At the end of his gospel, John remarks: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
Much is written about Christianity and church growth. I’ve read a lot of those books. Many of them present hard data to create a sense of urgency around the topic. And the numbers are discouraging: beginning in the 1960s, the number of those affiliated with churches in North America has been in a constant decline that has accelerated in the past decade.
This is true within our denomination as well. Once someone left a Christian Reformed Church notepad on my desk that proudly displayed the slogan “400,000 by 2000.” Some will remember that this was a rallying cry in our denomination in the 1990s, when our membership numbers were plateauing. Unfortunately, instead of achieving this vision, today the CRC has only around 200,000 members.
Good books on church growth continue to be written by smart, successful pastors and church planters. Meanwhile, many of us who love the church feel increasingly anxious and confused.
I wish I had a solution to our church growth enigma (living off book royalties sounds like a pretty sweet deal!). Still, without claiming extraordinary charisma or spiritual insight, I can share two non-negotiable characteristics of a healthy, growing church. They are not rocket science, and they come directly from the most amazing story of church growth ever recorded: the Acts of the Apostles.
First, as we read Acts, Luke reminds us that a growing church is filled with people thirsty for a deep relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. Great movements of evangelism and explosive growth in Acts occur after times of sustained prayer and intercession, when the Holy Spirit empowers the disciples.
This truth is so simple and yet counterintuitive. It’s simple because we recognize that people come to faith because they encounter Jesus, who offers them hope in the midst of hurt and despair. We know that Jesus, through his Spirit, is present in a community that longs for him.
This truth is counterintuitive because we often assume it is our activity that brings people to God—our events, our programs, our facilities. People might be attracted to good programming, but they will want to stay in a Spirit-filled community where people are meeting Jesus and being fed by his Word.
Second, in the book of Acts we see a church animated by God’s boundless love for lost people. The disciples gathered together for fellowship, prayer, and worship, but they were also constantly oriented outward: preaching the gospel, healing the sick, and sharing their belongings with the needy.
This too is both simple and counterintuitive. It’s simple because any movement will grow only insofar as it seeks to share its message with those outside it. However, it is counterintuitive because we are most comfortable among people like ourselves. Loving lost and hurting people who are different can be unpredictable and disruptive. Yet it is for such as these that our Savior died.
The growth of our churches is something I pray for and long for continually. God promises to grow his church, and he will do it in his way and time. There is no foolproof recipe that will provide an answer to our struggles. However, we know that growing churches passionately seek the presence of God through his Holy Spirit and they passionately seek to share Christ with lost and hurting people. May that be true of us.