A deep and abiding passion to see our churches grow is a very dangerous thing.
That may seem an odd observation to make, but it is a critical one. If we run with a passion to grow things without at the same time being aware that it is one of the most dangerous passions you can have, then the passion will destroy us and our work.
The most dangerous people in our Christian community are the leaders and evangelists who not only long to see growth but who also have the closest sympathy with the needs and concerns of the sinners we are seeking to reach. That is, the people who feel most keenly the needs of the unconverted sinner, who feel most keenly their pain and the difficulties caused by the churches that are meant to be attracting them: these are our most dangerous church members. Why? Because that sympathy for the sinner can very easily overpower any other concerns, such that they see almost every issue through the lens of what will make it easy or hard for the sinner to connect in to church life. And because they long to see these people won to Christ and part of his people, they will feel most keenly anything that might potentially make it hard for them—things like what we say, what we do. They will even see some biblical ideas and practices as concerning when it comes to reaching unbelievers.
The more passionate a person is to see the church grow and the more their sympathies rest with the sinners we are trying to reach, the more open they become to the danger of compromise. Leaders and churches can become ‘sinner driven’.
We are very aware of how secular businesses can become consumer driven—they exist to get people to buy their product and will bend and shift almost anything to increase sales. But a church that is sinner driven can adopt an almost identical set of values—we will shift and change whatever we need to make church more attractive to the community of people we are trying to draw in. Barriers to acceptance of church life are identified and removed, driven very largely by the principle that if people find them difficult then we must have done something wrong. Very soon, the barriers being removed are core gospel thoughts, ideas and practices. Talk of hell is very off-putting. People don’t like to hear about it. Cut back mentioning it, lest we turn someone off. Sin is very negative. Make church more celebratory. Pursue inspiration instead of education. Public Bible reading is often clunky and hard to follow. Drop it in favour of something that will engage. And so on.
Further to this is the subtle but dangerous pattern of passionate mission-minded leaders and churches seeing the power of respect in gaining a hearing for the gospel. People will listen if we gain their respect. We shift our focus, embrace practices, all designed to establish our credibility in the eyes of the world. We want so much for church and its leadership to be regarded respectfully by the community around us so that they might listen to the life-saving message. But a church, a leader, is then only a short step away from losing that which makes us the church: the truth of the gospel, and the distinctives of gospel priorities.
It ought to be obvious but it constantly needs to be said: it isn’t our ministry practices and the message we preach that is to win the respect of outsiders. It is our daily lives. The message we preach? It always was and always will be the stench of death to those that are perishing.
It will be this because the gospel, viewed from one perspective, is a prophetic call to the world to lay down its arms, to stop rebelling. Perhaps the shortest description of the gospel in the New Testament is that Jesus Christ is Lord (2 Cor 4:5). What are those words if they’re not fighting words? To the sinner it says: “Jesus Christ is Lord. You aren’t. So turn back, repent. Bow the knee. Find forgiveness by the only means possible: the gift of grace found in the Lord himself.”
For those of us who have found this forgiveness, the gospel message is of course the fragrance of life. But that fragrance is only sweet if you have acknowledged the dent (the death) it makes in your pride. ‘Sin’ in essence is pride. It is the pride of sin that means the vast majority of people are outside the things of Christ. We cannot make the message of Christ sweet to those that refuse to bow. It cannot but be a stench until the Spirit of God gives birth, by that message, to a whole new heart.
All of this is hard for the person most passionate about growth and deeply longing to see it happen. It is hard to see the outrage of people against what we might say, and not feel we have alienated people and lost an opportunity to win the very world that is reacting so badly to us. Leaders need to make a decision: whose friendship matters most? The world’s? Or our heavenly Father’s?
What kind of leadership do we need?
There are fundamental values necessary to minister as Christ’s ambassador here in this age. One of them is this deeply embedded determination and passion to be, above all else, a faithful representative of Christ in an age that is instinctively and innately opposed to him.
