the weblog of Alan Knox

Church growth: bizarre, arrogant, and presumptuous?

Posted by on Mar 10, 2008 in books | 18 comments

As I was reading along, the following paragraph made me stop. I re-read it. Once again, I was reminded that the focus on numbers of attendees (counting noses) completely misses the point of “church growth” in Scripture. Here is the paragraph:

We have already noted that the New Testament authors show little interest in statistical data about the growth of the churches. Luke is the only author who provides any figures, all of which are round numbers related to the growth of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 9:7), despite the fact that he would have been familiar with precise statistical data that the Old Testament provides for the size of Israel at different stages of history. Luke usually is content to point to the growth of the church with general formulations. The practice of some missiologists in which they provide quantitative statistical projections for the planning of church growth in a particular region or country and formulate numerical “goals” of church growth would have been regarded by the apostles as bizarre, arrogant, and presumptuous. When the Gospel writers speak about growth, they generally refer to that of the kingdom of God, and when Paul speaks about growth, he generally refers to believers moving toward spiritual maturity. The numerical growth of the church as a whole or of the local congregations is never explicitly discussed or alluded to, not even in connection with statements regarding bringing “fruit” or “harvest.” – Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, Downers Grove: IVP, 2004, 1581-2.


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  1. 3-10-2008

    Wow! such a statement. I am going to refer to it in my blog


  2. 3-10-2008


    Do you think that the New Testament is unconcerned with numerical growth?

    It is at least concerned with geographic expansion (Acts 1:8). I would argue that making disciples, among other things, certainly means adding to the number.

    Also, It is interesting that the New Testament goes from a handful and ends with myriads upon myriads.

    Acts gives us numbers. Paul in Romans, expresses his desire to keep pushing the limits of the Christian mission. He is concerned with the “full number” of gentiles coming in.

    I agree, nonetheless, that the focus on numerical Church growth as a means of measuring the maturity or success (CPM?) of the church is scripturally unfounded. But I don’t think the NT is totally unconcerned with numbers either. I think there is a tension.

    Lesslie Newbigin asks this question in response to the Church Growth Movement:
    How are we to evaluate a form of evangelism that produces baptized, communicant, Bible-reading, and zealous Christians who are committed to church growth, but uncommitted to radical obedience to the plain teaching of the Bible on the issues of human dignity and social justice?

    In other words, he finds that focusing on church growth builds a barrier between “conversion and obedience.”

    I think he has a point. But we cannot make the leap from “Defining the Church is terms of numberical growth is unbiblical” to “There is no concern in the New Testament for numerical growth.”

  3. 3-10-2008


    Thank you for linking to my blog.


    Actually, Schnabel doesn’t say, “There is no concern in the New Testament for numerical growth.” Instead, he says, “[T]he New Testament authors show little interest in statistical data about the growth of the churches.” I think he’s right at this point. Yes, as Schnabel says, Luke lists some general numbers, but the primary concern of Scripture expansion of the kingdom and the spiritual growth of believers.


  4. 3-11-2008


    I did not mean to misrepresent Schnabel…I would need more context of the passage you listed to critically interact with him. Rather my comments were intended to be furthering the discussion. I apologize.

    But I still wonder:

    What does it mean to expand the kingdom? Would it not include numerical growth?

    Even if Paul speaks of growth in maturity, he also speaks of the expansion of the church. He doesn’t define maturity in terms of expansion, but he is concerned with taking the gospel where it hasn’t been named. Yeah, its not a major concern, but a concern nonetheless.

  5. 3-11-2008


    Thank you for clarifying your comment. I do believe it was important for Paul and other early Christians to spread the gospel geographically, which would by necessity mean a numerical increase for the church. I agree also that expansion of the kingdom would probably include numerical growth. I also agree with Schnabel however – if I’m understanding him correctly – that “growth” referred more to spiritual growth than numerical growth. This certainly doesn’t mean that we should not attempt to expand the kingdom by taken the gospel to others. But, I think this – evangelism/mission – is an outworking of spiritual growth in the life of a believer.


  6. 3-11-2008

    Well put my brother! I have added Schnabel to my reading list (also to my WishList on Amazon if your feeling generous–Just kidding).

