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commissioned His apostles to “Go into all the world and
preach the gospel to every creature...” (Mark 16:15). The apostle Paul confirmed the
commission to all Christians writing to the Corinthians reminding
them that “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation;
old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.
Now, all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself
through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of
reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the
world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has
committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are
ambassadors for Christ…” (2Corinthians 5:18-20). The Son of God came to
this earth and died on the cross for one reason to seek and to
save the lost. It was therefore His command that the fulfillment
of that mission after His death would fall to the members of His
church. When the church accepts and faithfully sets out to carry
on this work, the result is usually the growth of the body the
God designed the church to grow both spiritually and numerically. If the church is not growing the problem is not that people outside the church have stopped listening to or caring about the gospel, but rather that Christians are failing to focus on the ministry of reconciliation. That is not to say that the church doesn’t care about the gospel, but sometimes churches become so focused on evangelism that they neglect the saved, while some other churches become so focused on spiritual growth that they neglect the lost.
Some Christians have become afraid of numerical growth. There is a fear that if the church grows we will lose the close family atmosphere that we have in a smaller congregation. There is also the fear that if we convert a lot of new people everything will change and become more complicated. Many times, Christians in smaller congregations fear that with the numerical growth some liberal views will begin to creep in and before we know it things will get out of control. Many times older Christians have sentimental attachments to the building and location that perhaps their parents or grandparents purchased and built. Sometimes growth requires relocation or reconstruction and this may be met with some resistance. These fears and concerns are understandable and should be addressed and in some cases guarded against, but we must never allow these temporal concerns to cause us to lose sight of the church’s mission. Imagine what would have happened on the day of Pentecost if the apostles had neglected to preach the gospel because they feared the inevitable growth that it would cause. Imagine what would have happened if the early Christians would have given up on evangelism at the first sign of difficulty in the church. As the church of Christ in the twenty first century, we must now take upon us the ministry of reconciliation. If the Lord so chooses to bless us and increase us numerically then we must therefore be all the more diligent to teach only His divine truth and to preserve inviolate the sanctity of the saved.
There are some essentials that a congregation must have in order to experience positive and healthy growth. There are also, however, some methods that even though they may in fact bring immediate numerical growth, with these methods there may also be some negative residual affects that will not be realized for several years. While we seek positive healthy growth of the body of Christ, we must be careful and guard against growth at any cost. The things that affect positive healthy growth are the biblical concepts that existed in the mind of God before the foundation of the world that the Holy Spirit inspired the New Testament writers to preserve for practical application for as long as the church and the earth remain. The things that affect the growth that brings negative residual affects are from worldly concepts.
Jesus said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel. He who believes and is baptized will be saved. He who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16). We all understand that this is a proven formula for church growth. Paul further explained to Timothy, “The things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2Timothy 2:2). To the Corinthians Paul wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” (1Corinthians 3:6). This is the formula that was instituted and approved by Jesus and reinforced throughout the New Testament. We see this formula put into practical application several times in the book of Acts. We conclude that even today if we will go into all the world and preach the gospel some will obey and the church will naturally grow. Then if those who are taught will go out and teach others also and some of them obey the gospel then the church will continue to grow and God will continually give the increase. We can plainly see therefore that it is God’s full intention that we preach and teach His Word and that the church should grow as a natural result.
The church in modern times is much concerned about growth. Many congregations put such an emphasis on immediate growth that they implement programs with the intent to bring in the masses so that they can teach them the gospel. There may be nothing inherently wrong with a given program and, in fact, it may well bring in lots of people in a short amount of time, but once the multitude has come we find that the need to preach the gospel still exists. Instead, however, of teaching them on an individual basis we attempt to mass-communicate the gospel to them. Maybe a few of them obey the gospel but the majority won’t and never will. Meanwhile, everyone is having so much fun that no one realizes that a sizeable congregation has developed, a large portion of which has never obeyed the gospel. What happens to the church a few years down the line when many of these people are well established in the congregation? What happens when their children come of age? The church becomes endangered when we begin to lose sight of our mission. Satan can take an innocent gesture and turn it into a disaster if we compromise even a little. The apostle Paul wrote, “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” (1Corinthians 2:2). We would do well to remember this same policy and never forget it.
There are some firm Biblical principles also for sustained growth of the church. Just a few are offered here for consideration.
Principle # 1: Sound leadership is essential to continued growth. Congregations that do not have qualified and appointed elders (and deacons) will have a much more difficult time growing than congregations that do. Biblically qualified, hard working and faithful elders serve to provide an atmosphere of safety and stability in the congregation. Congregations that have gone several years without elders often have internal problems that hinder them from attracting and keeping newcomers.
Principle # 2: Address problems and restore peace as promptly and prudently as possible. Every congregation of the Lord’s church will experience problems at times. Problems arose in the early church within possibly the first few months of its existence. The self-promoting lies told by Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) and the controversy over the neglect of the widows (Acts 6:1-7), threatened, even temporarily halted, the growth of the Jerusalem church even with the apostles on the scene. In both cases the problem was quickly dealt with and peace was restored. The prompt attention and settlement of the problem resulted not only in continued growth, but also in greater respect in and appreciation of the church’s leaders.
Principle # 3: Preach, teach and periodically reestablish the basic principles. The writer of Hebrews wrote, “Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food…Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection…” (Hebrews 5:12-6:3). When a person obeys the gospel of Jesus Christ, he most often has only a most basic understanding of Christianity. Every Christian must build on that foundation by first learning about the proper government, organization and worship practices of the New Testament church. It should never be taken for granted that a person instinctively knows that these practices are Biblical. The individual confidence that is gained by the Biblical knowledge of the workings of the church will create an atmosphere and spiritual commitment in the congregation – essential elements for continued growth.
Principles # 4: A sound educational program is essential to continued growth. Jesus commissioned His apostles, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them…teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:19-20). In the days following the day of Pentecost, after about three thousand obeyed the gospel the new Christians “continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine…” (Acts 2:42). We must always remember that the church is an institution of teaching and learning. The more people learn the stronger the church is.
Principle # 5: A program of spiritual growth for teenagers is essential. The wise man Solomon admonished the young people to, “Remember now your creator in the days of your youth, before the difficult days come…” (Ecclesiastes 12:1). The teenagers of the congregation are constantly thinking of the future. In a few years many of them will be leaving home, going off to college, getting married, getting jobs, etc. It is imperative that the church, in their minds, be a safe harbor in an ever-changing world. They need a firmly established foundation of Christian knowledge. The Word of God and the church of Christ needs to be the top priority in their lives. If we do not provide for them good experiences in these years we will likely lose them. Furthermore, a happy and active youth group is a great appeal for those who are looking for a church home.
Just as every individual Christian cannot afford to stop growing spiritually and in the knowledge of Christ and His word, so the church of Christ can never afford to stop trying to grow numerically. That is, we should never give up on trying to win souls. The apostle Paul wrote, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” (Galatians 6:7-9). The congregation that neglects to teach sound Biblical principles will suffer spiritually, and the congregation that neglects evangelism will also suffer spiritually. It is possible to do both well, as God intended. Again Paul wrote, “He gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” (Ephesians 4:11-16).
It is my opinion that every Christian can be a soul-winner for Jesus, but in the same way that our military does not send untrained soldiers into battle, so the church should be training its members to win souls. We must remember also that the Devil is also a soul-winner, and as hard as we a work to win souls for the Lord the Devil is working hard against us. “When Jesus saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” (Matthew 9:36-38). Jesus also said to His disciples, “Do you not say, ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest?’ Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest.” (John 4:35). May God truly bless His church as we go out into His harvest field.