The simple fact is that we cannot be friends with the city (or the country, village, isolated station, etc.). We can love it—or, to express it more helpfully, love its people. But beware the leader that needs to be or wants to be liked and wants to position the church as a loved and respected member of the broader community.
It is possible to minister to one generation, for the purposes of gaining people to the kingdom, in a way that destroys the next generation’s grasp of the gospel, and so hinders the work long term. This concept is so important that it needs to be part of a person’s shaping long before they are near to taking responsibility for the community of faith. It will be tested again and again in many different ways. Our great need is to have leaders who not only understand the truths of the gospel and its priorities, but who are also emotionally bound to them so that a shift hurts deeply.
Often this shift occurs in reaction to apparent failings of previous generations or leadership. We see the outsider criticizing the previous leader or the church in general for a perceived arrogance and harshness and so, to win their respect or to gain a hearing—for the best possible motives of their salvation—we seek to establish ourselves as distinct from those that are disliked, and then present ourselves in such a way that the sinner is struck by our warmth, care and inclusiveness.
This will almost certainly lead to growth. We will gain much positive feedback and on occasion great affirmation as the representatives of a kind of Christianity that is so much more appealing.
However, the critical thing to note is that this path will always only buy short-term impact at the cost of long-term gain. Very shortly we will either have to display a very different side—in proclaiming the hard edges of a love that clearly has boundaries (to the disillusionment or greater disdain of the community, for having been conned), or we will shift our presentations so as to never disappoint our newly won audience. In doing this we will have taken the first steps on the path of compromise.
We often (always?) fail to appreciate the great strengths of those previous generations that are now so roundly condemned as harsh, unloving and sectarian. They actually did much to guard the deposit entrusted to us so that through the generations of opposition there was a faithful message to still proclaim. They may be perceived by many to have created unnecessary negative reactions, which may look like inhibiting growth, but over the long haul they have kept the seeds of the all-powerful gospel alive and well, and modelled a God-centered life that is not prone to the whims and shifts of popular culture.
One local example comes to mind readily. It was the Archbishop of Sydney in 1970. That year the Pope visited Australia and called the leaders of various religious organizations to gather together with him and pray. Sir Marcus Loane famously refused to attend the event. For him to attend would have been an act of serious and significant compromise. The Archbishop’s refusal to attend was, by its very nature, public. There were letters to editors across the country. To many church growth observers it was a PR disaster. How can Christianity appeal to the world if its leadership acts in such seemingly divisive ways? Many were so outraged they determined never to set foot in an Anglican church in Sydney again. Many other churches readily capitalized on the uproar by presenting a far softer image to the community—one of inclusiveness and broad incorporation. These churches won acclaim as other churches were condemned.
Now, 40 years later, it is these condemned churches that are alone in experiencing positive growth over the last decade. That growth hasn’t been spectacular, but the churches Sir Marcus Loane led remain determinedly faithful to the apostolic gospel and its exclusive claims in a world that is increasingly pluralistic.
It is not hard to see why such a stand would contribute to faithful leadership. The many men and women who understood what the Archbishop was doing were nurtured in a similar determination to fear God, not man. They saw themselves as functioning as prophetic voices in a world that would always have reason to despise the message of Christ. They nurtured the many who came after them in this same set of values. These things have strengthened the hands of innumerable young men and women to trust the God of the gospel and so stand when narrow strategic considerations would insist it was time to soften.
The need for passion
(And this is a large ‘however’.)
As dangerous as a passion for growth is, and as necessary as the warnings are concerning that passion for growth, if we are to be faithful to Jesus, true to the spirit of the apostles, and read the New Testament rightly, then we need to have passion for growth!
The great danger is that wherever people grasp the church as the pillar of truth, and grasp only that, it is possible to create a ministry that is defensive, reactive and doctrinaire. These things become destructive of what we seek to stand for.
It is so important to see that we are to have a passion for growth that I want to step through the various reasons for doing so.
