Factors That Mold a Church
Church growth relates to a number of key factors which define the character of each local church.
The church of Jesus Christ is made up of all the born again Christians who have lived since Pentecost (I Cor. 12:12-13; Gal. 3:26-28; Eph. 3:14-15). It is a spiritual body of which He is the Head (Eph. 1:22-23; 5:23). It is a spiritual edifice with the Lord Himself, the divine Builder, daily adding to the church those who are being saved (Matt. 16:18; Acts 2:47). This work is accomplished through the agency of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22). And yet, in the purpose and providence of God, He has enlisted human beings to be His instruments in the practical outworking of the process (I Cor. 3:6, 9; II Cor. 6:1). Therefore, though the fashioning of the church is God's work, it is also accurate to speak of it as resulting from the labour of men and women--weak and fallible though they are. This is particularly evident at the local level, where members of the body are responsible to serve.
In each local assembly of believers, there is a variety of factors at work, each affected by this human involvement and activity. As they interrelate, they give the church its unique character, and influence its development. This brief paper will list a few such factors, raising some questions, identifying relevant Scripture passages, and expressing some personal convictions along the way.
1. ITS HANDLING OF THE SCRIPTURES
The inspired Word of God is our final authority in all things (Deut. 8:3; Isa. 8:20; Acts 17:11)--including both the spiritual growth of individuals (II Tim. 3:16-17; I Pet. 2:2), and the overall operation of the church (I Cor. 14:20, 33, 40; cf. II Thess. 3:14; Tit. 1:5, etc.). Unless the Scriptures remain central to everything else, there will be, sooner or later, a drift into organizational anarchy, a subjective, experientially grounded Christianity, or perhaps into outright heresy. Proper handling of the Word means preserving doctrinal orthodoxy (Jude 3), and balance (the systematic proclamation of the "whole counsel of God," Acts 20:27). It involves a determination to maintain the primacy of biblical preaching and teaching in the schedule of the church.
Preaching has too often succumbed to a kind of consumerism, appealing to those who resist the necessity of doing some serious thinking, craving instead emotional thrills and chills. The result is often "Christianity Lite." To these the Lord says, "come now, and let us reason together" (Isa. 1:18). God's people must become increasingly familiar with the deeper things of His Word (I Cor. 2:10, 12; cf. Heb. 5:11-14). After Paul had ministered in Thessalonica for less than a month, he wrote a letter to the believers there. Did he take it easy on them, and present only elementary truths? No. A perusal of First Thessalonians reveals strong doctrinal teaching--about the Trinity, the work of the Spirit, the second coming, election, sanctification, and so on. Our preaching and teaching ought to reflect a similar breadth.
2. ITS PHILOSOPHY OF MINISTRY
What is the local church's vision for the future? What are its concerns? What is its purpose (or mission) statement? What are its measurable goals and objectives--both current and long-range? A biblically based, practical purpose--both as this relates to the church's responsibility in the immediate community, and to the world-wide proclamation of the gospel--is an important factor in its growth. With no vision, there is no sense of direction. "Where there is no vision, the people perish" (Prov. 29:18, KJV). And it should be added that to be useful, such a vision must be translated into measurable goals, intermediate steps that can be evaluated in a concrete way.
That being said, in some circles, there is a tendency to give numerical objectives an importance far beyond anything else. How many people attend? How many programs do we have? How much money is given to missions? Etc. But a study of Scripture will indicate how often the Lord chooses to work with the few, instead of the many. It will show how quantity is frequently downplayed in favour of quality. When Paul talks about the purpose of his ministry, numbers are not an issue (except in the general sense that he wants to help everyone he can). He says, "Him [Christ] we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect [completely mature] in Christ Jesus" (Col. 1:28). Though numbers cannot be totally ignored, fostering character goals--faithfulness, holiness and love--is far more in keeping with what the Lord is seeking. After all, love is identified as the distinguishing mark of a follower of Christ (Jn. 13:34-35; cf. Gal. 6:2, 10). This quality, an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit, is the essential core of Christ-likeness (Gal. 5:22-23; Col. 3:12-14).
