God wants his church to grow

Unlike most ministers, I was ordained as a missionary. At the end of my theological studies, instead of going into a church, I joined the Baptist Missionary Society. Before sailing for the Congo, I was ordained to fulfil the great commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them and teaching them”. True at that stage the emphasis was on ‘teaching’, but that was still in the context of ‘making disciples of all nations’. At our valediction service in London’s Westminster Chapel, I remember reading to a large congregation the words of the Apostle Paul: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself… We come therefore as Christ’s ambassadors. It is as if God were appealing to you through us: in Christ’s name, we implore you, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5.19,20).

When I left the BMS and accepted the call to be the pastor of Altrincham Baptist Church, I was very conscious that I had not given up my missionary calling. I was to be not just a pastor, but a pastor-evangelist, who was concerned for the lost. It was from this basic concern that my interest in church growth developed, and as a result, together with Alan Wilkinson, I wrote my first book: Turning the Tide: An assessment of Baptist Church Growth in England (Bible Society, 1981).

In the intervening years the so-called ‘church growth movement’ has come and gone. However recently there has been what Justin Welby has called the ‘second phase’ of the current church growth movement: “Twenty to thirty years ago when the notion was coined afresh in the modern ear, it focused very much on matters of technique. To this day we are too easily tempted to follow some formulae that our church will grow – rather than flying in the passion of love for Christ with every sinew of our being, and noting how the slipstream draws others into relationship with him and with all who belong to him”.

One of the proponents of this ‘second phase’ is David Goodhew, the Director of Ministerial Practice at Cranmer Hall, an Anglican theological college in Durham, who edited two fascinating books on church growth. In his first book, Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present (Ashgate 2012) he pointed out that the nearer a church is to London, the more likely it is to be a growing church! In his second book, Towards a Theology of Church Growth (Ashgate 2015) he argues that, numerical growth should be a central concern for churches. He writes:

Seeking the numerical growth of the church is intrinsic to being faithful to Christ. Far from being a theologically disreputable ‘bigging yourself up’, working to grow the church numerically is good and godly. The numerical growth of local churches is not the only aspect of growth in the Christian life, but it is a central part of growth.

There is therefore nothing wrong in reflecting on how we can be more effective in growing churches. So to quote from Alister McGrath’s essay in the same book:

The church’s evangelistic tasks extend beyond the mere ‘sowing of the seed’. What can be done to break up the ground and make it receptive to the seed taking root? How can weeds be removed, to give the growing seed more space and light? What can be done in the face of external threats?

A healthy concern for church growth is not to be equated with cheap grace. As Goodhew rightly notes, “growth in the Christian life is never just about ‘bums on seats’”. Church growth which is true to the Gospel is always counter-cultural – but to be counter-cultural does not necessitate embracing a ‘theology of decline’; rather it means that we need to be “creatively subversive”.

I found this a most encouraging book, for it dispels the destructive acids of theological liberalism by providing deep theological foundations for a positive and expectant approach to ministry today.

The fact is that God loves his church and wants his church to grow. Contrary to much modern theology, at the heart of mission is to be found the church. It is in the worship of the church that the people of God find motivation and energy for mission. It is through the teaching of the church that the people of God gain their understanding of mission. It is through the fellowship of the church that the people of God are sustained in mission. It is to a large extent through the life and witness of the church that the people of God express their mission. It is into the church as well as into Christ Jesus that converts are baptized. It is through the teaching of the church that these new Christians are nurtured and equipped for mission.

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