A Theory of Church Growth

Pastor Jeff VanGoethem

I do not know how many books I have read on church growth.  Too many probably.   I once took a doctoral course on church growth – I think I had to read eight or ten books on the subject just for that class.  There is no question that “how to grow a church” has become a dominant concern of the modern church era.  I have found that most of the books I have read on this subject lack a proper biblical and theological foundation.  So what should be our theory of church growth?

Well, first we have to bring in some theology don’t we?  After all the growth of the church of Jesus Christ touches on many biblical subjects – sin, atonement, the gospel, the new birth, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church), and so forth.  Practically speaking, many people are very excited today about how they can cause their churches to grow.  But one theological point we need to make right away is that only God causes the church to grow.  Here is what God’s Word says:

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7)

So we have to make a defining point clear right away, and it is simply this:    ALL church growth stems from God’s sovereign grace, in calling to Himself lost souls, whom He saves by His great mercies through the preaching of the gospel. Our job is just to preach the gospel, everywhere and anywhere to as many people as possible – always planting and watering.  Church growth occurs when (and only when) a lost soul is brought into the kingdom and then into the local church through baptism, having become an authentic follower of the Lord Jesus.  Therefore church growth, from a biblical point of view, has NOT occurred when a baptized church member moves from one church to another church.  That is church transfer not church growth.

And today, we should look at the aggregate (big) picture. Church members moving around from church to church does not represent church growth. Church growth is when NEW believers are added to the church by God’s sovereign work through the preaching of the gospel (Acts 2:47).  The fact is today in modern America there is little aggregate church growth.  All the studies I have seen show this. The number of people attending evangelical churches is declining as a percentage of total population.  The number of people attending church is going down while the population is going up.

Yes there are certainly some conversions and this represents an increase for the Lord’s church. Larry Moyer, the President of EvanTell here in Dallas told me recently that people today are more open to a gospel presentation than ever, but slower to believe and decide.  He has traveled the country for over 35 years preaching the gospel and is in a position to know about these things – people are taking more time to come to Christ today.  The work is slower, calling for us to be even more determined in preaching the gospel and nurturing relationships.

The consequence of this is that our overall our numbers are declining. Even among the Southern Baptists this is true.  For many years the SBC was the greatest evangelistic denomination yet they are reporting stagnancy and decline in baptismal numbers.  Thus, in comparison to past experience, conversions have slowed in our country.  God does not seem to be growing his church in America as He once did.  They are only coming in a trickle. We wish it were a flood.

In fact, since the evangelical church is growing at a pace much lower than population growth, it can be said that we are actually in an era of aggregate church decline, not growth.  It is time we get interested in what the early church was interested in – prayer and evangelism.  This is the great need today.

Now, of course, we all realize that there are certainly some churches doing a terrific job of gathering in large numbers of worshippers.  This is what many people refer to today when they speak of church growth. But as we have seen, much of this is not true church growth from a biblical perspective.  Also many new churches are being planted.  But they are not often being planted with new converts as the result of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as we see in the book of Acts.  They are usually being planted with already baptized Christians who are coming from other churches.

I kept a running list in my previous ministry in Illinois of all the church plants in the city where I lived.  In an area of 125,000 people or so, over a fifteen year period I counted at least 35 church plants.  Although a few succeeded in growing a decent sized congregation (most did not), I did not hear of even one of them that was founded primarily on evangelism and new converts.  In contrast to this, an interesting thing happened to a friend of mine who pastors in the country of Zimbabwe.  He went back home one time to a rural area to preach the funeral of a relative.  He gave a gospel message at the service.  Between forty and fifty people were saved at that service – and a new church was established on the strength of these conversions.  Do we ever hear of such a thing in our country anymore?

So, what I am saying is this:  much of that which people call “church growth” today is largely accomplished (not always intentionally) at the expense of other churches.  For the most part one cannot fault churches that draw in Christians from other churches — I am sure many of them would rather win converts and grow by conversion.  And if they are doing a good job of ministering to Christian people it is not too surprising that many people find their way to them.  But a large percentage of what is called church growth today is simply the factor of people who are already baptized Christians moving to different local churches.

Certainly, some churches with increasing numbers are guilty of a message and methods which are less than biblically acceptable, but not all of them are like this.   Some churches and pastors are more interested in transfer growth and just inflating their numbers, but not all have such a mindset.

So now that we have an understanding of biblical church growth (it is given by God) and now that we have a grasp of where we stand (we are growing only in a trickle and actually losing ground overall) what should be our theory of church growth?  Should we try to get baptized Christians from other churches to come to our church?  Should we start a new church and try to attract new people from other churches that way?  Should we try to do things better than other churches are doing them so we can attract Christians in?

I don’t think so.  I think we should adopt a biblical view of church growth.  I suggest the following.

  1. We should concentrate on getting through to God. For true growth to occur God must work in a powerful way.  We must recognize that none of us can “cause” church growth.  Rather the Holy Spirit must work as we preach the gospel (John 3:27).  This is the only way to gain new converts. Even John the Baptist understood that his ministry had been granted by God.  We have to get through to God before we can get through to people. The great need today is for Christian people to cry out to God in prayer for an awakening in our land. It is happening in other places on the globe, it can happen here again, as it has in the past.
  2. We should concentrate on living like the Lord Jesus. There is a great emphasis today on attracting people to the church through programs, music, exciting events, great preachers, offering something for everyone, self help teaching, user friendly ministries, dynamic age based fellowships, etc.  But as we have seen this is not causing church growth, it is causing church transfer.  The Lord Jesus lived in such a way that unbelievers wanted to be with Him and to hear what He had to say (Luke 15:1).  How can we so live, in such a loving and compelling way, that outsiders want to come and be with us and hear what we have to say?  This is one of the crucial questions of church growth – how can we gain a hearing in our communities for the precious good news of the gospel?  Once we gain such a hearing we should be trained and prepared to share the gospel.  This is how the Lord lived.
  3. We should concentrate on the needs of people outside of Christ. Let’s be honest, it is very tempting for we churched people to be consumed with our own needs – to look to the church to be one more avenue through which our (spiritual) needs can be met.  We go to Walmart for the stuff we think we need.  We come to church for the (spiritual) stuff we think we need.  We need to rethink this.  Actually our spiritual needs have been met!  We are SAVED. We are on the way to heaven!  We have tasted glory!  The new birth allows us to see the emptiness and inevitable pain of a God-cursed world!  The world cannot give us anything.  Why love it? So we learn to be in the world, but not of it.   Therefore we should be working for the next world, not for this one.

This means getting on the adventure of what God is doing in the lives of people around us. We must ask God to give us pity for those still subjected to the blindness and darkness of this world.  We must get under God’s burden for the world.  And then we great trained up and ready to share the gospel. Evangelism is often just a matter of motivation and training.  The motivation comes from a broken heart for lost people.  Training is readily available today.

A good question to ask is what can we do as believers to remove all the obstacles between lost souls and the grace of God?   In our own humble way, what can we do radiate faith, hope and love to others, no matter what we are enduring?   What can we do to open and enlarge our hearts toward those who have yet to come to Christ?   What can we do to get prepared to share the good news of the gospel with others?

I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but I think these are some of the important questions of biblical church growth.  They are wonderful and stimulating questions to ponder.