How Important Is Church Growth?

Jesus had a following.  A conservative estimate would have 10,000 people gathered on the hillside above the Sea of Galilee, possibly doubling that number (John 6:10).  That’s a crowd.  Most pastors would feel that their ministry was successful, given similar results.  The crowds were very enthusiastic about Jesus.  “He perceived that they would come and take Him by force to make Him a king” (6:15).  So, they were all in.  What an opportunity, if that was the point.

I’m a child of the 80s, and in the 80s, Jack Hyles was the king of church growth.  When I talk to older pastors from that era, almost universally, they will tell me that they made the trek to Hammond for the Pastor’s School.  My own family migrated towards and eventually landed at a Hyles church.  And those were exciting days.  I remember a discussion my dad had maybe a year or two before our family moved to the Hyles church.  We were visiting friends in Kansas, and the topic of Jack Hyles came up.  Everyone was talking about him at that time.  He had one of the biggest churches in America – he said it was the biggest.  My dad and his friend discussed his methods, and I listened from the back seat of the car.  As I recall, they were a bit skeptical.  But eventually, we ended up there.  Who can argue against a growing church?

The ministry of First Baptist in Hammond is a case in point that, for many Christians, church growth trumps many vital things.  If a church is growing, we will give them a pass on nearly anything – heresy, impropriety, even immorality.  Chicks dig the big crowd.  Perhaps then, we could be instructed by how Jesus handled His enthusiastic followers above Tiberius.

If Christ’s goal had been to gain a following, feeding the five thousand was His chance.  The mass on that hillside was prepared to follow Him to the end of the world.  They saw Him as the second coming of Moses (John 6:14).  And they made a frantic effort to find Jesus the morning after He fed them (6:22-24). 

Jesus would have handled the mob differently if he had been looking for a personal following.  When the people asked Him for a sign that they should believe on Him (6:30), He would have given them one.  Before that, He would not have slipped away into the mountain to pray (6:15).  He would have given the people more of what they wanted – which is still the temptation for those who desire a following in this world.

But Jesus didn’t capitalize on the opportunity. 

Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled.  (John 6:26)

If that sounds like an accusation to you, good catch.  Jesus doesn’t make some wild conjecture here.  He knew what was in their hearts.  He knew what they were all about.  Nor is this an isolated incident.

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did.  But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man.  (John 2:23-25)

We might be tempted to see this as a missed opportunity.  After all, the men were desperate to find Jesus.  They “took shipping, and came to Capernaum, seeking for Jesus” (6:24).  What could be wrong with that?  And when they asked (v. 25), “Rabbi, when camest thou hither?” He passed on the chance to impress them even more.  We know (because John tells us) that Jesus “came hither” the night before, during a sudden squall, walking on the sea (6:18-21).  Think of how the crowd might have committed themselves to Jesus and His cause had they known.  Imagine what might have been done for the good of the world had Jesus cemented that loyalty to Himself. 

But He didn’t.  Jesus didn’t tell them how or when He arrived in Capernaum.  He didn’t answer their question – which, as I understand it, is bad form for a budding mega-church pastor in this day that values approachability and transparency.  Instead, Jesus delivered a mild rebuke to the crowd (v. 26 again), followed immediately by a correction.

Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed (6:27).

If that isn’t enough to show you Christ’s priority, consider that He had all the power to perform miracles at His disposal.  Without a doubt, His miracles would have knit the people’s hearts to Himself.  But in the 26th verse, Jesus emphatically declares that the people weren’t seeking Him because they saw the miracles (semeia – miraculous signs).  Instead, they sought Jesus for one simple reason – their god was still their belly.  And Jesus refused to feed the belly god. 

Photo by Matt Hardy on Pexels.com

How is that different from what we have today?  I don’t doubt God’s ability to build up a large church of committed Christians.  I am pretty sure that this is still happening.  But I am even more convinced that an unseemly number of mega-churches are filled with belly-god worshippers.  People think God exists to meet their felt needs – a view that the church growth gurus happily reinforce.  But if God is there to meet your demands and appease you with miracles and gifts, then He isn’t God at all — you are, and He is your servant.  Too often, people seek the crumbs the world offers rather than the Bread of Life.  And too many churches provide more of the crumbs and very little (if any) of the True Bread.  If you are looking for someone to erase all your mistakes, solve all your problems, and give you a lifetime supply of bread, you’ve come to the wrong place.  This isn’t seeking Jesus.  This is seeking self and seeing Jesus as the means of satisfying self. 

Jesus won’t be that for people, a fact He makes plain in John 6.  We might be tempted to think we can get the following and then make corrections.  That isn’t the example we see from Jesus.  He showed an absolute unwillingness to be followed for the wrong reason.  They sought Him, but Jesus knew they were seeking something that was not Him. 

And so, instead of encouraging them to keep following, Jesus corrected their view of Him.  They saw Him as a modern-day Moses – able to feed them in the wilderness and deliver them from Rome.  Jesus showed them differently.  He made a demand that they were totally unprepared to follow.  He demanded that they believe on Him (6:29).  He had shown them the appropriate goal for our work – the meat that endures (6:27).  But the people wondered what works God requires to have that meat.  So once again, they were missing the point (no surprise there).  The surprise is in Jesus’ answer.  He doesn’t tell them that God doesn’t require any work from them in order to have the meat that endures.  Instead, He told them that the works God requires are faith — “that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (6:29). 

