I've heard thousands of prayers: opening prayers, closing prayers, prayers for the sick, prayers before you eat, prayers before the devo or communion, prayers concerning all kinds of church activities, however, the following is a prayer that I have never heard and it goes like this:
Please shrink our church because we are too large a congregation. Amen.
Contrary to this imagined prayer, every appeal to God of this type is for the church to grow, but how is this accomplished? What needs to be done in order to grow a local congregation and how do we sustain that growth? Finally, how is this accomplished without compromising Scripture or losing the values and the spirit enjoyed when the congregation was small?
It is interesting to note that while many want their small church to grow, the same people will complain that large-sized congregations are so impersonal. Nobody ever says, "I want to plant a church and make sure that it does not grow beyond 40 people so we can maintain that small-church feel." On the contrary, we always want to be big, then when that happens become nostalgic about how great it was when we were small and like a family.
With these things in mind, I'd like to explain the meaning of the title for this book, "Unlimited Growth: A New Testament Pattern for Church Organization and Growth." This will be a good way to explain and synchronize the dual objectives of growth and meaningful participation in a church patterned for us in the New Testament. I am convinced that if we organize and grow the body of Christ according to God's instructions, we will succeed in having a church that is large enough to undertake challenging ministries and intimate enough to care for our most personal needs.
1. Unlimited Growth: A New Testament Pattern for Church Organization and Growth
When studying the topic of church development I realized that the growth of the church was truly unlimited. Jesus said that the church was to be built on the rock of Christ and His Word, and nothing, including the most powerful force of evil, could overcome it (Matthew 16:18). From these words we can conclude the following truth about church growth: sometimes growth is fast, sometimes it is slow, sometimes it is dramatic, painful or exciting, but in the end it is, above all, unstoppable. We understand this to be true because this has been given to us by Christ Himself. Unlimited growth of the church, therefore, is a concept firmly established in the Bible.
This means that every congregation has the potential for unlimited growth and development, but for various reasons some churches plateau at a certain number and remain there indefinitely, or shrink back and even disappear. However, each congregation can experience continual spiritual and numerical growth if it follows the New Testament pattern for church organization and development that God has provided.
2. Unlimited Growth: A New Testament Pattern for Church Organization and Growth
I believe that it is both biblical and expedient to acknowledge and use the concepts developed primarily by Restorationist thinkers and writers in the task of growing congregations. Restorationism, the name of the movement from which Churches of Christ were established, has something to say about church growth. We seem to think that the gurus at fast growing community style churches have all the answers for rapid church development. We drive by a Life.Church that has taken over a shopping center and think, "They must be doing something right. What are we doing wrong?"
Although the rapid growth of these churches is desirable, we must realize that many of the theories and practices that contribute to the growth of their organizations also damage the integrity of their stewardship of God's Word. If we judge success only by numbers then the Communist Chinese are the most successful since they have the largest numbers of people living under their ideology. Of course this is not how we judge the value of a social or political system and it shouldn't be the way we evaluate the success of a church either.
It's an old argument, but nevertheless true, that sacrificing biblical purity and obedience for fast growth is not worth it, and it does not serve the best spiritual interests of the church. When Jesus returns He will be looking for the church that is faithful, not the church that is largest in size (Luke 18:8).
Pattern theology rests on the idea that the Bible contains instructions and directions (patterns) that guide us in spiritual and moral living as well as church organization and function. We like to think that we initiated this idea, but it is not so historically. Even though this pattern idea grew out of earlier concepts developed during the Reformation Period and has many challenging its value as an interpretive system today, pattern theology continues to provide an excellent way to discern the simple meaning and application of Scripture in a very practical and consistent manner. Simply stated, pattern theology seeks out the patterns or blueprints contained in the New Testament for how we ought to do things in both our personal lives as well as our corporate church life. Pattern theology is not an approach that has been superimposed on the Bible by teachers and theologians. On the contrary, it is a system already embedded in the New Testament and given to us by God in order to help us discern correctly what He has taught us, and faithfully carry out His will generation after generation.
