|Volume 18 Number 2 February 2016||
Louis Rushmore, Editor
Immediately and naturally by mentioning congregational growth, one first thinks about physical growth – an increase in the number of persons attending worship assemblies. Yet, there are two types of congregational growth in which Christians ought to be interested – numerical or physical and spiritual. Frankly, though, spiritual growth ought to be prioritized over numerical growth.
There is the ever present danger if a congregation’s goal first and foremost is numerical growth that compromises in Christian doctrine will occur in the all-out effort to achieve the objective of numbers. However, spiritual growth is a more worthy first goal than merely numerical growth. Furthermore, having spiritual growth as a congregational goal is less susceptible to doctrinal concessions than striving primarily for numerical growth. Quantity without quality in anything and especially in God’s kingdom is counterproductive.
A congregation must grow from the inside out to achieve and sustain true growth with which God is pleased. The local church grows spiritually as each Christian grows spiritually. Spiritual growth, followed by numerical growth, takes time; be patient, but be active in edification and evangelism. This edification (spiritual growth) and evangelism (leading to physical growth) needs to be a matter of a personal as well as a congregational ongoing effort.
Successful evangelism begins with Christian homes successfully implanting Christianity especially in the children of the home. A local congregation will be no stronger than the families who comprise it. Consequently, weak, dysfunctional families will result in weak, dysfunctional and ineffective local churches – and by extension, the church throughout a nation and across the globe. Contrariwise, strong Christian families will contribute to strong local congregations and a strong brotherhood. Therefore, the church must thoroughly teach about Christian salvation, Christian worship, the Christian home, Christian living and Christian doctrine. Particularly because the disease of sin is the world’s greatest pandemic, parents must thoroughly indoctrinate (inoculate) their children with pure, biblical Christianity.
Congregations must be mission minded in order for evangelism to contribute to greater numbers of converts (Mark 16:15-16; Acts 13:1-3). The reason for the existence of the Lord’s church is the salvation of souls! We Christians must be extroverted with the Gospel rather than introverted and more interested in creature comforts. Each child of God needs to sense the urgency of winning souls with the Gospel. Christianity must become a priority to every Christian for a congregation to grow numerically.
The mindset with which we embrace the Gospel and subsequently teach it to others is important to successful evangelism. We must be absolutely convinced and cannot be dissuaded from the firm conviction that spiritual matters are more important than any and all material matters. The way we live our lives and the division of time in our lives between material things and spiritual things betrays where our true loyalty lies – earthly or heavenly.
The majority of the members need to be involved in studying God’s Word and in doing something for the cause of Christ. Observations from churches that evidence both spiritual and numerical growth show that a congregation will grow internally and externally when over half of its membership persistently practices and preaches primitive Christianity. Otherwise, congregational attrition attributable to demographic mobility to chase after higher education and gainful employment, as well as failure to convert thoroughly the children of church members, will make it difficult to even maintain current congregational attendance figures. In other words, instead of increasing numerically, without the majority of congregational members participating in trying to reach lost souls, predictably, a congregation will shrink – and ultimately, it may shrivel up and close its doors. Our congregations need to be evangelistically zealous (Acts 5:42; 8:4) as was the early church about which we read upon the pages of inspiration.
Importantly, a local church will not be able to grow numerically as long as it is not first at peace with itself. A congregation can grow neither spiritually nor physically unless there exists internal unity and love among its members (Acts 2:44; 4:32; 1 Corinthians 1:10; James 4:13-18). Memberships that persist in internal strife do not appear to the community to be demonstrating the ideal that Jesus Christ said was a characteristic by which the Lord’s people could be identified (John 12:35).
Genuine and good efforts put forth toward numerical growth revolve around spiritual growth. The biblical formula for spiritual growth involves both planting the seed of the kingdom and watering the seed of the kingdom (1 Corinthians 3:6). Similar to a missing factor in a mathematical equation, overlooking part of the divine formula for church growth will also prove to be unsatisfactory.