  7. 7-11-2012

    Funny. I briefly commented on this exact same thing in my blog post yesterday.

  8. 7-11-2012

    Hmm, looking again, I guess this is an old post of yours anyway. But you did repost it to twitter today. 😉

  9. 7-11-2012


    Yes, it’s an older post, but you’re always welcome to comment on them. I link to them on Facebook and twitter hoping that the discussions continue.

    By the way, I’ve been watching your new blog. It looks very interesting so far!


  10. 7-11-2012

    Thanks, Alan! I hope that it can be a blessing to you and others.

  11. 11-26-2012

    “Jesus Christ” is missing, miss-iologists. I do not comprehend the ologies. Whenever I am offered an ology, I say, “No thanks, I’m allergic!”

  12. 11-26-2012


    I understand your concern, but we all have “-ologies.” The question is (I think), how tightly do we hold on to our own understandings and interpretations.


  13. 11-27-2012


    When comes down to it, a living testimony blows all the theories (theology), all the this, that, its, and things, right out of the water. It is about Him and living Him together. I don’t need those words that concrete Him into a certain view in my mind. I have yet to need them, so I doubt I ever will, yet others can call what I say with a label, that matters not. All those labels have so many meanings, that they actually mean nothing. Life!

  14. 11-27-2012


    Again, I understand your concern. “Theology” is simply studying and understanding God. It can be extremely theoretical or it can be extremely practical.


  15. 1-12-2013


    As I understand the word theology to be defined, it is about theories, ideas, theorized concepts and those things do not have life, because a theory is only a theory because it has not been lived, a theory has not experiential Life. It is only when theory is experienced in Reality, that is can no longer be defined as theory, but alive and real, Reality. We cannot know Christ Jesus by our theories, but only in Life, in experiential Life. Theories are dead things until they are the our Living experience of Christ Himself. And, the experience of Him can lead us to another theory, which comes from the interpretation of the experience. This new theory, idea, interpreted understanding becomes real only when we experience Him in real and actual Life. And on and on into the Revelation of Christ Jesus Himself, Life. That is how I see theory, theology, which is altogether different than Life Himself. The testimony of Jesus Christ has nothing to do theology, but the presence of Christ.

  16. 1-12-2013


    Where did you find that definition of theology? When I looked it up, this is the first definition that I found: “The study of the nature of God.” The definition does not include how this study is done.


  17. 1-12-2013


    I was only giving my understanding of theories, that’s all. I was not meaning to be discounting to your understanding in any manner, that was not my intention. I am not always well written, perhaps my words did not bring my intent to the forefront, and if that is the case, and apparently so, then I apologize for my error. I wanted to explain what I meant by my earlier comments, so I elaborated in hope that there would be no further misunderstanding on my part or of my words. It could be that my view of this term is odd because of the experience of my life thus far. I have been told far more than once that I see and speak in a different manner than other sisters and brothers in Christ. That may be so, and too, that is at times a great disadvantage when it comes to written communication such as a short comment, as my initial comment. Alan, I have been exposed to so many new terms since being online the past three years, terms that others use when speaking about Christ and His church. I have no experience with these words/terms, they have no meaning in me at all. But, this theory/theology/theologian word used so often online means nothing to me in my experience, other than what I have shared. I don’t speak the language that many speak, when it comes down to it, many seem to speak in foreign (to me) words/terms about Jesus Christ, Father, Spirit, and His church. I get lost in all those terms because they are empty to me, they draw a complete blank in my mind. We can get into many words and many various definitions of words, but what would that accomplish? I was sharing my heart on the matter of theory and Reality. I can only share what I know, have experienced in Christ, nothing more. I always seem to get into a bit of a fix when commenting on these terms and words, neither I or the replier understanding one another, or so it seems. I do so very much enjoy your blog articles, they are outstanding. And I will continue to read your inspired writings. Thank you, brother. May the grace and peace in Christ continue to be with you!


  18. 1-14-2013


    I appreciated your earlier comment, explaining what you mean by the term “theology.” I was simply explaining that it is not a standard definition of the word. Even theologians who focus on the theoretical have understood how important experience is in a person’s understanding of God. So, usually, theology is developed from a mixture of sources.