Is the church meant to grow and if so, who is responsible?

In his recent article for Evangelicals Now, Matt Paterson challenges pastors for what he refers to as “visionary dreaming.”  Matt seems to have in his sights a mechanicalistic approach to church growth, particular that associated with US pastor Rick Warren.

Now, I’m familiar with pragmatic church growth theories and I’ve heard some of the things said that Matt refers to. However, I’m not sure that the experience Matt describes is one that best describes the UK reformed/conservative evangelical scene in terms of what a potential pastor is likely to encounter as part of their training.

Bur of course, Matt is writing from an Australian perspective. There, I think we see a repeat of the error that some of our Christian journals and commentators have been making for some time.  As mentioned previously here, there has been a tendency at some times to attempt to import into the UK the ideas and approaches of Christian leaders in whichever place is in favour. So, over the years, depending on who is flavour of the month, I’ve heard much from US contexts, South Korea, China and Australia (knowing a little bit more about one of those contexts, I’m not convinced that we get the full story from those places).

I think Evangelicals Now is now compounding the problem by once again simply importing the critique of past Australian and US methodology straight from the Australian context without thinking about what the UK situation is like. The other consequence is that instead of EN offering practical help for churches and pastors, we are treated more to a grumpy rant more likely to reinforce existing prejudices than convince people to change their minds.

So, it’s important to say that if there has been a US and an Australian pragmaticism, an over confidence in the belief that churches will grow and that we are responsible for selecting exactly the right formulas to make it happen, then the UK reformed church has historically gone the other way. Our tendency has been to assume that healthy, pure churches will not often grow because of the closed, hard nature of the world around us. We’ve tended to emphasis “faithfulness” over success. When we have experienced growth, we’ve hidden behind English false humility to say “Oh we didn’t particularly do anything, it just happened.”  The problem with that is that instead of it really pushing glory back to God, it is an act of deflection which means we don’t learn anything or praise God, instead we create a magical culture of mystery around the leaders we see as successful.

In fact, the danger is the other way.  We assume that if someone is the pastor of a large church, then that must reflect some kind of special blessing on them and their ministry and because of our assumptions of what that blessing is, we place them on a pedestal and look to them to open up the Bible at our conferences when they may not be the best person to provide expository teaching. They may though have some practical things to teach us.

This is important because it sets the context for why there has been some engagement (not a lot) but some with questions about methodology around growth among UK evangelicals.  It can be summed up in Timothy Keller’s argument that pursing success only or insisting just on faithfulness are twin dangers.  There is a third option according to Keller and that is about fruitfulness.  Christians and Christian leaders are not promised success but they are called to be fruitful.

This helps us then to engage both with the methodologies promoted and critiques of them.  Let’s start with Warren’s dictum that healthy churches grow.  Paterson is quick to disagree with this because growth is not something talked about in Christ’s letters to the seven churches of Revelation.   I think that this is to miss the point by focusing narrowly on three chapters in the New Testament that the whole of Scripture from the Genesis through to Revelation is saturated with the imagery of life and growth. Humans are mandated to fill and subdue the earth. The disciples and us are sent out to make disciples. The history of the early church is that more were added to their number over time and the parables of the kingdom (unless as we’ve seen recently you throw in a bit of allegorical eisegesis) point to growth and fruit as a good thing. The primary focus is of course on kingdom growth but I don’t think that’s meant to exclude local church growth.

So, I don’t think you can ignore the positive perspective on growth in the New Testament. In fact, we might want to say that it’s not just (healthy) churches that grow but living things generally grow.  We know that from general observation. If I leave my garden to itself, then things grow in it. There in is the critique.  That healthy churches grow doesn’t mean that all growth is evidence of health. It’s more evidence of life and of the conditions being in place for life. Fruitful plants and beautiful flowers grow in my garden but so too do weeds, thorns and thistles.

Not everything that grows is welcome. If Japanese knotweed shows up then that’s a sign of life but not health. Whilst we are excited to see growth in babies, children and young men and women as limbs grow and muscles strengthen, we become anxious in later life when growth means putting on excess weight or more sinister still indicates the presence of cancerous tumours. Not all growth is good. Not all growth is healthy. Growth may indicate life is present but growth may also be leading to death.

We might also add two more constraints on our assumptions about growth. The first is alluded to above. We don’t see the same type of growth happening all the time.  I’m in my late forties now, so long gone are the days when I expected to be growing taller. I’m also aware that it is going to be harder and harder to develop muscle mass.  That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped growing though (just in human terms). I’m growing mentality. I continue to learn new things. I’m still acquiring and developing skills. I’m growing relationally. My marriage and relationships are still developing and I’m still making new friends.  Oh yes and some things still grow, toe-nails, replacement skin cells, hair, apparently ears! 

We don’t expect growth to happen in the same way all the time. We may like the idea of a graph with a straight diagonal line from the bottom left hand corner to the top right hand corner but life isn’t like that.  In John 15 we see that as well as growth, there’s pruning. Indeed, we might expect to see a cycle in church life of growth, fruit, pruning, rest and so on.

The second constraint is seen in the parable of the sower.  Note, I’m not arguing that we should treat the parable as a handbook for evangelism and growth but the implication is there that circumstances and environment around will affect growth.

So, I think we can refine things when talking about church growth. We expect things to grow. So the question is not just about “is there growth” but “are we seeing the right kind of growth of the right kinds of things in the right kinds of places.”  This helps us think then about our responsibility.  Some people in their critique of growth thinking have pointed to the passage where Paul says that “God gives the increase”. Surely this means we leave everything in God’s hands. But look again more closely. This is what the apostle actually 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. 

! Corinthians 3:6-7

He goes on to describe his own involvement as like a master builder -an architect. He lays foundations, he chooses and places bricks.  Paul’s involvement is not passive.  Yes God is the one who gives growth but that doesn’t mean we are without responsibility.  This means that we have some involvement in ensuring that the right things are growing in the right way at the right time in the right place.  This reminds us that Adam was commissioned to both tend and to guard/keep the Garden. Humanity were mandated to fill and subdue the earth. This also means that the work is a lot harder than simply choosing the right formula and then sitting back to watch exponential growth.

It also means I think that there is practical wisdom to learn from general revelation and common grace about everything from staffing ratios to building capacity. However, ultimately, the tool that we need to be using as we seek to grow disciples and play our part in the growth of God’s Kingdom is the right application of God’s Word.

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