Characteristically, foreign brethren complain that missionaries only want two things from the nationals – for them to be baptized and for them to install an eldership! Does it never occur to well-meaning missionaries that there is a lot of middle ground between baptism and a fully organized congregation with elders in place? Like some impatient farmer, do we expect to plant the seed of the kingdom and instantaneously reap a spiritual harvest? The foreign beneficiaries of the Gospel deserve to be edified by their benefactors with Christian doctrine and otherwise with the skills whereby they can more easily mature and shoulder for themselves the responsibility of evangelizing their nations.
Congregational growth is more likely to occur when every member does whatever it is that he or she can do for the Lord. The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 compared the Lord’s church to a physical body, with every body part doing his or her role to result in a fully functional, coordinated body of Christ. Irrespective of which body part one might be, every body part is essential to the wellbeing of the whole body.
Taking the biblical illustration a little further, note that if one’s physical body suffers a stroke that a person might have to drag one leg, lose the use of an arm and experience slurred speech. Functionality is severely impaired. Coordination is affected. Likewise, when members of a local congregation fail to do their parts in the body of Christ, that spiritual body is severely impaired and uncoordinated – spiritually dragging one leg, having lost the use of an arm and experiencing slurred speech. It is imperative that each child of God actively participate in the local church.
Ephesians 4:16 remarkably emphasizes the personal responsibility of each Christian to do his or her share in the church in order for church growth to occur. It is not merely the responsibility of preachers or elders to work toward church growth, but every Christian shares that accountability to our Lord Jesus Christ, consistent with his or her abilities and opportunities. Note, though, that abilities can also be improved, and we can also make our own opportunities – in both cases increasing one’s responsibility. “From whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16 NKJV).
Each Christian needs to possess for himself or herself the goal of our Savior, which was ‘to seek and save the lost’ (Luke 19:10). Remember, the reason for the existence of the Lord’s church is the salvation of souls (Acts 2:16-21; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:47). Furthermore, someone acquainted each child of God with the Gospel, and so we each need to do likewise.
Preachers and teachers grow spiritually and mature in the faith through preparation and presentation of biblical lessons. No one learns more than the earnest and sincere teacher or preacher who prepares to teach and to preach. Church members as well as preachers need to soak up Bible knowledge similarly as a sponge soaks up water. Bible knowledge and subsequent spiritual growth will not happen accidentally, but it requires the routine diligence of studying God’s Word (2 Timothy 2:15).
If we truly put first things first, spiritually, one will develop the desire to grow spiritually (Matthew 6:33-34). As long as we allow our amusements and earthly distractions to captivate us as well as to consume most of our time and money, we will not master seeking “the kingdom of God and His righteousness” first in our lives. In practice, even Christians – just like the ungodly world – typically put verse 34 ahead of verse 33! What’s more important in our list of priorities: school homework or Bible study? Recreation and sports or assembling with the Lord’s church for worship and Bible study? Our vocations or Christian worship, Christian living, Christian service and Christian doctrine? Family or the church family (Matthew 10:37; Romans 12:10)?
Especially Christians must see what really matters in life and eternity through the lens of the Bible – God’s message to humanity. Most of what concerns us today will not matter in a hundred years from now, but one’s spiritual condition matters now, will matter a hundred years from now and will matter eternally! At either the end of time or at least by the end of our lives, Final Judgment will be all that really matters (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:12-15). Spiritual growth, personally and congregationally, ought to be the first order of business and the highlight of our earthly pursuits. “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness?” (2 Peter 3:10-11).
Church programs can guide members of the church to participate together in an organized way to practice edification and evangelism. Essentially on one hand, church programs motivate Christians to do what they are supposed to be doing already. In addition, working with fellow Christians encourages all to work consistently for our Lord (Philippians 4:3; Colossians 4:11; Philemon 1, 24; 3 John 8). We gain strength from one another, and we cannot as easily excuse ourselves from Christian service, for instance, if we have agreed to meet up with one or more Christians to work for the Lord together.
Bible programs may contribute to spiritual growth, out of which numerical growth can follow. These organized efforts can be widely varied with the same overall objective – spiritual and numerical growth within a congregation of the Lord’s church. Bible classes, Gospel meetings, etc. in addition to worshipping each Lord’s Day are church programs for edification of Christians. Church programs may come in a variety of forms as long as they are not against what Scripture allows and they have the likelihood of accomplishing something that Scripture instructs Christians and the church to do (e.g., Bible correspondence programs, VBS, jail ministries, hospital visitation, benevolence toward the poor, the homeless, the aged, etc.).
