“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.” (Matthew 5:13)
I’m not a fan of the term “church-growth.” It’s God’s job to build His church, but who doesn’t desire for their church to go forward? When I met with the leaders of Emmanuel in the summer of 2012, I said to them, “I can’t make this church grow—that’s the Lord’s responsibility. But I will try to identify ways that we are preventing growth—ways that we are getting in God’s way—and try to remove those impediments. I believe if we will get out of God’s way, He will grow His church, because that’s what He does.” They agreed.
Healthy things grow.
So the more we focus on church-health (biblically speaking—doctrinal, biblical, spiritual health), the more we will see God’s church reach new souls, disciple new believers, and flourish by God’s grace. We can cultivate an environment conducive to growth, but in the end, the growth is up to the Lord.
Today there are some “church growth models” or methods that lean more toward market study and demographics, than to the principles of the Word of God. Tactics may temporarily attract a crowd, but God’s Word develops a church in maturity.
This is what intrigues me. There are many churches today that are growing in spite of the fact that they are not following popular tactics. They aren’t chasing church reinvention or “relevance.” To some church growth models, these churches are anomalies—their growth its counter-intuitive to the market data.
Ironically, these churches have greater emphasis on Bible messages (not less), more authentically worshipful music (not entertainment), greater gospel focus (not diminished), stronger fellowship (not spectator appeal), and a healthier spirit (not divisive or carnal)— again, all in spite of the fact that these things are often counter-intuitive.
Is it still possible to see a local church go forward without losing biblical distinction? Yes. After 38 years of studying and enjoying healthy churches, I’m positive that church health is not a product of tricks or marketing ideas. Healthy development is almost always counter-intuitive to popular logic.
Here are some things that I see healthy churches “not doing”—things that are counter-intuitive to some “growth” books…
Things you don’t have to do to see God’s church go forward…
1. You don’t have to stop using Bible Words—Bible words are true and powerful words. Define them. Teach them. Cross-reference them. Illustrate them. But don’t stop using Bible Words—sin, hell, heaven, Spirit, worship, propitiation, justification, mercy, grace, sanctification, etc. Bible words grow the church in depth and health.
2. You don’t have to minimize the gospel—From Genesis the Revelation, the gospel is the core of God’s heart to mankind. Paul told Titus to affirm the gospel “constantly!” Keep giving the clear gospel—to both Christians and non-Christians. By it we are saved, by it we live! You cannot exhaust the gospel, and it is the single emphasis that will bring both new life and maturity to your church.
3. You don’t have to stop preaching good doctrine—The heart of man was designed to thrive on truth. Good doctrine and theology is the foundation of all of life. Doctrine is attractive when made understandable and when connected to every day life. It stabilizes the soul. Good doctrine is not negotiable. Don’t remove it or minimize it. In a day of pluralism and secularism and relativism, people are desperate for true absolutes upon which they can anchor their lives.
4. You don’t have to have performance-driven ministry—A lot of churches today more resemble a nightclub than a place of spiritual activity. Are we trying to worship Jesus and grow in His Word, or impress people with performance? Keep the lights on, lead in corporate/heart-felt worship, lift up Jesus Christ, open and expound the Word, and watch Jesus draw people to Himself.
5. You don’t have to stop using the word “church”—Jesus died for the church, promised to build the church, loves the church, and is the head of the church. Choose to love the word “church,” and help people experience real loving, healthy, dynamic church every time they attend yours. Bad church experiences are common, but so are bad restaurant experiences. We don’t need “alternative” words—we need authentic, healthy churches.
6. You don’t have to downplay doctrinal distinction—God is the final authority. He defines life, love, sexuality, marriage, and all other doctrinal and moral issues. And He is good. He is love. He is grace. Messing with His message to men is the most unloving, ungracious, uncaring thing you can do. Help people build their lives on uncompromised truth, and watch them grow. Likewise, teach sound doctrine and help people discern “bad doctrine”—this was exactly what the Apostle Paul did in New Testament contexts.
7. You don’t have to marginalize an age group—Some strategists encourage church leaders to focus on specific ages, to the exclusion of others. This is really unbiblical thinking. A healthy church is multi-generational—it’s a church full of all ages and kinds of people—loving, praying, serving, and caring for one another across all generational, ethnic, and socio-economic boundaries.
8. You don’t have to target a demographic—Again, strategists would teach you to define a demographic—how you will reach a particular group, usually “income focused.” God’s Word and the Gospel of Jesus is not exclusive—everyone in every life-stage deserves the truth. A healthy church will flatten society’s stratums and bring every kind of person together around the person of Jesus Christ. Attempt to reach everyone, and guaranteed, God will provide for His church.
9. You don’t have to condone sin—Strategists would tell you to not speak out on sensitive issues. God tells you to speak the truth in love. I’ve heard plenty of preachers speak the truth in anger, irrationally. I’ve heard many speak the truth in love with sound reason. It is possible to speak truthfully, lovingly, and convincingly against sin and it’s destructive nature. If you don’t speak truth, you are not loving. Love is truthful. Truth is loving. You always help people grow when you teach them God’s best.
10. You don’t have to stop inviting people to respond to God’s Word—Some would say, “don’t have a planned time for response, like an invitation” or “don’t invite people to accept Christ.” But truth always calls for a response. When you speak truth, the hearers must decide what to do with it. Whether in their seat or at an altar—keep encouraging people make right decisions based upon God’s Word.
God builds His church when we get out of His way. Let us not become victims of the “growth at all costs” thinking. Let us see God develop His church, His way—as a pillar and ground of the truth. Only biblical growth is healthy growth.
If you will couple sound biblical content, a clear gospel message, a loving church family, and a well-prepared environment of hospitality—you will see God take His church forward with new life and spiritual maturity.
The gospel is still powerful to transform lives! What a privilege we have to partner with Him in the greatest work on the planet—seeing Jesus build His church!