The gospel itself requires us to be passionate for growth
The gospel isn’t merely a word about God’s honour, to be delivered whatever the response. It is, at its heart, a summons from God our ruler for a response. It is God’s loving movement towards his hostile world to win it back. Note the opening of Luke’s Gospel. At the announcement of Jesus’ birth, the angels say that they bring…
“…good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)
Note the use of the word ‘saviour’. The gospel is good news because it is news of the Lord who is a saviour. He isn’t just one who testifies to the truth, although he is that. He is one who will actually save. He will bring forgiveness. That is, there is an expectation built into the gospel itself of a response, an expectation of growth—numeric growth.
Then consider 2 Corinthians 4:15: “For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God”. Paul’s expectation is that the grace of God will extend to “more and more people”. He expects growth numerically. And he sees this very thing—the numerical growth of the church—as the thing that leads to God being glorified.
The shape of the Acts of the Apostles
The book of Acts speaks several times about numbers; it actually reports the number of people responding (Acts 2:41, 2:47, 5:14, 6:7, 11:24, 16:5). This might seem somewhat crass for many modern evangelicals, but it is part of the presentation of the Word. This is all summarized as “the word of God increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24). The increase and the multiplication is the increase of the numbers of people within whom the Word takes root.
This isn’t arbitrary—of course not! It carries forward an important theological idea introduced in Luke 24, which itself is carrying forward ideas developed much earlier. Jesus in his post-resurrection appearances ends Luke’s account with a statement about the ‘divine necessity’ of not only his death and resurrection, but also the mission to the world: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer… and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47).
Note here that the divine necessity isn’t simply that a message will be preached, but that a message which brings repentance and forgiveness will be preached to all nations. The gospel is good news because it is news about a saviour who will actually save people through the forgiveness of sins.
This is the foundation upon which Luke’s next book, the book of Acts, builds. Luke follows a major theme of the fulfilment of the mission of repentance and forgiveness of sins being preached, and the impact it makes—how it actually brings repentance and forgiveness of sins, first in Jerusalem and then to the world.
The apostles preach the gospel in Jerusalem to Jews from all nations. Peter issues a call for repentance, promising forgiveness found only in Christ. And it is in response to this first sermon that we are told of the numbers who respond. This recounting of numbers serves an important purpose. It tells us that God’s intention—to send his Son to seek and save the lost—is being fulfilled, that thanksgiving might overflow to the glory of God as the grace of God extends to more and more people.
The model of the apostles
I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them… I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some… not seeking my own advantage but that of many, that they may be saved. (1 Cor 9:19, 22; 10:33)
Paul was driven to action not only by a duty to simply preach the message faithfully, but also by a real desire to see people saved. God gives the growth and Paul desired to see it.
Passion for growth is dangerous. But a passion for numerical growth (and spiritual growth) is part of the fabric of the gospel and part of the tone and tenor of the New Testament. It is impossible to avoid this tension, even though Paul (for one) was clearly committed to the sovereign work of God in giving growth.
Passion for growth and faithfulness
The nature of the gospel, the shape of the book of Acts, and the model of the apostles compel us to see the need to have a passion for growth—actual numerical growth—and not just passion for being faithful. These things compel us towards this passion, but so too do compassion and love. Imagine being the captain of a rescue vessel arriving at the site of a ferry disaster. Would you care about numbers? If I’m one of those numbers I hope you do! I would want you to be very concerned about numbers, and not merely faithful to your task of captaining the rescue vessel.
Now of course there is the perversion that can come when that captain only cares about numbers for the sake of his personal reputation or his place among other captains or his identity, and so on. And one might understand someone saying that we aren’t to be about ‘numbers’ when ‘numbers’ is really shorthand for the pride that numbers might create. But we don’t then extrapolate from a statement in that context and make it the principle that stands over all our thinking about gospel ministry.
In all of this, these comments go way deeper than merely discussing techniques about how to grow the church. They go to the very DNA of church life and the DNA of its leadership.