Mentoring where more mature Christians are paired with new Christians is a church program intended to help the babe in Christ mature, and it significantly improves retention of new converts. The mature child of God in the Christian faith is the convert’s instant friend and someone to whom he or she can go with routine questions. The mentor expedites the convert’s sense of belonging and the ease with which he or she acclimates himself or herself into the local body of Christ.
A preacher will be the most successful when he educates congregational members as though he is trying to work himself out of a job. Yet, there will always be enough souls who need to be acquainted with the saving power of the Gospel or who need to be gently led to higher plains of maturity and understanding of God’s Word. In this sense, God’s preacher will always have a job to do; there will always be something for the preacher (i.e., evangelist, minister) to do. He can and ought to be an instrument or a tool in the hands of God by which individual and congregational spiritual growth occurs, and he ought to be a leader in evangelistic outreach by which numbers of people may reached with the Gospel.
He can be instrumental in preparing young men and older Christian men to take upon themselves responsibilities for Christian service in the name of the church, participation in teaching Bible classes, being a part of the public aspect of Christian worship, etc. Women also can be groomed for Christian service, teaching classes, evangelizing other women and whatever else needs to be done that is consistent with their God-given role. Over the years, preachers can lead along those who one day may serve as elders, deacons, teachers and preachers – as well as those who may be the wives of the same someday. This kind of spiritual growth is sorely needed throughout the brotherhood and is a precursor to evangelistic success, too.
Congregations in which a preacher remains for 20 years or more are typically the churches that have grown stronger spiritually and larger numerically. Usually it takes about two years for a preacher and a congregation to cultivate a satisfactory working relationship, and in the same timeframe a preacher begins to develop a rapport with the community outside of the local congregation. However, if preachers move every two years or so, there exists no continuity in a congregational relationship and a rapport with the community. Each new preacher must begin anew, and if he leaves prematurely as well, then, the church is always beginning over! Every subsequent minister of the Gospel is unaware of what has been successfully imparted before him from God’s Word to the congregation. For the sake of internal spiritual growth and of an external impact with the Gospel in the community, preachers (i.e., ministers of the Gospel, evangelists) would do well to remain with a congregation indefinitely. Generally, congregations will fare better if they retain a preacher longer than what historically until recently has been the norm.
As a congregation matures, the preacher needs to diminish the extent of what he does in the local congregation because he has taught other church members to assume some of those responsibilities. There is always the temptation to do whatever needs to be done oneself, because no one besides the preacher may know as well as him how something has to be done. It is difficult to watch church members struggle to accomplish something that the preacher could do more easily, more quickly and perhaps better than another church member. However, allowing and encouraging others to participate and grow into Christian service speaks to the maturity of the preacher as well as to the budding maturity of church members.
Every Christian, including the preacher, has the responsibility to practice pure Christianity and to persuade lost souls to become Christians. Though we cannot make anyone obey the Gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:8; 1 Peter 4:17), it is each Christian’s job to “persuade” (2 Corinthians 5:11) non-Christians with the Gospel – lived as an example and specifically taken to the lost. The likelihood of some people becoming Christians increases to the extent that more people are approached with the Gospel of Christ. If each child of God in a local congregation managed to lead just one soul to Christ annually, that local church would double in size in one year! The pool of prospects for conversion include one’s extended family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, acquaintances, fellow students, club members, social media “friends,” etc.
Successful evangelism has less to do with the number of people converted than it does with the number of people to whom Christians introduce the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For instance, the salesperson knows that in order to be successful that one must approach a massive number of people who are not interested in one’s product and who will refuse it before finding the few customers who are willing to buy it. Likewise, Christians have the best product on earth, which every soul needs – the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the children of God need to realize that they must present the Gospel to a massive number of people who will reject the Gospel in order to find the few honest hearts who will obey it (Matthew 7:13-14).