3. ITS LEADERSHIP
Who are the leaders? What is their leadership style? (The styles can be roughly divided into decision-making by the minority--those in leadership, and decision-making by the majority. There needs to be a balance, and a healthy combination of these.) How efficient--and clearly understood!--is the chain of command? And what about appropriate lines of communication? What is the level of lay-involvement? And of lay-empowerment? (That is, how is the average member in the pew given a sense of ownership of decisions?) How effective is the process of recruitment and leadership training? The criteria for church leaders are carefully spelled out in several passages (Acts 20:17, 28-30; I Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9; I Pet. 5:1-4).
Judging by the biblical pattern, the upper level of leadership is to be taken by men only, called variously, and interchangeably, elders or pastors (meaning shepherds), and sometimes bishops. The latter term simply indicates a superintendent or overseer. Originally it was not used of a supervisor over a group of churches, but of an administrator of the local church--which the leaders are.
Under the authority of these men, whose gifts and calling have been duly recognized by the congregation, both men and women are to labour in a wide variety of roles. Among these are the deacons (and likely deaconesses, Rom. 16:1). The Greek word, diakonos, simply identifies one who serves, or ministers to others. These are to serve the congregation in practical ways. In a sense, each Sunday School teacher, usher, choir member, etc. is a "deacon," a servant--though often churches will identify certain individuals with that title to assist at baptisms, care for the needy, etc. The terms "elder" and "deacon" apparently were not yet in use, in the early days of Acts 6:1-7, but it is generally accepted that those appointed to serve food to widows in the congregation functioned as deacons. It should be noted that the qualifications for these were high (Acts 6:3; cf. I Tim. 3:8-13). Even mundane and routine physical work is a ministry for Christ, a spiritual calling.
4. ITS HISTORY AND TRADITIONS
The history and traditions of a church give it a sense of identity--both for its members, and for the broader community. These may include such diverse things as the denominational affiliation of the church, its physical building, and even its annual turkey suppers, and the quality of its Christmas programs. "That is the Baptist church," is a means of identification. "They go to that big church on the corner," is as well. But a church develops an identity over the years in many different ways--the style of its worship, its doctrinal emphases, its music, the warmth of its fellowship, its activity in the community, the men who have served as its pastors, and so on.
Scripture is replete with evidence for the importance of keeping our history in view. It becomes a means both of reminding us of our own weakness and inadequacy, apart from grace, and of celebrating God's faithfulness (cf. Josh. 4:1-7; I Sam. 7:12; Ps. 44:1-3; 78:1-8; Rom. 15:4; I Cor. 10:6, 11; 15:1, 3-4).
As to "tradition," the Bible word (paradosis, in Greek) simply indicates that which is handed over, or given into the hands of another. This may refer to inspired Scripture itself, as it does in Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians (cf. 2:15; 3:6, 14, where the Greek word is used). But it can be applied more broadly to any information or practice that is passed on from one group to another, from one generation to another. For some, the term seems to exude the dusty air of the out-dated and old-fashioned, but that is not a part of its essential meaning. It just speaks of that which is handed on. Tradition gives us a sense of belonging, of continuity with former times. Passing on various elements of the past is a worthwhile practice, as long as we avoid investing human tradition with the authority of inspired Scripture.
Unfortunately, the church's community identity can develop a negative connotation just as easily as a positive one. For example, it could be said of some group, "That is the church where they are always feuding." (Cf. I Cor. 1:11, "It has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren...that there are contentions among you.") Too little attention is given to the way in which such things influence the church's identity in the neighbourhood--and ultimately its effectiveness, sometimes for years to come. Keeping this in view could help to hold in check unwise words and actions.
5. ITS CIRCUMSTANCES
Everything from contemporary trends to local needs can have an impact on the life and work of the church. When I was a small boy, "lantern slides" were an amazing wonder--hymns and choruses projected on the wall. Christian motion pictures were virtually non-existent. Now, we have videos and DVD's proliferating by the dozen--both helpful and not so helpful! It is a trend. So are such things as the evolution of foreign mission methodology, the changes in church music, and the general movement of the population to the cities, and the like.
There are trends (or passing fads) in society, changes occurring all the time. In the church, these must be evaluated carefully before the Lord. We are to "use" the things of this world, without "misusing" them (I Cor. 7:31). We are to be careful to keep ourselves "unspotted from the world" (Jas. 1:27), meaning we avoid being contaminated with such things as its unspiritual values, its dependance on the flesh, and its time-bound goals (cf. I Jn. 2:15-17). Some trends can be accepted, and even put to use, with no violation of biblical principles. Others cannot. The fact that another church does it--or even that "everybody's doing it," is not enough. We are told to "test all things [and] hold fast what is good" (I Thess. 5:21; cf. Isa. 8:20; Matt. 7:20; Acts 17:11; Phil. 1:10; I Jn. 4:1).
