Thoughts to Ponder

Church growth - what's the cost?

Church growth is big business nowadays. Take for example the new fad, the 40 Days of Purpose. It seems as if every church is jumping on this program. I am not going to deal with the program, other than to show what I mean about church growth being big business.

The 40 Days of Purpose program is put on by Saddleback Church, and to be involved a church has to register. The cost for registration is $450 for churches with under 200 members. For churches with 200-500 members the price is $570. For over 500 members, the price is $690.

This fall during one of these programs, I checked the website http://www.purposedriven.com/. There was a list of the churches which were participating in the program. They listed 3,800 churches. The list identified how many members each church had, but I don't remember the actual numbers. If you multiply 3,800 by the lowest price per church you come up with $1,710,000. A large number of the churches were over 200 members, so the actual price tag would be much higher.

Again, my point is not to disparage the program, but to show that church growth is big business today. The website is currently taking registration requests for the spring program.

When I titled this article, I was not referring to the monetary cost of church growth, but the spiritual cost. I believe there is a high price to pay spiritually for church growth. To understand that cost, we must look at what the local church should be compared to what the growth movement is making it.

The local assembly of believers is just one part of the overall church, which is also known as the Body of Christ. When I say church, I mean that local assembly. What is the local assembly of believers for? Why do we meet together?

If we look at the early church as recorded in Acts, we find a good example of what local churches should be.

(Acts 2:44-47 NIV) [44] All the believers were together and had everything in common. [45] Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. [46] Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, [47] praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Notice a couple of things. First, they had everything in common; no one was in need because everyone's needs were met. They broke bread, or in other words, ate together with glad and sincere hearts. Notice also that the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Is that what is happening in our modern day churches? I am afraid it is not. Many people attend churches and silently go through life-changing struggles, from disease to loss of jobs and even loss of loved ones without anyone around them seeming to notice.

Our modern churches are often cold and uncaring. It might not actually be that people don't care, but the fact is that they are not taught how to reach out to those suffering around them. The church is no longer a community of believers, as much as it is a social gathering.

Anything can be taken to the extreme, so please understand that I am making generalities. I understand that there are many people attending churches today who do not know Jesus Christ. Of course, the church should preach salvation to such people, but if that is the focus of the church, then they have missed the point of meeting together.

Churches should not be the first line of evangelism. Church growth should not mean bringing in hundreds or thousands of unbelievers to hear the gospel. Many people will disagree with that statement, but please, consider what I say before just dismissing it.

Go back and read the passage from Acts 2. Notice that it does not say that the church invited their neighbors to their meetings; it says that God added to their numbers those who were being saved. So if evangelism was not the purpose of the meetings of the early church, what was?

One thing the early churches did, as I described earlier, was to make sure that each person's material needs were met. Secondly we know, from reading Paul's letters to the churches, that they were 'teaching' churches. We also know from Paul's travels as recorded in Acts and even from his letters to the churches, that Paul went to where the sinners were to preach the gospel, not to the local churches. Yes, he did speak often to the local churches, but it was on matters of maturity and doctrine. Let me show you what I am talking about.

(Hebrews 5:11-14 NIV) [11] We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. [12] In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! [13] Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. [14] But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

(Hebrews 6:1-3 NIV) [1] Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, [2] instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. [3] And God permitting, we will do so.

Here the author of Hebrews tells the believers that they should be more mature than they are. He tells them he does not want to address again the foundations of salvation, but to go on with more mature teaching.

Here is a portion of the letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

(1 Corinthians 3:1-2 NIV) [1] Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly-mere infants in Christ. [2] I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.

Paul is upset that these people have not progressed, but still remain infants in Christ. This church was not doing what Paul thought it should, maturing and growing in Christ. Instead they were divided on who they followed and other issues which kept them from going on to maturity.

Churches should be helping the congregation to grow in their faith and maturity, but sadly that is not what the churches are trying to do today. They are more concerned with getting and keeping their numbers high. They will grow their church at almost any cost, including the cost of spiritual growth. If your church is full of unbelievers then you can't teach mature teachings, they won't understand what you are talking about. But preach the gospel then move on to maturity.

I believe churches should reach out to the unsaved and preach salvation, but that is not their main job. Evangelism should happen as Christ commanded in the great commission, from the mouth of every believer. If the churches do not bring their congregation on to maturity then they are not equipping them to be evangelists.

Church is not to be a place of social gathering and feel good emotions. It is to be a place where the believer is equipped to do the work Christ left us all to do, and a person cannot do that work unless they are strong in their faith.

Worshipping in song and praise services is wonderful, but it does nothing to bring a person on to maturity. Being with other believers and feeling love for each other by meeting once or twice a week is nice, but again it does nothing to bring the person on to maturity in Christ. Believers need to be fed the meat of God's word.

Many pastors are not even trying to bring their congregations on to maturity. Some will even say that is not their job, that church is not where the believer is to learn and grow, but a place where believers get together to praise God and enjoy each other's company. Or they may say it is a place to reach the lost.

I have even seen people who were seeking something deeper than what they were getting at their church, who were told that they should return to the church, not so that they would mature, but for the sake of others at the church. Why, what difference does my or your attending a church make on the other people there? Unless, of course, we are truly functioning as a biblical church and carrying for each other and prodding each other on to maturity and holy living, but again sadly that is not what is happening.

