They had large and small churches. Healthy, sick and dead churches. Churches with strong leaders, weak leaders and sinful leaders. They worshiped God imperfectly and fought over theology. Some churches gave abundantly to the poor, while others didn’t. Some were led by the Holy Spirit, while others got so worldly they put the pagans to shame.
Besides, if we’re going to pattern ourselves after the New Testament church, which one should we pick? The congregations in Jerusalem, Corinth, Laodicea and Ephesus were so different from each other, they had little in common outside the practices of communion and water baptism.
In short, the first century church was not the ideal template for Christian life, theology and worship that many people think it was.
Church Growth Was Never a Solution
It is precisely because of the imperfections in the early church that we have several of the books in the New Testament. Many of the writings of Paul especially, were responses to theological and behavioral problems within the congregations he had founded.
The New Testament writers told argumentative churches to get along. They chided immoral churches to repent. They warned sinful churches of God’s (and their) impending punishment if they didn’t stop sinning.
The apostles addressed an extraordinarily broad range of church issues. But there’s one thing they never did.
No New Testament writer ever told a church to get bigger.
This is either a glaring oversight on their part, or they didn’t consider it to be as important as we do.
Church Growth and Church Health are Not the Same
The apostles never told a sick, dying, sinful or hurting church that the answer to their problem was to get bigger. Yes, Jesus told us to go and make disciples. And yes, that would mean church growth. But Paul never named “growth” as a strategy for fixing a broken church.
And John, when he walked through the challenges, sins and encouragements to the seven churches in Revelation, never told any of them to grow, either.
Any encouragement from the New Testament writers for individual, congregational, numerical growth is glaringly noticeable by its absence. How have we not noticed this gaping hole in New Testament teaching?
What’s more, the apostles never told a healthy church to work on becoming bigger, either. So why do we spend so much time, money and energy on it?
Of course, the New Testament church was growing exponentially. Could that be why church growth teaching was absent? Because it was unnecessary?
No. Not every congregation was growing. Corinth and Laodicea were famous for their complacency, sinfulness and lack of evangelical fervor. But there’s not even a hint in any of the apostles’ advice, encouragement or warnings to them that they needed to grow numerically, or that lack of numerical growth was evidence of a problem.
The apostles weren’t shy about confronting the problems of the church. If they never addressed lack of congregational growth, maybe it’s because they never considered it to be a valid measure of a local church’s health – or lack of health.
Is There a Better Way?
I’m merely raising a much-overlooked point. The modern, western evangelical church likes to talk about individual congregational numerical growth as evidence (usually the evidence) of church health. But there’s no indication that the New Testament writers ever thought that way.
We need to do what the New Testament writers did. Stop looking at growth as evidence of health, and start looking at health as evidence of health. And let God take care of the growth.
So what do you think? Do you agree or disagree that numerical, congregational growth wasn’t taught in the New Testament?
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