I want to explain why the pattern theology approach is a good idea by using an example given to me by a military flight instructor who attended a congregation that I was preaching at in San Diego, California. He explained that planes, and even missiles for that matter, are not flown or launched in a perfectly straight trajectory until they arrive at their destination. They don't simply fly from point A straight to point B. He explained that the pilots, using instruments and computers, continually calculate a variety of factors while making ongoing adjustments to the direction of the plane or missile in order to compensate for weather and other factors that continually force them off course. In other words, whether it be an instrument or the pilot himself, the goal is to continually maneuver in order to stay on course until they arrive at the destination or target. In the same way, "restorationism" in general and it's tool of "pattern theology" serve as a spiritual gyroscope or compass that enables the church to continually correct its course and stay true to the goal of New Testament Christianity which the Bible has chartered for the church.
I began this book by saying that our goal is to be a faithful New Testament church because this is what Christ wants us to be. The question then becomes, "How do we reach this goal?" I propose that the biblical concept of pattern theology helps us not only establish the church according to God's design or pattern, but also helps it keep a steady course through different ages, locations and cultures. The use of pattern theology will help the church to function as a faithful New Testament church in any era, even to the return of Jesus at the end of the world (for a more in depth discussion on pattern theology see: Thomas Olbricht, Hermeneutics in the Churches of Christ).
An important point to note here is that this feature (pattern theology) is not found in other religious groups. We, in the Churches of Christ, resemble other groups in many ways (i.e. others baptize by immersion or serve communion every Sunday as we do). What makes us unique is that we use pattern theology to remain faithful to the Scriptures. Those who do not use this spiritual gyroscope continue to change, evolve and mutate into church forms barely recognizable to their own founders and members, let alone the Bible. Do you think that Martin Luther would actually recognize the Lutheran Church of today? Martin Luther's plea was that the church should return to the Bible and only the Bible for teaching and practice (Martin Luther - Reformed Bible Studies Part 1 - Ligonier.org). I doubt that he would approve or even recognize much of what the Lutheran church does or stands for now.
We, like other church groups, are consistently pressured to veer off in one direction or another (e.g. too liberal or conservative). This type of pressure is stressful on the church, but nothing new since these disruptions were experienced by first century churches as well. In the same way that a plane or missile has to continually correct its course in order to arrive at its destination, the church must not allow culture, doctrinal disputes, sin and human events like war and famine to alter its direction which consists of being and remaining true to Christ and His Word. Being a faithful New Testament church is both our direction as well as our destination, and pattern theology is the instrument in our spiritual equipment that helps us remain true to both of these.
We are continually challenged to change course for something easier or in tune with the times, but despite this worldly headwind we can always make the necessary corrections that will set us once again on the course of biblical Christianity and New Testament church construct. Because of our Restoration principles (i.e. use only the Bible to direct our spiritual life and build the church) and pattern theology approach, we know our final destination, the direction to follow and how to make corrections if for any reason we have veered off course.
Is there a biblical pattern for church growth?
I firmly believe that churches who are not experiencing growth are usually unaware of the pattern for growth found in the New Testament. We return to the title, therefore, in order to complete the relationship between pattern theology, organization and the end result, unlimited church growth.
3. Unlimited Growth: A New Testament Pattern for Church Organization and Growth
I think that there is a definite relationship between organization and the rate of growth. In other words, how you are organized affects how you grow. This relationship exists in business. For example, badly organized and managed businesses usually don't grow much and are not very profitable. This relationship also exists in God's spiritual kingdom as well. If you think God doesn't care about organization, read the instructions about the building and the maintenance of the tabernacle (the tent and equipment used by the priests to offer sacrifice while the Jews were in the desert). Every detail, every piece of furniture, every ritual meticulously organized and detailed to function perfectly. Page after page of instructions to Moses on how to build the tabernacle, how to move it from place to place, how to put it together, who handles what, who is not permitted to touch; every detail is there (Exodus 25:1-40; Exodus 33).
My point about this is the following: if God provided such clear and concise details for the organization and function of something that was only to be a shadow, a model of what was to come, how much more careful do you think He would be with the real thing? The tabernacle was only a preview of the church which is the fulfillment of what the tabernacle was pointing to. Can you imagine how much care God gives in providing instructions on how we ought to organize and function as the church?
The church, therefore, is the actual body (of Christ) not a shadow or symbol of it, so I propose to you that in His Word, God has provided a pattern (specific instructions) for the organization and subsequent growth of the New Testament church.