How can a church reach the lost if there are not mature believers attending the services? How can a church praise God in any meaningful way if the congregation is not well versed in the Bible and what it takes to be a mature believer? I don't think they can, all they can do is fool themselves into thinking that they are getting more out of the service than they really are.

What are pastors, who claim that a believer's main biblical diet should not happen at church, thinking? Why do we need shepherds/pastors/teachers if they are not our main source of teaching? Oh, maybe these pastors mean that the main biblical teaching for a believer should be in Sunday School classes or small groups. Does that make any sense? We have an educated Spirit called Shepherd who, instead of teaching us the mature things of Christ, sends us to lay leaders for that teaching? Again I have to ask, why do we need Pastors if that is true?

One of my favorite authors was A. W. Tozer. In one of his books he made a statement that is very true. He said that no church will ever rise above the level of their pastor. It just won't happen. If you stay in a church with a lukewarm pastor you will remain lukewarm. If your pastor feeds you nothing but spiritual milk then you will remain an infant.

Maybe these pastors think that the believer's main biblical training should happen at home during their private Bible study. That might sound good, but only if you don't understand the modern Christian lifestyle. Let me go back for a moment to the 40 Days of Purpose program. I had a friend tell me that he thought it was good because now his accountability partner was reading his Bible 5 minutes each day.

In five minutes you can hardly put the milk in the bottle and warm it enough to drink, much less get any real nutritional value from it. Yet a person would think they are making great gains in their walk, but they would be just fooling themselves. A pastor who thinks he can abdicate his position as teacher and allow his congregation to do their own study is sadly mistaken, and he should go back and re-evaluate his calling.

Let me try to put this all in perspective. I believe there is coming a time of persecution for believers in the United States, as there already is around much of the world. I think we can look at some of the countries where persecution is happening and get a pretty clear picture of what it will be like for us. Let's look, for example, at China. The state requires churches to register with the government, which gives the government control of the church and what is taught in it. This has led to an underground movement of cell churches. These are churches made up of small groups of believers. They meet in secret for fear of persecution, imprisonment and even death.

Now imagine that this happened here in the US. Church would no longer be a place of evangelism where you could openly invite your neighbor to hear a stimulating sermon by your well spoken pastor. Gone would be the 1,000 plus member churches. Gone would be even the small 80 member churches. Churches would be very small, small enough to meet in basements or bedrooms. Or they would be totally dead, state sanctioned pseudo-churches.

Now my question is this: if this were to happen, and you could meet with just three or four other families, who would be the pastor? Who would give those stimulating sermons to your cell church? There would be no more worship team praise services, unless your small group did it on their own.

How would you survive? How would your faith hold up? What kind of foundation would you have to stand on? If your church has fed you nothing but milk for years, you might be in desperate shape and since the other members of your cell group were also fed milk, don't expect anyone to step up and lead the group in the deep truths of God's word.

With the persecution would come the full realization that true church is more than a social gathering. Would you be willing to compromise and attend one of the State sanctioned churches? They could still sing the emotionally charged worship songs and hear the emotionally uplifting sermons, as long as there was not real depth to them or real worship of God or training in His word.

I don't want to discount the Holy Spirit in this discussion. I believe He would be able to gift a teacher out of the dust of the church, but wouldn't it be much better if those mature believers were already equipped for that purpose, before the persecution started?

Now let me go back to evangelism for a moment. Can you explain how the churches in the countries where persecution is most prominent are the ones growing? They are growing not only in maturity but in numbers. Remember, they can't afford to openly invite their neighbors to their meetings. Evangelism takes place in the lives of those believers. Yes, even through their sufferings. In their meetings they worship God and pray for His will, and ask for strength so that they will stand strong and not deny their Lord and Savior. They support each other spiritually. They even pray for us in the United States. They pray that we will wake up and follow Christ before it is too late.

Many times a cell church will only have one Bible or only a portion of a Bible. Just being caught with it could cost them many years in a labor camp. Yet it is the most precious of all books to them. They pass it around and each person memorizes as much as he can so that he can hide it in his heart. Not out of obligation, or some abstract idea that a good Christian should memorize Scripture, but because it is life to them, it is God's word and it is their strength.

Believe me, you won't hear one of the members of these cell churches claim that a believer's training in God's word should take place somewhere other than in church!

What I am about to say will probably offend many people but I believe it is true. I believe you could totally take Christ out of most churches in the United States and no one would notice. You could still hear the good uplifting sermons on helping others, on being honest and trustworthy. You could still sing songs and clap your hands and greet each other with a handshake. You could still invite your neighbors and tell them how much they will enjoy the service. You could still tell people how important it is for them to support the mission of the church and that they are the one who will benefit if they give just 10% of what they make to the church. You could still even have a program to show them what their purpose is.

Would anyone notice that the milk had dried up? You might even find that more people would come and become members and enjoy the fellowship. Your worship team could even record a CD and market it to other churches.

Unnoticed would be the very small remnant who would quit coming because spiritually the church was dead. If they were noticed they would just be labeled as backsliders, or divisive persons that the church is better off without.

Maybe that remnant, that is not satisfied with the status quo, will be the cell leaders when the Holy Spirit needs them because of the persecution. Praise God that He always keeps a few mature believers who hunger for the meat of His word and are not satisfied with milky feel good sermons.

E-Mail Ralph

These devotionals are written by Ralph Dettwiler, and reflect his views.

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December 2003