Make no mistake. God has a plan for growing the church, and it isn’t wrong on our part to work toward growing the church. Just because churches have developed unbiblical programs intended to attract the masses, whether they are believers or not, doesn’t mean we should throw out the baby with the bathwater. We should be interested in the church’s growth, but our plans should never be contrary to the Lord’s design. After all, Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Mt 16:18).
Church growth has two parts. Where churches go wrong is emphasizing one aspect of church growth while neglecting the other. First, church growth requires evangelism—an increase in numbers. The Bible instructs us to make and baptize disciples. Second, church growth requires teaching and edification—an increase in spiritual maturity.
Again, we run into problems when we neglect one or the other. Churches that become seeker-friendly tend to frame everything they do around gaining new members. Typically, their approach results in a shallow form of Christianity where they reduce Sunday to Christian-themed entertainment and sermons to little more than milk for the babes. Soon enough, believers in those places find themselves starving to death, but they’re often too immature to even realize what’s wrong.
On the other hand, some churches altogether ignore our God-given obligation to seek and lead the lost. We step into our protective bubble where we feel safe and comfortable, never bothering even to poke our heads outside. Sure, we often talk about evangelism, but as we all know, talk is cheap.
While we’re striving together for spiritual growth in the church, we need to remember that even the healthiest people in the world will eventually die. Seven times in the book of Genesis alone, God says, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Ge 1:28). I believe the same principle applies to the church.
We need to pursue spiritual health, but how healthy can a church be if we’re not multiplying? Time and time again, the book of Acts reports, “The word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied” (Ac 6:7). It’s cause and effect. Spiritual growth within the church should lead to an increase in numbers.
For those who say, “We shouldn’t worry about numbers,” I say, stop making excuses and do what God has called us to do. If God shows concern for the lost, which he does—see Luke 15—we should be concerned about the lost.
For those who are consumed with merely bringing bodies into the church, I say, feed the sheep. Stop undermining the faith by watering it down or, worse yet, secularizing it. A membership count is meaningless when the church is filled with uncommitted, halfhearted, lukewarm moralists. They enjoy the teachings of Jesus and maybe even the cultural identity of “Christian” but aren’t seeking Christ as their Savior or serving him as their Lord.
If that sounds harsh, then I encourage you to read Luke 9 or John 6. How often did Jesus confront the masses who followed him out of curiosity or some vain hope they’d get to see a miracle? How did he react to them?
In Luke 9, he told the crowd, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). One after the other said, “Sure, I’ll follow you, but—” They each had an excuse to explain why they couldn’t fully commit themselves to Christ, not yet anyhow. So Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62).
In John 6, the people wanted to make Jesus their king not because they believed he is the King of Kings, but because he filled their stomachs with food. Jesus used the opportunity to teach the people about himself. He described himself as the bread that came down from heaven (Jn 6:41). Soon enough, the disciples grew concerned. They realized Jesus was losing his audience. They were thinking, Lord, you’re not very seeker-friendly right now.
Jesus knew what they were thinking and said, “Do you take offense at this? The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe” (Jn 6:61, 63-64). Why didn’t they believe? Jesus said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (Jn 6:65). The fact is, Jesus was seeker-friendly but only to those who were genuinely seeking salvation in him. He had no interest in appealing to as many people as possible to pad his stats.
Paul told Timothy to rightly handle the word of truth (2Ti 2:15). I believe biblical understanding usually requires balance. If we get too hung up on one aspect of the faith or another, we get out of balance, and the consequences can be damaging. We are supposed to seek the lost, but never to neglect our spiritual growth in the church. We are supposed to strive for spiritual growth, but never to the neglect of our evangelistic efforts.