“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field. And which is smaller than all the seeds; but when it has grown, it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree so that the birds of heaven come and roost in its branches.” Matt. 13: 31, 32
There have been many church growth movements, models, ministries, and mentors over the last fifty years or so. They all have their differences and yet most are remarkably similar.
In my opinion, most of these “systems” have been setup from within the institutional mindset and geared toward helping pastors fill their pews.
I guess you could say that I was technically an institutional pastor for two years. During that time, the pastors of the group I was in would get together monthly for a prayer breakfast. There were only two topics of discussion at that meeting. How many people do you have in your church; and how much money are you bringing in? There was one pastor who had been very “successful” and had a large church. Some of the other guys thought that if they preached his sermons (word for word!) they would have the same kind of success!
This is typical of the kind of thinking that permeates leadership in institutional churches. Church growth “specialists” have come up with all kinds of whacky ideas to help multiply congregations in the western world. Many of these are the manipulative, forced, and contained methods of Madison Avenue style marketing. They may get people in the pews, but what is going on here, spiritually?
What is the Goal?
The majority of evangelical Christians today believe the purpose and goal of the Church is to evangelize the world. This is why God saved us and this is the reason we are here. In other words, we are here to multiply, so we had better get to it.
Now I understand that when God created man He told him to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28). But what did God say before that? First, he created man in His image and used plural pronouns (Gen. 1:26). He said, “let Us make man in Our image.” This shows us two things: He wanted an expression of Himself (image), and He wanted that expression to be corporate. This is why He spoke in the plural pronouns.
God is a community of three persons. Father, Son, and Spirit make up the one God. He wanted a community that would express or display His own corporate life.
Then He said He wanted this corporate image of Himself to have dominion or rule over the earth. So we see a God here who wants an expression of His communal nature that rules for Him on the earth. And He wants that community (or race) to be fruitful and multiply. As you can see, multiplication is only one third of the equation here and it is the last part. This is very significant as we will see.
This all happens in Genesis chapter one before the fall. This is God’s original intention and purpose before and beyond the fall. Of course, God knew the fall was going to happen and so He had an “emergency plan.” This is the plan of redemption in Christ. But that did not change His original intention. He still wanted something for Himself above and beyond human need. He still wanted that visible expression of His divine life and love. But here is the problem:
We have made human need the focus of everything and have forgotten that God wants something for Himself!
We got stuck in the “emergency plan” and have abandoned the original plan. God still wants His house, His body, His bride, His family, and His one new man that can express His divine attributes in a shared-life community. And this is His goal!
Don’t get me wrong. He loves us and cares about our needs. He sent His Son to redeem us, heal us, deliver us, etc. But that was all still a part of the “emergency plan.” The purpose of this “e-plan” was to get us back on track with His eternal purpose. Please see the following: Eph. 1:7-14; Eph. 3:3-12; Eph. 4:11-16; Col. 1:24-28; Col. 3:9-11.
His purpose has everything to do with His Son. Ephesians chapter one makes this very clear. He wants to sum up all things in His Son (Eph. 1:9, 10). He wants His body to express the fullness of His Son (Eph. 1:22, 23). And He wants His Son to fill all things (Eph. 4:10).
I believe when we have an over emphasis on evangelism and mission we end up with very shallow results. We may have lots of numbers, but they may be all zeros! God is looking for quality much more so than quantity. The Father is looking for the measure of Christ (Eph. 4:13). This is true fruit.
In my view, we should not be focusing on the fruit (a.k.a. numerical growth). We should be focusing on the life. If there is the life of Christ flowing in a group, then the fruit will organically be produced at the right time. There are seasons in the life of the Church and one of those seasons is the harvest time. The key is for each believer to learn how to “tap into” the life supply within them so this divine life can flow into the Body (Col. 1:27). Then, just like a tree, everything will develop in due time.
Timing is a huge part of the equation. A tree does not produce fruit right out of the gate. A seedling is not mature enough to produce fruit. In the same way, a five year old girl cannot give birth. She is not yet mature enough. It is not yet her “season”.
We see this in the early church as well. The apostles spent three years living with Jesus before they performed any significant amount of ministry or evangelism. Except for the apostles, there is no record of anyone else preaching or evangelizing in Jerusalem for at least four or five years. Some scholars believe that it may have been up to eight years before the persecution of Saul of Tarsus and the resulting dispersion.
So let’s be really conservative and say that it was five years between the day of Pentecost and the persecution. What were the believers doing all this time? I believe that they were learning Christ. That is, they were learning how to live by the life of an indwelling Lord. This was their equipping. This was their foundation. So then, when the persecution hit, they went throughout Judea preaching the word and new churches were raised up (Acts 8:4). This was possible because they had spent those years before learning Christ!
To Everything there is a Season
My co-workers and I see this same truth in the field as we work with different groups in organic church planting. Most of the folks come out of institutional churches and a new group is not ready to multiply right away. Of course, it is always encouraged to reach out to others and new people coming to Christ are always a wonderful thing. But by and large, in the beginning, that group needs a solid foundation of Christ as their everything. They need ever deepening revelation of Christ and His Church. They need practical help with learning how to live by His life. And they need time to “detoxify” from the systems and mindsets of religion.
If the life is flowing, then the group will grow when it is ready. We have seen this happen many times. But this growth will be “in season” and will be deep and strong. And the fullness of Christ will be expressed through His Body. (Eph. 1:22-23)