We cannot make anyone do anything, and if we could, making someone be baptized would not make them a Christian. Success as God views it is not entirely relative to numbers. God was pleased with Noah, though for preaching about a 120 years (2 Peter 2:5; Genesis 6:3), he only converted eight souls (i.e., himself, his wife, his three sons and their wives). It is not the number of people we convince to get into the water that makes evangelism successful in the eyes of God, but it is the number of people to whom we have told the Gospel that makes for successful evangelism. If no one ever obeys the Gospel though we tirelessly preach, teach and demonstrate the Gospel in our lives, God will be pleased with us, and we will be successful as far as God is concerned. However, when we widely preach, teach and live the Gospel, some will obey the Gospel of Christ (Isaiah 55:11). The reason more people do not obey the Gospel is that we have not told more people about the Gospel.
Noah by human standards was an utter failure, saving only eight souls, and yet the whole future existence of humanity was dependent on those four couples. Preachers for little congregations are in good company with the likes of Noah. Remember also that Jonah may have had the greatest success as far as number of converts (i.e., over 100,000), but God was not pleased with him (Jonah 3:10; 4:10-11). Numbers are no guarantee that either a preacher or a congregation is pleasing in the eyes of God.
Finally, success is built upon having a goal or a plan and working the plan (i.e., no plan for success, no success). God’s plan or goal has always been for the church to evangelize the world (Ephesians 3:10). Each congregation needs to evaluate its opportunities, make a plan of action for evangelizing its community and implement that plan. Collectively when many congregations evangelize their own communities, nations and the world will be evangelized.
Vision and goals are of two varieties: short-term and long-term; short-term goals are steps to the long-term goal. Goals and plans must be in harmony with God’s will and the subject of our prayers (James 4:13-15). Congregational goals need to involve every member. Congregational goals may include attendance records, contribution records, the amount of literature distributed, the number of baptisms, the number of benevolence acts, etc. – any biblically compatible way to quantify goals and encourage participation. Record keeping, though, must not become the goal in place of the real goal; record keeping is merely a gauge of progress toward the ultimate goal.
When considering goals, answers must be determined for “Where are we?”; “Where do we want to go?” and “How do we get there?” In other words, identify the purpose, develop a strategy for results, outline shared goals and participation, and communicate. To achieve goals, a congregation and the members that comprise it must persevere.
Three Tears from the Savior’s Eyes
Rodney Nulph, Associate Editor
Far too many have grown up with the false idea that “real men don’t cry.” The attitude of some is that shedding tears shows weakness and cowardice. However, nothing could be further from the truth! Tears often show compassion, caring, passion and reality. Jesus was certainly a “real man”! He was not weak in any sense of the word (John 2:13ff), and yet on at least three separate occasions His merciful eyes were filled with tears.
On one occasion, Jesus cried over a city. “And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes” (Luke 19:41-42). What broke His heart on this occasion? It certainly involved the fact that although opportunity abounded in the city of Jerusalem regarding salvation, the city wasted its chance. Now the only thing that was left was judgment. Wasted opportunities surely continue to break our Savior’s heart. I wonder how many tears Jesus has shed and continues to shed over cities today.
On another occasion, Jesus cried over a comrade. “When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled, And said, Where have ye laid him? They said unto him, Lord, come and see. Jesus wept” (John 11:33-35). I have heard many discussions on why Jesus wept on this occasion. While I may not understand all of the reasons, I can logically ascertain at least one reason. Jesus felt emotional pain when He saw His friends weeping, and He was overwhelmed at the sight of the lifeless corpse of Lazarus. Does Jesus care when my heart aches? Oh yes, He cares; I know my Savior cares! His compassion makes life’s valleys so much easier to handle.
On a third occasion, Jesus cried over His crucifixion. Although we do not read in the Gospel accounts of these tears, the inspired penman of Hebrews wrote, “Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared” (Hebrews 5:7). When a person is overwhelmed with stress and anxiety, often tears and weeping are a natural outlet. So many times these tears are uncontrollable because of the high stress of the situation. What was Jesus feeling the night before His death? The above text certainly shows a pain-filled Savior, inundated with emotional strain and mental stress. We will never know fully what He suffered, but suffice it to say, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). This He faced because He loved me so!
There were days, when just like you and me, Jesus wept. Those compassionate tears that filled His eyes show more than anything His humanity and His love. Surely the greatest blessing one can have is to know Jesus. Hallelujah, what a Savior!