The sad truth is that among Reformed evangelicals we have bred a new kind of thinking about pastoral ministry (which is actually very old, but just not as old as the Bible). We have created a legacy of thinking about the pastoral role that is reactionary, passive and small-minded. We have often struggled for so long under small things that our vision is very small. And we have embraced ‘heroic pessimism’ as the controlling mood of our work. In the context of little response we have reduced our gospel ambition to the apparent purity of just being faithful. But under that rubric we have hidden a lack of drive and focus—the things that are necessary if we are to break through and reach the lost—under the gracious sovereign hand of God, who alone gives the growth.
These observations applied
Practically, this applies varyingly in context, and some of us need to attend to different sides.
Typically for the young, there is a need to take great heed of the dangers of a passion for growth.
The gospel is a challenge. It won’t make leaders and churches popular. The church is to be the pillar of truth. It is to be a place where discernment is exercised, disciplines enacted, and challenges issued that will cut people to the heart.
It is necessary to drink deeply of the image of Jesus as the suffering servant, and of Paul, the minister of the gospel who died daily and was despised like his master.
We need to pray that we are able to resist throughout our lives and ministry the seductive call of the world to get its respect, to be its friend. The world, the city, will constantly be saying—actively and passively—that if you want to be accepted you cannot say that and you need to say and do this.
What is necessary is leadership character—the kind that only comes through deep theological formation under leaders who ‘get’ these things and who can model and disciple younger leaders towards them. We need leaders who have the suffering servant values so deeply embedded in mind and heart that they are alert to any small step and where it might take us. This pushes us very firmly towards top-quality theological education, but it also pushes very strongly towards careful and thorough ministry training under men and women who have worked through the heat of the day and lived the life of sacrifice; who know what it is to be unpopular and yet continue to stand for the truth of Christ, graciously.
The young need the first side.
But the older, more established leader may well need the second side.
As we age, it is possible to get stuck. The ministry has been hard. We get worn down. We lose vision. We have battled for so long under the day of small things that our vision has shrunk. It becomes no larger than the day-to-day needs of church. Our people keep us busy—their needs, their problems, admin, weekly preaching. “Think bigger? How? I can’t cope with the load at present.” We don’t expect much. We are heroic in our stand while the church around us dies. Or we settle: we know God can do great things; we’re just sure that he won’t.
We tell ourselves stories to give ourselves some comfort. The soil here is hard. (Perhaps it is.) It isn’t like that area where the church is growing. (Perhaps it isn’t.) If a church is large, we tell ourselves, it must be because it has compromised. (Perhaps it has.) And so, to survive emotionally, we settle for less.
However, the unsettling truth is that the apostolic ministry was shaped by a burning ambition for the truth of the saving work of Christ to be not just known but embraced by the world. And the apostles were prepared to pay whatever price was necessary to see that same world saved by the merits of Jesus. In this they were following the example of Christ.
When we lead churches, we are not running book clubs. The church is the lifeboat in an ocean full of millions of drowning people—without God and without hope. We often allow those already in the lifeboat to shape our vision.
It is urgent that we go past the ‘just be faithful’ line. To be like Christ, like the apostles, connected with the mood of God, we are to seek to actually see people converted, won, saved, and then really grow and change. The more we get this mood back again, the more we are ready to pay the price necessary to do whatever is needed to get our churches moving forward—to change things that are broken in our ministries, in ourselves, in our churches. We are to create a mood within every church where there is a deep dissatisfaction with just doing church.
Satisfactory underperformance isn’t possible if our vision is as large as God’s: all things united under one head, the Lord Christ. It is the vision of countless numbers from every nation gathered around the throne.
Satisfactory underperformance can’t be possible when the realities of heaven and hell are fully known.
A passion for growth is very dangerous to have. But when you understand the nature of the gospel, the shape of the early church, the mood and tone of the apostles themselves, and the vision of God for his world, it isn’t possible to live without a passion to actually see churches grow.