Toward A Healthier Relationship With Numerical Growth, Part 2

Mark Tidsworth, Pinnacle President

As noted last week, we are in a love/hate relationships with numerical growth as churches. We love numbers when ours are increasing, while we discount numbers when ours are declining. Just listen to the conversations. When numerically growing, we insert this fact into descriptions of our churches. When numerically declining, we omit this fact from our church descriptions. Clearly we value numerical growth, yet the excessive worship of numerical growth by so many is spiritually repulsive. So, many of us have evolved to a state of ambivalence; and not the healthy kind. Are we ready for a better relationship with numerical growth yet? What’s a healthy relationship with numerical growth look like in our current context?

Returning To Where It All Began….

I’m reading through the Book of Acts again, noticing the frequency with which numerical growth is noted. Sure I was aware of those early statements about numerical growth in chapters 2-4, but this time through I’m noticing the ongoing theme of numerical growth in later chapters. Author Luke says the church “increased in numbers,” in chapter nine, that “great numbers became believers and turned to the Lord,” in chapter 11, and even included this statement in chapter 12, “But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.” So there it is. One cannot read through this Acts Book without recognizing the early church noticed the numbers. Not once, nor twice, but many times numerical growth is noted in this record of our faith tradition’s early days. Certainly numerical growth meant something to the early church, else these numerical growth notations would not be included in the narrative.

So how do we interpret the presence of these numerical growth statements in Acts?

It appears as if numerical growth is a follower, not a leader. Never do we read anything about the apostles setting out to pack a pew in Sunday worship, nor increase attendance at the house church by 20%, nor achieving their growth goals for the year. They would likely respond with very puzzled looks on their faces were they confronted with this kind of thinking about numerical growth. No, in no way was numerical growth their goal or mission. Numerical growth was simply one of the visible outcomes of an invisible reality. When people were exposed to the good news of Jesus Christ, they were transformed, readily engaging with the embodiment of Jesus in their world (church). Numerical growth followed along after transformational encounters with the Risen Christ.

Technical language for this perspective is lag measures. Numerical growth happened as a result of something greater and better; spiritual transformation. Were the original apostles and disciples informed that a church’s priority is to grow by a certain number over the course of a year, they would be very perplexed. “Why would you want to pursue numerical growth? God brings the increase. Our part in the kingdom is to live in the Way of Jesus, sharing the good news in how we live and what we say. Numerical growth follows along after more important activities. Making numerical growth your goal will distract you from the real goal, living in the Way of Jesus.”

For the early church, Numerical growth served a sign, pointing to something beyond itself. The works of power and healing done by early church leaders were not the priority, focus, or pursuit of the early church. Instead they were simply gifts from God which served as sign-posts, pointing people toward God. It appears that numerical growth served in the same way; signs of spiritual movement and activity.

Now, before we extrapolate too far, thinking numerical growth always followed their efforts, let’s remember the rest of the story. There are numerous experiences recorded in Acts wherein people groups rejected the good news, asking or forcing the apostles and disciples to leave their communities. Sometimes the apostles fled for their lives while other times they left at their leisure, brushing the dust from their feet, indicating they were not responsible for the choices of these rejecting communities. So numerical growth does not always follow the church’s efforts. Spiritual transformation does not always happen and cannot be guaranteed if we follow a particular formula or approach.

So, based on this discussion of statements about the early church in Acts, we might conclude:

·         Numerical growth served as a frequent indicator that spiritual transformation was in progress

·         Numerical growth was a sign, pointing to something bigger and better than itself

·         Numerical growth was not their priority, since they were pursuing higher priorities (kingdom of God)

·         Numerical growth was not under their direct control

·         Numerical growth was a common part of their church experiences

Next week’s article will describe two current active perspectives regarding numerical growth which are alive and well in American churches. We are moving toward a healthier perspective on numerical growth in churches, though we are not their yet. I look forward to continuing the conversation with you and appreciate the ongoing feedback you are sending through emails and notes. May we engage this life-giving Christ-centered story ever more vigorously even as we speak.

Helen Renew