If the Apostles Didn’t Teach Church Growth, Why Do We?

why 200cWhy does everyone want to be like the first century church? From what I can tell, it wasn’t that much different from today’s church.

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?

Obviously, I am not saying that churches shouldn’t grow, that church growth is bad, or that church health doesn’t produce growth.

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.

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.” – 2 Peter 3:18


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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(Why? photo from Editor B • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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5 thoughts on “If the Apostles Didn’t Teach Church Growth, Why Do We?”

  1. We are more focused on the external (numerical growth) than on the internal (spiritual growth/discipleship). This also helps to explain the pathetic state of Christianity…

    1. Jon, I agree with the first part of your comment – that we are too often focused on the external.

      But I have to respectfully disagree with the second part. The church certainly has problems (always has), especially on an institutional level. And anyone who is living in a part of the world where the church is anemic and ineffective may have a hard time seeing past their immediate surroundings (I find this especially true in many parts of North America and Europe, where the church is in decline).

      But Christianity will never be in a pathetic state as long as there are millions of great, healthy congregations worshiping God and doing his work. And that is definitely happening all over the world today.

  2. Once again I’ve felt a fresh breeze.
    I’ve always wondered why people seem to take credit for salvations (real church growth, as opposed to transfer growth) I wasn’t even responsible for my own salvation (outside of simply responding to His call) why do we think we are responsible for other people’s salvation? We preach, we tell…(plant and water) but GOD gives the increase.
    This is one area that if you’re church isn’t “growing” then you must be failing in the Great Commission. I’ve always wanted to ask proponents of this idea if they have any family members who are unsaved. I’d guess, most would say yes. Then I would ask them why? Is it their fault that they have unsaved people in their family? If they’re worth their “salt” they’ve probably had conversations with these people, loved these people and prayed for these people..have they personally failed because their family member has yet to yield to Christ?
    The only way a person or church can “fail” the Great Commission is to NOT preach, NOT teach and NOT tell (by whatever means are available) and to NOT disciple the ones they have. I’ve actually heard pastors say that if you don’t have at least one conversion a month you may as well quit the ministry and do something else. (Yep, I’ve heard it)
    If I could MAKE people get saved and live it…you better believe I would…I’d start with my family first. But it just doesn’t work that way and it’s wrong to make others feel guilty over someone’s decision NOT to accept Christ.

    1. That story about the pastor saying “if you don’t have at least one conversion a month you may as well quit the ministry and do something else” is a shocker!

      The truth is, we’re called to be obedient, not to get results. The results are God’s. As you say, only he saves souls.

  3. Karl, I am always intrigued and blessed by your thoughts and comments. I have tried to fit into the church growth crowd/philosophy/mentality but always feeling tension. I have never known why, but maybe because of what you have shared…the writers never pushed it…idk…

    I do want our church to grow and I go crazy trying to make it grow. I know this is not my job, its the Lord’s, He said He would grow His church, but I am told and made to believe that good leaders are the ones who’s churches are growing and making Outreach’s fastest 100 growing churches list…or something like that. What get’s celebrated in “church world”, is those who’s ministries are growing, expanding, and now coaching others and then on the conference speaking tour.

    These things are real struggles for me.

    If health is the deal, then what is the model to compare to, the way to diagnose poor health, and the prescriptions(actions/steps) needed to regain health?

    We are currently focusing our church on discipling. we feel we must help develop those the Lord has in front of us, to be more like Jesus in character and conduct…devoted followers and faithful “fisher-ers” (everyday missionaries)

    Thanks again for the post, you’re appreciated.

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