There are two things I want to mention about this pattern. First, there are many strategies for organizing and growing a religious group, but there is only one New Testament pattern. Go to any Christian bookstore and you will find shelf after shelf of books on how to grow churches. These are well-meaning and have some good ideas, but there is only one biblical pattern and it is contained in the New Testament. The fact that a particular church (even one that is a Church of Christ) is growing does not necessarily mean that it is organized according to the New Testament pattern. For unlimited growth to be possible you need to be following the New Testament pattern for it. Just because a congregation has one or two thousand members does not mean that it has reached its true potential. When even these mega churches stop growing, the reasons can usually be traced back to the fact that they have abandoned or failed to follow the New Testament pattern for organization and growth in the first place.
I once took part in a task force on church growth and development with elders and ministers from some of the largest congregations of the Churches of Christ. Their major complaint was that they had reached a ceiling and were no longer growing. They saw the potential and said, "It's not right that we have so many people, talent and money but are not growing. What are we doing wrong?" The answer (which they were unwilling to accept at the time) to their question was that they had reached their growth plateau because they were not using the biblical pattern for growth, which is unlimited growth.
When it comes to the issue of growth, the goal is not simply greater numbers, the goal is unlimited numbers, and unless we are organized and prepared for unlimited growth, the church is not fulfilling what the New Testament teaches about growth.
Think of church organization as the foundation for a structure. If, for example, the foundation laid is too small, it will not be able to sustain a very large building. A foundation has to take into account the structure that will eventually be built upon it.
If you are designing a structure that has unlimited potential, you have to have a foundation that will sustain that.
God has mandated that there will be no end or limit to the growth of His church. Of course, the exception that proves the rule is that the church will stop growing only when Jesus returns, but not before. And so, God has provided a foundational and organizational pattern for that church which will be one of His own design without human error. In other words, if we follow the New Testament pattern to grow our church, there will be no flaws in the system that will cause it to stop growing. It will be one that will support any sized congregation.
I'm not suggesting that a congregation in a city of 10,000 people will have 50,000 members, however, the church in that city could be one that has planted 100 other churches in various towns and cities. Its growth would be counted not in local members but in its unlimited ability to plant churches generation after generation. This is a common mistake made by leaders of larger (1000+ members) congregations. They think that church growth is only measured by the number of members in their congregation. They exist in places where there are dozens of congregations in the area and will spend millions of dollars to accommodate an additional thousand people (mostly transfers from nearby congregations) and call this church growth.
What they fail to envision is "kingdom growth" where they take on the responsibility to spread the number of congregations to places where there are none. This is legitimate growth and part of the unlimited growth pattern found in the New Testament (Acts 13:1-3), a pattern that goes far beyond the teachings concerning the manner we take communion or the presence of male spiritual leadership in the church. These are biblical teachings but form only the basics of a much greater set of instructions for the proper working of the New Testament church and its unlimited growth. The point here is that churches can grow using a variety of methods, but only the pattern in the Bible for church growth can prepare a church for unlimited growth.
Here are two principles that summarize, in a few words, the New Testament pattern for church organization and growth:
- Organize and train the church to function effectively and simultaneously in the five areas of biblical ministry.
Someone says, "What do we do and where do we start to put this plan into action?" Answer: You begin by training and organizing the church to function effectively and simultaneously (and I'll explain why this is important later) in the five areas of biblical ministry. There are only five areas of biblical ministry (everything we do in church fits into one of the five biblical ministries).
2. A church grows in proportion to its effectiveness in carrying out the five ministries outlined in Acts 2.
Someone will say to me, "You've been talking about the New Testament pattern for all of this, well where in the New Testament is this found?" The Bible provides the pattern for church growth in chapter 2 of the book of Acts. I've said previously that the inside of the New Testament church (the heart of it) is found in the epistle to the Ephesians. The outside, however, the mechanics and how it works, is written about and demonstrated in the book of Acts.
The Five Biblical Ministries of the Church
There are five areas of ministry demonstrated in Acts chapter 2. The main point I am making here is that when the church learns how to organize and function effectively in these five ministries, it creates an environment for healthy unlimited biblical growth that God Himself will provide. Let us begin, therefore, with an overview of each before we examine them in depth in the following chapters.
37Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?" 38Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself." 40And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation!" 41So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls.
- Acts 2:37-41
Evangelism is preaching the gospel to the lost with the goal of their response in faith and obedience. There are different approaches, different cultures, different tools but this ministry always has the same message and objective. The Choctaw congregation where I serve as minister supports a preacher in Kenya, Africa. He teaches at a Bible college there and circuit preaches at seven or eight churches in the area. You could not find more different cultures than that of Choctaw, Oklahoma and Meru, Kenya. What Geoffrey Kirima, our missionary, is doing in his African location is exactly what I am doing in middle America: explaining to the lost that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for them, rose again from the dead, and they need to believe in Him and express that faith by repenting of their sins and being baptized. Different culture, different place, different language, however, the same message with the same objective: those who believe and repent (in Africa or the USA) are baptized and added to the church. This briefly summarizes the number-one ministry of the church wherever it is located.
They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching
- Acts 2:42a
Teaching the saved to obey all of Jesus's commands (Matthew 28:20) is the second major ministry of the church. Once believers have repented and have been baptized, they need to be taught the things of Christ. New converts not only have to be taught the commands of Jesus, but also how to obey and do the things of Christ. This second major ministry is easily summarized in a few words, but those of you charged with teaching God's word know that the teaching process is often difficult and continues for a lifetime.
and to fellowship,
Fellowship is an equally important ministry. Fellowship is the integration of each member into the body of Christ. Jesus adds us to the church at baptism (Acts 2:47), but the necessary connection that each new Christian needs to have with other members requires time and effort. Fellowship is an important factor in the building of a healthy and growing spiritual body.
..and to the breaking of bread and prayer...
- Acts 2:42c
In one verse Luke mentions three different areas of ministry, this one being the public and private adoration of God. Worship is something that needs to be taught, modeled, encouraged and organized. Luke says that they continually devoted themselves to the Apostles' teaching, to fellowship, and to the breaking of bread and prayer (public and private worship).
and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.
- Acts 2:45
The ministry of service requires the pooling of resources of the church in order to meet the needs of the disciples and the community at large.
These, briefly, are the five areas of biblical ministry. There are not six, not four, not twelve, only five. They are outlined briefly in the book of Acts (Acts 2) and then elaborated on throughout the rest of the New Testament. In Acts 2:47 we see the result that takes place when these five ministries are working simultaneously.
praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
- Acts 2:47
Note that the very last sentence in this passage ties everything together.
- They were busy preaching to the lost and baptizing repentant sinners.
- They focused on training the new disciples to obey Christ's teachings.
- They provided encouragement and opportunity for fellowship as well as worship and this led to a natural outpouring of love seen in Christian service of all kinds.
What, then, was the final outcome of these things working together? Jesus added to their number. That's numerical growth!
A word here about the necessity of these ministries not only functioning but functioning simultaneously. I've said that in order to begin the growth process according to the New Testament pattern, we need to be functioning in all five of the biblical ministries and these five need to be operating simultaneously if there is to be growth. For example, what if a congregation has an effective outreach program that successfully brings the gospel to people in the community and many are baptized as a result. However, there are few opportunities for fellowship or service in this particular church. What is the result? New members don't make friends, they don't connect with possible mentors and are not given the opportunity or training to serve in some way. They are simply baptized and put into a pew with their only church experience being passive listeners to the weekly sermon. The final outcome here is that these new Christians lose interest and fall away after a period of time.
This is why it is important that all five ministries of the church operate at the same time. New converts (evangelism ministry) are added and then trained to know and obey God's word (education ministry). They are assimilated into the body through the various programs (fellowship ministry - new moms, men's devotionals, youth groups, marriage retreats, senior picnics, service projects, visitation, etc.) that enable them to meet and work with others in serving the Lord. Their knowledge of God's word grows because they are part of a church that offers a variety of class topics and themes that stimulates learning, and they are encouraged by fellow church members to regular attendance at all worship services where those who organize the worship prepare orderly, meaningful and enthusiastic services with sermons that both edify and challenge the hearers to greater faith and devotion to God and His church (worship ministry). Hopefully this will promote a desire for this new member to serve in some capacity (service ministry) and experience the peace and joy that come from visiting the sick, making repairs to the building, helping with the youth group or any other of the many opportunities for service organized and facilitated by the deacons. Unlimited growth begins to happen when all five ministries are operating efficiently at the same time!
