“If you’re doing everything right,” he said, “you’ll grow.” These are the words of a church leader I once had lunch with. I was co-teaching a weekly bible study in the Nashville area at the time. And this guy thought we were doing something wrong since our little bible study was growing slowly.
Sure, we were a college-aged bible study meeting thirty minutes away from the nearest college. And, yes, people in our little group mentored high school students, fed the homeless, loved their enemies, worked with the poor overseas in the Summer and out gave (percentage wise) the larger church congregation we were a segment of some weeks, but, we weren’t growing fast enough and that, I learned over a plate of barbecue, is how church leaders know if they’re doing everything right – it’s what matters.
At the time of Pentecost in the book of Acts, with Jesus having just left the planet, there were less than 200 people still following Him. Thousands were healed, fed, preached to. Five hundred witnessed Jesus’ ascent into heaven after raising Himself from the dead. But less than 200 remained. Was Jesus doing something wrong? I wondered.
But Peter, this church leader pointed out, swore thousands into the Christian church in a week! Peter spoke and multitudes swarmed and stuck. This is the case throughout the book of Acts really: Paul, Peter, James, John and company traveling and speaking and serving people and seeing the churches across Asia and Rome flourish. Therefore, my lunch buddy deduced, if we’re doing everything right in our churches then our churches will be big and growing bigger quickly.
Of course Jesus and Peter were both doing things “right,” I think we can assume. Yet their congregations had very different growth patterns. And if that’s true then numeric growth is not the most important or accurate indicator that we’re doing things right (what God wants). So what is?
Did you know that when church membership numbers are cited in the book of Acts they are always accompanied by a statement about the church’s “fear” of God and/or care for people?
Acts 2:40-47 With many other words he (Peter) warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
What the book of Acts seems to be emphasizing most then is not the importance of numeric growth alone but the reason for the growth (fear of God and care for people) and the result of the growth (more people fearing God and caring for people). A church does not (not historically) have to be big to fear God and care for people. Sometimes people who fear God and care for people form a large church: The largest church in the world is over 900,000 Koreans. And sometimes they form small ones: 59% of U.S. churches (that’s 177,000 churches) are made up of less than 100 people. The majority of American Christians (25 million of us) are in churches of 100-499 people. (Source).
What I’ve concluded from the many New Testament stories about church is this: The size of a church is not good in and of itself, but the people in it, what they believe and value and how they then live together sure is.
This is also proven by my life experience. I’m in 100 churches a year. Churches of all sizes. In the last month I was at a church of over 40,000. And this weekend I was in a church of 250. And both churches are packed with good people believing right things and caring for those around them. It’s the lives of Christians in these churches that inspire and impress me, not how many of them assemble under one roof one day a week. And, you can rightfully call me arrogant I suppose, but I think God feels the same way. Don’t you?
At 2PM Central Time today, right here, I’m posting the story of one church that is doing things right. Come back to read their story.