by Ben Wilson assistant professor of Bible
Church growth is a popular topic within American church circles. You don’t have to search very hard to find blogs, books, consultants and conferences that exist to help churches grow.
Yet the church isn’t growing: our best estimate is that the church in America is about 10 percent smaller today than it was 10 years ago. Despite abundant resources, people are leaving the church faster than they are coming in. We must be missing something.
I’ve been thinking about this issue lately while reading about the early church in Acts. In a single generation, a community of Jesus’ personal acquaintances in Palestine became a multi-lingual, multi-national network of churches spread throughout the Mediterranean. They faced the same challenges we face today without many of our advantages, yet they grew. What did they do that was so effective?
The church’s growth is initiated and sustained by God, and this is communicated quite clearly in Acts. Nonetheless, the believers in Acts were not sitting in a holy huddle waiting for the church to expand. In fact, aggressive evangelistic and missionary endeavors are among the more distinctive features of the early Christian movement. The earliest disciples prioritized church growth and multiplication through outreach.
By my count there are 27 separate locations in Acts in which the narrator documents the addition of new believers to the early Christian movement. In looking at these passages, I believe that there are four mutually reinforcing features of the early Christian communities that are associated with church growth in Acts.
First, a faithful proclamation of the gospel is absolutely vital for church growth. Many references to church growth in Acts occur directly after evangelistic messages that (1) explain the work of God in Jesus Christ, (2) call for a response of repentance and/or faith from audiences and (3) present the offer of divine forgiveness. Highly contextualized, biblically faithful preaching is at the heart of church growth in Acts.
That might seem like a simple point, but you might be surprised by how little the message of figures like Peter and Paul resembles our evangelistic presentations today. And I’m not talking about shady late-night televangelist messages. Read the sermons of Acts and honestly ask yourself how often you hear that gospel being proclaimed today. Ask yourself what’s in their message that isn’t in ours, and what’s in our message that isn’t in theirs.
Second, church growth in Acts is linked with the unique quality of relationships in the Christian community. For instance, in Acts 2:44-47, we find a beautiful portrayal of the church in Jerusalem. They have a strong impulse to live life together, meeting regularly in large corporate gatherings and intimate home fellowships. And the passage ends with the observation that the Lord was daily adding new believers to the community (see also Acts 6:1-7; 16:4-5). This corresponds to what Jesus said — that we will be known
as followers of Jesus by our love for one another (John 13:35).
Third, in Acts we see growth come from what I call opportunistic outreach. By this I mean three things: (1) throughout Acts, when God works in miraculous ways, believers make sure that other people find out about it; (2) individuals like Paul do not wait for non-believers to approach them, but instead seek out public forums (synagogues, the marketplace, lecture halls) for dialog; and (3) the church corporately does things that make people take notice and ask questions. For instance, in Acts 19:18-20 the believers in Ephesus hold a book-burning in the city square to renounce their reliance on pagan superstitions. That’s opportunistic outreach — finding ways to make our faith visible.
Finally, church growth in Acts arises from a willingness to suffer for this faith. In Acts 5, the apostles in Jerusalem are arrested, threatened and beaten. They accept this suffering and continue to teach and preach about Jesus, and Acts tells us that the disciples were increasing in number (6:1). Likewise, Paul and Silas in Philippi are beaten and imprisoned for their ministry, and their incarceration is used by the Lord to bring the jailer and his whole household to faith (16:19-34). The willingness to suffer for our faith stands as a visual embodiment of the message of the cross we proclaim, and so is a means by which God brings church growth.
The dynamic growth of the church in Acts arises largely from (1) a gospel that’s actually good news, (2) relationships that are distinctive, (3) outreach that’s opportunistic, and (4) a willingness to suffer for a faith that can be seen. Take the first letter of each feature of church growth in Acts, and you have the acronym G.R.O.W. As we disperse soon for the summer, I hope you will keep this acronym in mind as you pray for and participate in the church where the Lord has you.