They weren’t prepared for that answer.  They were ready to follow Jesus anywhere, especially if He gave them free bread for life and delivered them from Rome.  But now He is talking about Himself as if He were more than a modern-day Moses.  Jesus claims to give more than bread.  He says that He gives “the bread of an everlasting life” (6:32-33)

“… and when He seemed to raise His claims even higher still, by representing it as the grand “work of God,” that they should believe on Himself as His Sent One, they saw very clearly that He was making a demand upon them beyond anything they were prepared to accord to Him, and beyond all that man had ever before made.  Hence their question, “What dost Thou work?[1]

So then, they didn’t just balk at this: they scoffed.  They denied it in their hearts.

What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee?  What dost thou work?  (6:30)

They mean to say that Jesus hadn’t done anything even half so great as Moses, which is funny since a few verses ago (v. 14), they decided that because of the loaves, Jesus was the reincarnation of Moses.  But now, when confronted with the need to believe on Jesus, they say He hasn’t done anything spectacular yet.  Never mind the feeding of the five thousand.  “Come on, Jesus: You are no Moses.  He did so much more.  Why, he fed millions, not just thousands, and he fed them for years in the wilderness, not just one meal on a mountainside.”

So, Jesus shot down their Moses idol.  He is very emphatic here – literally, “NOT Moses gave you bread from heaven” (6:32).  “Moses didn’t feed you anything.  My father fed you then and He feeds you now, and what He feeds you now is so much better than what He fed you then.”  Why? 

Jesus doesn’t tell them that He is the bread of life yet — that comes in the next passage.  But Jesus does tell them that His Father gives them the true bread from heaven and that the bread of God is He which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world (6:32-33).

God feeds His people with Jesus, and He does this to sustain eternal life in them.  Through Jesus, God gives life to the world.  And here we see just how superior the bread of the New Testament is to the manna of the Old.  Chrysostom pointed out that the manna gave nourishment (τροφη [trophē]), but not life (ζωη [zōē]).[2]  God is gracious.  He gives bread to the world, and that bread is the life of the world.

What does Jesus teach us about the priority of church growth?  I’m all for having a growing church.  I doubt many pastors oppose it.  But Jesus refused to have “growth” at any price.  He absolutely refused to gain a following by giving the world what it wanted.  Jesus insists that we seek Him, but we must seek Him, not something else that we want Him to be. 

If Jesus sought a following, He could not have changed the world – that would make Him like the world.  Notice what Jesus said in the 33rd verse — “For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.”  He could not give life to the world if He were of the world or like the world.  Or perhaps we should say that if Jesus gave the world what it wanted, He would have been giving the world more of what it already had.  If Jesus were of the world, if He acted like the world and sought to appease the world, then He would have given more death – not life.  But Jesus gives what the world needs, not more of what the world has. 

Jesus refused to gain a following this way, and so should we.  The gospel makes demands. 

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.  For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.  (Matthew 16:24-25)

And, as Jesus told the rich young man,

Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.  (Mark 10:21)

A church that is not faithfully presenting the cost of discipleship, that is not making demands – Scriptural demands – on its people, that they deny themselves and forsake all and follow Jesus – is not gaining a following for Christ.  It is, in fact, making disciples of itself. 

Even today, many people want Jesus for the benefits they might receive — A lifetime supply of answered prayers and fulfilled desires.  But Jesus is not your personal Make-a-Wish Foundation.  He is your Savior and Lord.  He will not be wished on.  He will be believed on.  He is not a means to an end.  He is the end. 

So long as a person is wrapped up in having things they want and assume Jesus will get them if they are true to Him, they will be empty.  Don’t look for the things He gives.  Look for Him.  Seek Him, not the things you think you can have by having Him. 

In the providence of God, some churches that set forth to proclaim the gospel call to take up his cross and follow Christ will grow.  And I rejoice when that happens.  But that kind of thing is a far cry from chasing around the latest fad in church growth and adapting it to your situation so you can get a following.  Of course, churches that do this will probably gain a crowd.  But that isn’t the same thing as building a New Testament church.

The church growth movement is not a new thing.  It has been around for decades.  It relies on the trendy, which is why its base of operations changes from generation to generation.  In the 80s, it was Hyles.  Then Willow Creek, Saddleback, and a string of others.  The trend is in flux, which is why it is trendy.  But trendy is not a mark of faithfulness, and a church that follows the trends sells its soul for the meat which perisheth.


[1] Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 138). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

[2] Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Jn 6:33). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.

2 thoughts on “How Important Is Church Growth?

  1. E. T. Chapman

    Eell said. I particulary liked these statements:
    1) “He showed an absolute unwillingness to be followed for the wrong reason.”
    2) “Look for Him. Seek Him, not the things you think you can have by having Him.”
    3) “A church that is not faithfully presenting the cost of discipleship, that is not making demands – Scriptural demands – on its people, that they deny themselves and forsake all and follow Jesus – is not gaining a following for Christ. It is, in fact, making disciples of itself. ”
    Thank you.

    Like

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