Church growth as it is described in Scripture might be best explained by a three-tiered formula. (1) It begins with spiritual vitality, which then leads to functional effectiveness, which in turn often leads to statistical increases. Statistical increase is the result of functional effectiveness and functional effectiveness is the result of spiritual vitality. The goal then is not church growth but church health.
We all know what statistical increase is. It's the "bottom line" everyone looks at when evaluating a church and its effectiveness. But what is functional effectiveness? Simply stated, it is God's people doing what the Bible requires of those who are his "disciples." They have become "doers of the Word." They proclaim the Gospel, they love the brethren, they worship the Lord and they are lovingly doing all the hundreds of other things the Bible talks about as functions that mark genuine disciples of Jesus because the love of Christ constrains them.
How does that happen? Functional effectiveness is a result of spiritual vitality. Spiritual vitality is the Word of God being loved, learned, and obeyed by the power of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God in the lives of God's people under the Lordship of Christ. Dying churches are frequently identified by the lack of statistical increase. But the real problem is the lack of either functional effectiveness or spiritual vitality, or both. Don't put a Band-Aid on the sore spot of statistical stagnation with special programs or hype designed to create numbers, nickels, and noise. Go directly to the infection. Programs cannot create real growth. Ministry programs accommodate and/or direct functional growth. The basic issue is whether the church is functioning (obeying the Word of God) or is failing to mature spiritually (quenching or grieving the Spirit of God).
The biblical vision for the growth of the Church includes this three-tiered view of growth, and one of a minister's earliest tasks as a revitalization leader is to get the congregation to see that the lack of statistical increase is a symptom. The root cause lies in the church's spiritual stagnation and functional breakdown. If the root cause is removed, the symptoms most likely will change. Church growth statistics are a consequence to get us to the issue. You don't tell your children to grow or set growth goals. You put them on a fitness plan knowing if they are healthy they will grow.
We can draw some parallels to a healthy church. Here are a few places to start:
- Breaking Down Jealous Criticism of Other Churches. Dying churches become cynical and critical, especially if there are other churches nearby that are faring better. Some members of dying churches develop an unhelpful attitude that assumes that if you are faithful to God's Word you are consigned to be a "remnant," a "holy huddle."
- Biblical Homogeneity. In the part of Miami where Pinelands Church (PCA) ministered, tremendous social upheaval was taking place. Foreign immigration, legal and illegal, was producing traumatic social and cultural changes. In our neighborhood, church growth "experts" said there was no settled homogeneous principle from which to work, and therefore the church needed to relocate. They were right and they were wrong: right in that racially, economically, socially, and culturally the neighborhood was totally diverse-it was a real hodgepodge of people groups-but wrong in that there was in fact a principle of homogeneity. They were all sinners, and if Christ called them, He would "break down the dividing wall…." Our vision at Pinelands was for a multiethnic, multiracial, and economically diverse congregation. And by God's grace, it happened. After three years you could feel the excitement when you stood in the packed sanctuary containing people, one-third of whom were black, representing over twenty nationalities, some of them rich, some of them poor, and all of them holding hands and singing, "I'm So Glad I'm a Part of the Family of God." I have seen the Savior take those "who were not a people" and make them "the people of God," cutting across social barriers as nobody outside the Kingdom would ever believe could happen.
- Pulpit Ministry and Intercessory Prayer. I believe the battle for revitalization is won or lost in the pulpit ministry of the pastor-teacher. Where a man of God, called and gifted to explain the Word of God, protects his life and schedule in order to prepare faithful biblical expositions that issue forth with loving application so that sin is exposed and Christ is exalted, God blesses that ministry with newness of life…. Spurgeon said that the Thermopylae of Christianity is the pulpit, and I believe him. More than that, I believe the Scriptures: "Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the Word of God" (Rom. 10:17, KJV). We are saved "through the foolishness of the message preached" (1 Cor. 1:21, NASB). People won't come miles or even blocks every Sunday unless they can be sure they will hear a Word from the Lord. Fancy bulletins, catchy mottoes, personalities and innovation do not sustain life and growth. Only the Word of God preached in the "demonstration and power of the Holy Spirit," proclaiming "Christ and Him crucified," can keep life in the church. The towns and cities of America are littered with churches that have walked away from this, and that is why so many need revitalization. A strong biblical pulpit ministry must be restored.
- The Pastor's Perspective on the Church and Commitment to Evangelism. The first part of my ministry of revitalization at Pinelands was not spent in advertising, neighborhood canvassing, or new program implementation. I began by first visiting the families of the existing congregation, accompanied by an elder. For many it was the first time in years a pastor or elder had been in their homes on a ministerial visit. In fact, one family told me it was the first time in twenty-two years that a pastor had been in their home. Is there any wonder the church was dying?
Another important thing to do is to contact those who have fallen away from the church. My first three months at Pinelands were spent visiting the existing congregation. We called on forty families and then went looking for the hundred members who were on the books but unaccounted for. The parable of the shepherd seeking the one that was lost took on new meaning as ten who were converted to Christ or reaffirmed their faith were restored to the congregation. Two other families in the middle of divorce proceedings were reconciled through a renewed commitment to Christ and his Word as a result of the visits. The bottom line is that in three years we went from an average attendance of sixty to over 400. More than half of those added were by conversion or reaffirmation of faith in Christ. But almost as gratifying as the conversion growth was that only one family from the original congregation was lost to another communion in the process of revitalization. Instead of feeling disenfranchised or being dismantled, the former members became a vital part of the "new work" of the Lord in Pinelands, rejoicing in what the Lord was doing and with a vested interest in the church's ministry and the new vision for the community we served. Finally, a biblical vision for the church must not simply include evangelism as one initiative among many. The evangelistic dimension must be emphasized in everything the church does. Evangelism is not supplemental. It is fundamental.