One of our interns from a few years ago somehow ended up on a mailing list for “Outreach” magazine. She has moved on, but the magazines keep coming. I suppose I should contact the publisher and put a stop to it all, but that requires me to be intentional. I’m not all that great at being intentional.
The target audience for this publication is the American Pastor. In addition to some interesting articles, it’s full of ads for Christian books, audio and video technology, and courses promising “Your socially-driven church management solution!” or “Double your Church Member’s Engagement!” While I have a tendency to snicker at the ads, I can imagine that some of these resources are truly a God-send to an overworked pastor who sincerely aspires to be a good shepherd.
So… the current issue just arrived. Picking it out of the mail stack, I read the cover: “100 Largest and Fastest-growing Churches in America: What Can We Learn From the Nation’s Top Churches?”
What do you think when you read that?
To me, it was as if I had been hit in the stomach with a kickball (something that happened regularly in elementary school P.E.). Are they really assuming that being big, and rapidly growing bigger, are the hallmarks of a “top” church? Is that true?
In Acts, we’re told of churches that were growing incredibly rapidly, at times adding thousands of new believers in a single day. The information is factual, a reporting of what was going on. I never get the impression that such rapid growth is an expectation or example of what God will always do. Sure, sometimes churches grow into congregations numbering in the thousands, or tens of thousands. But does that make them better than smaller churches?
Jesus had thousands of followers at one point. In John 6, He fed 5,000 men, plus women and children. But a few verses later, when He taught about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66). In fact, His “congregation” shrank throughout His ministry. By the end, even his closest friends denied Him and ran. There certainly weren’t thousands of believers in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. It seems that Jesus went out of His way to eliminate those who were hanging around for the free food, or because He was the next big thing.
Then there’s Jesus’ teaching in John 15 about vines, branches, and pruning. There are seasons when growth is not appropriate. Perhaps God is doing some pruning, so we can bear more fruit in the future.
Finally, in Revelation 2 – 3 God speaks to seven churches. He sympathizes with their suffering, and complements their hard work and perseverance, their spiritual purity, good deeds, love, faith, and service. On the other hand, He rebukes various fellowships for a lack of love, false teaching, toleration of sin, and double-mindedness. But nowhere does God complement or chastise a church regarding either its size or its rate of growth.
What are the nation’s top churches? These two chapters provide us with a benchmark. Is God first in our affections? How loving are we—to one another and to our neighbors? And do we love with deeds as well as words?
Is our faith strong? Can we hold up under persecution? It’s hard to know before we actually encounter a situation that challenges us, but are we forming habits now that will carry us through difficult times?
Do the major points of our doctrine align with scripture? We might have different interpretations on minor points—baptisms, dress, traditions, etc.—but some issues are non-negotiable. Do we teach Jesus crucified and resurrected?
Churches can grow and become large for a variety of reasons, not all of them very spiritual. Perhaps the pastor has a particularly charismatic personality, or has written a best selling book, or appears on TV. Maybe people are attracted to a church program, such as MOPS, or the youth group is the “cool” place to be in that town. Perhaps, “to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim. 4:3). Or maybe it’s just that the rest of the churches in the area are extra dull!
Let’s focus on those practices that are close to God’s heart. After all, it’s the Lord who adds to our numbers (Acts 2:47). Let Him worry about the growth!