Church Growth—First Things First

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When all is said and done, the church-growth movement will stand or fall by one question: In implementing its vision of church growth, is the church of Christ primarily guided and shaped by its own character and calling—or by considerations and circumstances alien to itself? Or, to put the question differently, is the church of Christ a social reality truly shaped by a theological cause, namely the Word and Spirit of God?

Behind this question lies the fact that the church of God only “lets God be God,” and is only the church, and is free when she lives and thrives finally by God’s truths and God’s resources. If the church makes anything else the principle of her existence, Christians risk living unauthorized lives of faith, exercising unauthorized ministries, and proclaiming an unauthorized Gospel.

Yet, that is precisely the temptation modernity gives to us—the very brilliance and power of its tools and insights mean that eventually, there is no need to let God be God. In fact, there is no need for God at all in order to achieve measurable success. Modernity creates the illusion that when God commanded us not to live by bread alone but by every word that comes from His mouth, He was not aware of the twentieth century. The very success of modernity undercuts the authority and driving power of faith until religion becomes merely religious rhetoric, or organizational growth without spiritual reality.

In light of this, it is curious that the church-growth movement’s use of modernity is one of its most prominent but least examined features. Modernity poses the greatest problem for the church-growth movement— because it appears to be no problem at all. It is most dangerous at its best—not its worst—when its benefits and blessings are unarguable. No civilization in history has amplified the temptation of living “by bread alone” with such power and variety and to such effect. In today’s convenient, climate-controlled spiritual world created by the managerial and therapeutic revolutions, nothing is easier than living apart from God.

One Christian advertising agent, who represented both the Coca-Cola Corporation and engineered the “I Found It” campaign, stated the point brazenly: “Back in Jerusalem where the church started, God performed a miracle there on the day of Pentecost. They didn’t have the benefits of buttons and media, so God had to do a little supernatural work there. But today, with our technology, we have available to us the opportunity to create the same kind of interest in a secular society.”

This warning should not be confused with the superspiritual fallacy that flatters the church as being purely spiritual and theological, turning up its nose at all lesser, “unspiritual” insights or techniques. That error is simply the opposite extreme. Just as Christians are flesh and blood as well as spirit, so the church of Christ is in the business of pews, parking lots, and planning committees as well as prayer and preaching.

There is, therefore, a place for the latest scientific study on parking lots. But we are told by church-growth gurus that “the No. 1 rule of church growth is that a church will never get bigger than its parking lot.”

No. 1? Above growth in faith? Before growth in the Word and Spirit? God forbid. For the church of Christ, the latest sociological study never has more than a low-level place—even in a “freeway fellowship” culture such as California. What truly matters after the accumulated wisdom of modernity has been put to good use is that the real character of the church remains to be demonstrated, the real growth of the church remains to be seen. Otherwise we fall foul of the charge leveled by rock star Michael Been of The Call: “Everything that goes on in every major corporation goes on inside the church, except as a sideline the church teaches religion.”

If Jesus Christ is true, the church is more than just another human institution. He alone is her head. He is her sole source and single goal. His grace uniquely is her effective principle. What moves her is not finally interchangeable with the dynamics of even the closest of sister institutions. When the best of modern insights and tools are in full swing, there should always be a remainder, an irreducible character that is more than the sum of all the human, the natural, and the organizational.

Hans Kung writes: “Given that Jesus Christ is the head of the church and hence the origin and goal of its growth, growth is only possible in obedience to its head. If the church is disobedient to its head and His Word, it cannot grow however busy and active it may seem to be; it can only wither. Its development, no matter how spectacular, will prove basically misdirected; its progress, no matter how grandiose, will prove ultimately a disastrous retrogression. The valid movements in the church are those that are set in motion by God’s grace.”

The notion of the remainder, the irreducible, the noninterchangeable, and the unquantifiable is fundamental to grace and to the church. The church of Christ is more than spiritual and theological, but never less. Only when first things are truly first, over even the best and most attractive of second things, will the church be free of idols, free to let God be God, free to be herself, and free to experience the growth that matters.

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