Do we attempt to grow the church or the kingdom? Which is most important? Is there a difference? Is that our responsibility at all?
There is an entire theological discipline related to “Church Growth”. In this discipline there are various methods given to increasing the size of congregations, adding to the kingdom, and making additional disciples.
However, is it our responsibility to grow either the church or the kingdom? I don’t think so. Instead, I think that as long as we focus on the “size” of either the church or the kingdom, we will miss out on our true responsibility as members of the church and citizens of the kingdom.
There are college and seminary courses, degree programs, departements, and entire institutes which have been set up for the purpose of teaching church growth methods. But, is this our purpose as believers? Are we to “grow the church” through various methods and programs?
In the Book of Acts, we see several instances where Luke records that either the church or the word of God spread or was increased. In Acts 2:47, Luke says, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (ESV) I have been taught that this means that the people were involved in evangelism, usually some type of personal or mass explaining about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But, Luke does not actually say anything about this in Acts 2. Instead, he says that the believers were continuing to live according to the teachings of the apostles, continuing to live in fellowship with one another, continuing to break bread with one another, and continuing to pray. They shared their resources and possessions with others who were in need. They met together in the temple and in their homes. They were grateful to God for what he was doing. They were united in mind and purpose. What was the result? God added to their number. They did not add to their number; God did.
In Acts 5:14, Luke records, “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women…” (ESV) What prompted the others to “join” this believing community? Was it an evangelism or church growth program? No, it was prompted by the sudden death of two believers who had lied to the Holy Spirit: Ananias and Sapphira. These death caused the church in Jerusalem and others who heard about them to fear God greatly. God continued to work miracles through the apostles. The church remained united. And God added more believers.
In Acts 6:7, Luke says, “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” (ESV) What prompted this increase? What prompted priests to become obedient to the faith? Was it an outreach program? No. There was a problem among believers. The Hellenistic widows were not receiving their share of the food that was being distributed. The apostles told the church to choose men to take of this. The believers chose seven men to take care of this problem that was causing dissent among the church. It is following this account that Luke says, “The number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.”
In Acts 9:31, Luke recalls, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” (ESV) This seems to be a true account of church growth activity leading to an increase in the size of the church or the kingdom. Previously, Luke told us, “And he [Paul] spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him.” (Acts 9:29 ESV) Surely, it was the conviction caused by Paul’s preaching that led to an increase in believers. However, Luke makes it clear that Paul had to leave Jerusalem in fear of his life. Notice again what Acts 9:31 (above) says. The church was being built up and was walking in the fear and comfort of the Spirit. Because of this, God multiplied the church.
In Acts 11:24, Luke recounts, “And a great many people were added to the Lord.” (ESV) What caused this increase in Antioch? Surely, this new church was engaged in a new and exciting evangelistic program to reach the people in their cultural context, right? No, instead we are told that this increase came about after Barnabas travelled from Jerusalem to Antioch in order to build up the church. This is what Luke says about Barnabas: “When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” Apparently, as the church remained faithful to the Lord, the Lord added believers to the church.
In Acts 12:24, Luke says, “But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied.” (ESV) This account follows the death of James, the imprisonment of Peter, and the death of Herod. Throughout these times of trials and persecution, “the Lord” grew and multiplied the church. What did the believers do during this time? They remained faithful to the Lord in spite of the difficulties that they were facing.
In each of these passages, we see that God grew the church and increased his kingdom during times when the believers were obediently following him and in unity with one another. Primarily, these were times when the believers were take care of one another, sharing with one another, serving one another. This reminds me of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:23: “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (ESV) How will the world know that God sent Jesus and that God loves them? Will they know because of our preaching and words and programs? No. The world will know that God sent Jesus and that God loves them when the church becomes one and lives in that unity in God through Jesus Christ.
These passages in Acts about the increase of the church and the growth of the kingdom and the spread of the word of God also remind me about Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 4:15-16: “[S]peaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (ESV) According to Paul, the body (the church) does not grow because of the way we reach out to other people, but instead the church grows when each part of the church serves others in the body with the abilities and power that God provides.
As the church serves, and builds up, and listens to, and learns from, and understands, and helps, and teaches, and works with, and shares with, and loves one another, God will take care of growing his kingdom and his body. Perhaps, at times, we are guilty of trying to do God’s work, while failing to carry out those responsibilities that God has given us. What are those responsibilities? Look around you. Do you see those brothers and sisters around you? They are your responsibilities and my responsibilities.