When Paul talks about becoming "all things to all men" (I Cor. 9:22), he is not referring to making immoral or worldly compromises, but to adapting his ministry style to the needs of the specific people he is dealing with. (Compare his ministry to Jews, using the Old Testament, and his preaching before pagan Gentiles, where he makes use of what their own poets had written, Acts 17:2-3, 22-23,28.) A thriving, biblically balanced church will have learned the wisdom of applying the Bible's teachings, and of carefully combining the best of old and new. In the words of a slogan from another day, it will be "geared to the times and anchored to the Rock."
Included in the general category of the church's "circumstances" is the nature of the local community, and the needs this reflects. Is it rural? Suburban? Urban? Affluent? Middle class? Impoverished? A rescue mission style of outreach may work in one place but not in another. Thus, the location of the church affects its character. In the case of a church functioning in a community for generations, it needs to be sensitive to changes in the makeup of its constituency and to adjust accordingly.
Are there perhaps some seemingly inflexible traditions that are deeply entrenched, and whose only rationale is "that's the way we've always done it"? Or are there programs that once met a need but no longer do? These must receive careful scrutiny, and be adapted or terminated, as necessary. Letting go of the past is not easy, but it is sometimes necessary. As someone has put it, the seven last words of a church may well be "we never did it that way before."
6. ITS RESOURCES
Under God, the people of the church, and their unique spiritual gifts, are its greatest resource (I Cor. 12:7, 11-12; Eph. 4:16). Who are its members and adherents? What is the nature of its constituency? The ministry of the church will be affected by those available to serve, and faithful in service. Other significant resources include its facilities, its equipment, and its financial assets. Jesus told two stories--one about building a tower, another of going to war (Lk. 14:28-32)--which emphasize the need to sit down and evaluate our resources before we launch a new venture. Not to do so would show a lack of wisdom.
However, there are balancing truths which need to be set against this. First, we tend to evaluate in terms of what can be seen. But that is not God's way. Potential is not always obvious when we are dealing with the spiritual and eternal dimension. The Lord looks on the heart (I Sam. 16:7). In truth, He evaluates on another plane entirely (Isa. 59:8-9; Lk. 16:15). Second, as Jesus put it one day, "With God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26; cf. Jn. 15:5). The divine promise is, "God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work" (II Cor. 9:8).To evaluate in mere human terms, without the insight of spiritual vision, and faith in Him, is to miss God's best. We need to "Attempt great things for God [and] expect great things from God" (William Carey).
7. ITS PROGRAMS AND ACTIVITIES
What is happening at the church, or through the auspices of the church? What agencies have been designed to carry out its work? So many things could be listed here: its Christian education program (Sunday School, children's church, week-day clubs, etc.), its music, its prayer life, its worship, its proclamation of the Word, its evangelistic outreach and world missions involvement, its ordinances, its fellowship, its discipline, its community involvement, and so on. In the description of the apostolic church, little is said about this subject. That is not because there is something evil about structured programs. Rather, it relates to the infancy of the church. The issue had not yet been addressed in any depth. In dealing with it today, what is required is that we insure that biblical principles are broadly understood, and consistently applied. In a sense, programs are the tip of the iceberg. They are what everyone sees. And it is possible to do a more direct evaluation of a church at this level. But each of the factors mentioned previously will affect these and the ultimate results.
Programs are merely tools to accomplish certain goals. If they are added with little thought of how they fit the overall picture, they can needlessly burden God's people with "another night out" without accomplishing much for the kingdom. Ongoing evaluation may indicate the need to change programs that are not worthy of the time and energy and other resources they consume. Doing so with "Program X" because it no longer meets a need (as perhaps it once did) should not be seen as a step backward--particularly if resources are redirected into some other area where the need is current and significant.
It is not possible in this abbreviated treatment to cover the ground thoroughly. However, the factors identified are critical ones, and worthy of continuing attention. If the local church is to be all that God intends, we will need to consider these elements in the light of His Word, and adjust them as He directs, whenever necessary.
For a closer look at the nature and workings of the local church, you can check out John MadArthur's little book