Pastor Ryan and Pastor Mike recently had the opportunity to speak at the Gospel Coalition MidAtlantic conference. Below is a brief summary of their session.
Church growth will always be a hot topic, particularly in the suburbs. Whether it’s something we verbalize [“How many people go to your church?” “What can we do to really bring people out?”] or think to ourselves [“Where IS everybody?”] While it’s definitely not all about numbers, how do we actually get to “healthy” church growth?
Ministering in the suburbs has it’s own unique set of challenges that overlay this. In the suburbs, the idols of comfort, isolation and consumerism are alive and well. How does this impact church health? Jared Wilson writes, “I think the spirit at work in the suburbs tends to smother the Christian spirit. The message of the suburbs, in a nutshell, is self-empowerment. Self-enhancement. Self-fulfillment. Self is at the center, and all things serve the self. The primary values of suburbia are convenience, abundance, and comfort.”
What does healthy church growth look like? Why focus on the suburbs? The reality is that beneath the thin veil of “self” in the suburbs, many are hurting and everyone needs Jesus. On top of that, the gospel presence is lacking as many smaller churches struggle with how to get people in the door, as opposed to how to preach the word of God and shepherd his people.
Artificial church growth is where the church seems to grow in numbers, but not in healthy biblical church growth. Sometimes this is seen with a “seeker” or video preaching model. On the positive side this does get lots of people in the door, exposed the the gospel and introduced to biblical community – but that may be where it ends. The risk is that churches could be focused more on pragmatism and ministry philosophy then actual ministry. If sound biblical doctrine is not being taught and lived, false conversions can results. The old adage is in play here – “What you win them with, you win them to.” We are not called to win people to clever outreach programs.
Authentic church growth is seen best in Acts 2:42 – “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Tim Keller summarizes it is the “ministry of learning, fellowship, worship, witness.” This is perhaps best accomplished through live expositional preaching, local shepherding, an emphasis on biblical conversions, and faithful church membership.
This is then realized in actual gospel growth. This is slow and steady, and non-programatic. It takes faithful pastors and elders to invest over the long haul to shepherd the body well. It takes intentional growth in community and pressing on toward the goal together. It takes relationships that are close, and sometimes messy, as we all work out our salvation with fear and trembling as God works in us.
Most of all, it takes God, through His Holy Spirit, to establish and grow his church in a particular area. Ultimately, it is His work and not ours and fortunately he has promised that he will build his church on the proclamation of the gospel and even the gates of Hell cannot stand against it – even in the suburbs! [Matthew 16:13-18]
Let’s praise God that he has included us in such glorious work!