I've been at planning meetings where someone would say, "Next year, our goal will be 40 baptisms." This is the right spirit but the wrong goal. We don't set a certain number of baptisms as a goal. We make plans to do the things that produce baptisms. Projects like gospel meetings, personal evangelism classes, church advertising, etc. The work of the Evangelism Ministry is to set into motion the plans and activities that will bring people face to face with the gospel. For example, next year we will have a seminar on personal evangelism to train our people in this ministry; this will be followed by a series of mail-outs advertising some church project, seminar or outreach effort; we will add a door-knocking campaign; we will start a church website that live-streams our services and broadcasts a daily Bible message from our preaching minister. Notice that the word "baptism" is not mentioned here because these are evangelistic strategies that we will use in order to preach the gospel to our community. If we are effective in our ministry of evangelism, God will add those who respond to the church. Our job is to communicate the gospel message. If we do this, He will add. And if we are effectively carrying out the other four ministries as well, He will provide us with unlimited growth.
Here is a spiritual equation that summarizes much of what has been said in this chapter:
Ministry = Growth
The more ministry you have, the more growth you have. The less ministry you have, the less growth you have, simple as that. Some people say, "Wait a minute! We have plenty of ministries: quilters, food to the poor, men's retreats, etc. but we are not growing. Why?" The simple answer is that in order to have unlimited growth you must have all five biblical ministries working simultaneously.
When we organize and execute the New Testament pattern of ministry, which is our part of the equation, God will provide the growth which is the Spirit's part of the equation. The growth potential for this is unlimited. This is not legalism, or a "works" system, but rather faith ministering according to God's direction in His word.
I want to finish this chapter with the example of a local congregation that implemented these ideas and the results that they had. In the state of Oklahoma where there are approximately 600 congregations of the Church of Christ, the Choctaw congregation where I served (1993-2000) was second only to the Memorial Road Church of Christ (located next to Oklahoma Christian University), in sustained net growth percentage, for six years in a row.
Most denominations are in decline, but when there is growth, the average net growth for all types of churches in America is 3 to 5 percent, with a healthy growth rate pegged at between 5-12% (thegoodbookblog.com - church attendance growth rates). To calculate this number you take all the people that have come in (baptized, placed membership, restored) and subtract all the people that have left for whatever reason, and the balance is your net growth. The Choctaw congregation experienced a 15 to 20 percent net growth rate beginning in 1994 when we slowly began to implement and refine this particular approach to church organization and growth. When I began preaching there in 1993, attendance was around 200 to 225, when I left, it was over 500. We had to add 15,000 square feet of additional space and renovate the entire building to make room for that many people.
Later, I served the Canyon View congregation in San Diego California. We implemented the same ministry system and experienced the same result (15-20% net growth) even though Canyon View was located in a west coast urban environment and Choctaw, especially in the year 2000, was located in a rural area. Very different places, very different culture, very different approach to things and yet as long as we implemented the New Testament pattern, God blessed us with the same rate of growth.
In 2003 my wife and I went back to Montreal, Canada (supported by both churches in Choctaw and San Diego) to do mission work for a small congregation that was experiencing difficulty. This was a church we had planted back in 1984 but because of various issues had fallen to only 20-30 people in attendance. We again implemented the same New Testament principles and soon even this French speaking congregation situated in one of the poorest inner city neighborhoods of Montreal began to grow at a 10-15 percent yearly net growth rate.
Someone once asked me, "Why can't we have a hundred percent growth rate?" I believe that this would be possible. After all, Jesus did say that the harvest would sometimes be thirty, sometimes sixty, sometimes a hundred-fold (Matthew 13:8). The New Testament system for ministry is perfect but it is executed by imperfect and sinful human beings. This may be why the Lord mercifully left room for imperfect results. The point to remember, however, is that in our day and time anything over 5 percent net growth is better than average.
To summarize in the fewest words possible: Ministry equals growth. If we minister, the Lord will add the growth. Greater growth requires that we become more effective in each ministry area and that all five ministries are working together simultaneously.