). The more I grow to appreciate these the more I will desire that others possess them as well. When God’s people are in love with Jesus, that love will compel us to work that much harder to share Jesus’ love with others. This results in new disciples, which in turn translates into growth of the church.

This point reminds me of the story of Billy Payne, who brought the 1996 Olympics to his hometown, Atlanta. Without his vision and hard work the Olympics would have been held elsewhere. He explained why he took on such a difficult task: “Few, if any of us on the Olympic effort would have referred to what we were doing as our job. It was the reason we were put on this earth. Life’s greatest rewards are reserved for those who bring joy to the lives of others.” There is no greater way to bring joy to another life than to share the grace and love of Jesus Christ with them. What a wonderful motivation for introducing friends to Jesus Christ!

The start of a New Year is a good time to assess your church’s growth patterns. Bill Hoyt’s book, Effectiveness by the Numbers, is an excellent resource for helping you count more than bodies and dollars. At a minimum, track attendance, guests and baptisms for the last seven years. If you discover that your church is suffering from
steady decline it is imperative that you lead the congregation to face the truth and rectify the situation. You and your leadership folks may be tempted to panic or become anxious over the situation. Resist these natural tendencies and in their place embrace spiritual initiatives (Phil 4:6). Call for a church-wide emphasis on prayer, fasting, forgiveness and reconciliation. Most declining churches need to confess disobedience to the Great Commission. They have been more intent on serving themselves than people far from God. Turning around a declining church is daunting work but not impossible with renewed conviction that the church’s mission is to reach the world for Jesus Christ, one person at a time. When the church gets down to the fundamental reason it exists and focuses on that with renewed energy I believe God will pour out his blessings, and the church will start growing again. And all to the glory of God.

Originally published January 2008 © Dr. Charles Revis, ABC Northwest