Some 2000 years ago Jesus said to a handful of disciples: “I will build my church and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16.18 GNB). At the time it must have seemed the strangest of promises, but today we can celebrate that Jesus has kept his promise. Down through the centuries Jesus has been calling men and women to himself, with the result that today there are over 2,444 million (2,444,000,000) people who claim to be his – and that is not counting the saints in heaven!
What’s more, Jesus is building his church at a remarkable rate. In 2000, there were 1,986 million Christians; while according to the World Christian Database at Gordon-Conwell University in the States, there are likely to be 2,722 million Christians in 2025, and 3,427 million Christians in 2050. True the world population continues to grow, but nonetheless the world is getting more Christian: so whereas currently some 33.0% of the world is reckoned to be Christian (defined as those professing an adherence to the Christian faith), by 2025 33.7% of the world will be Christian; and by 2050 possibly as many as 35.9%!
Where is this growth taking place? The answer is everywhere. Amazingly, even in Europe the church of Jesus Christ has still been growing. True, there has only been a 0.1 increase – in 2000 there were 575 million Christians; while in 2016 there were 588 Christians. Alas, if the forecasts are right, after that the church will decline in Europe: statisticians reckon that by 2025 there will only be 570 million Christians; and by 2050 perhaps the church will have shrunk to 520 million Christians. By contrast in Asia (and notably in China) and in Africa the church is growing substantially. In Asia over the last 16 years or so the church of Jesus Christ has grown by 2.2% (from 286 million Christians to 403 million Christians) whilst in Africa the church has grown by 2.8% (from 376 million Christians to 584 million Christians).
In the UK we have experienced major church decline: in 1851 between 40% and 60 % of the adult population attended church, whereas today it is less than 10% – and in some areas even less than 5%. The predictions for the future are dire: not so long ago Peter Brierley wrote that on current trends overall church attendance for Great Britain in 2050 could be down to 899,400. But as G.K. Chesterton observed: “Five times in the last 2,000 years the church has to all appearances gone to the dogs. In each case it was the dogs that died!” I dare to believe that there is hope for the church in the UK. As David Goodhew writes in Church Growth in Britain, 1980 to the Present Day: “Some churches in some regions are declining”, but “substantial and sustained church growth has also taken place across Britain over the last 30 years”.
But churches don’t just happen to grow. Although it is ultimately Jesus who builds his church, he only does so when his followers are prepared to do their part and to be part of his team. I find it significant that Jesus spoke of building his church only after Peter had confessed him to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus is not into magic, producing bunny rabbits out of thin air: rather he builds his church with those who confess his name. The secret of church growth world-wide is that Christians share their faith joyfully with others.
But leaders too have a key role to play in the growth of the church. Time and again I have quoted the words of Robin Gill, an Anglican sociologist and theologian, who likened British churches to the pelicans in St James Park in central London, “awkward , out of place, angular, with a big mouth but little brain, demanding but inactive”. He went on: “Churches in Britain need to make urgent choices about structure and direction. If they are to cease being pelicans, they need to be much clearer about how they might be effective in present-day Britain. They need to be more single-minded about growth”. Church growth doesn’t just happen. It happens when leaders are possessed with vision and passion to see the world won for Christ, who develop appropriate strategies and who then in turn inspire their people to reach out to those who seldom or never darken the doors of any church. Yes, ultimately it is Jesus who builds his church – but as the Apostle Paul made clear, if we fail to “plant” and “water” (1 Cor 3.7) there is no growth.