Church Growth: Why Do Some Churches Grow Faster Than Others?

Rev. Steve Schlissel - August 21, 2002

The Question…

Dear Pastor Schlissel,

Re: church growth. Why do some congregations grow considerably faster than others? Locally I have asked that question a number of times. The standard response is as follows: People like to visit a church where they will hear what they want to hear. They have itching ears! Truly Reformed ministers preach what people must hear, a truly Biblical message. Visitors presumably don’t like that and after one or two Sundays don’t show up anymore.

Is that a true statement or is there perhaps something wrong with us orthodox, Reformed people? Or could this possibly be a good excuse for not doing more?

Allow me one more question: If the above response holds true, then how is it possible that the Apostle Paul, besides being faithful, was also successful? He was also truly Biblical, but wherever he went he left a trail of churches behind him. Is it perhaps that his first love never left him?(Rev .2).

Thank you,

Longing to Sprout

The Answer…

Dear Longing,

This is a bit more complicated than might appear on the surface. The questions raised can be approached from very different directions and regarded on several planes. Let’s attempt a thorough yet brief reply.

1) It’s true that the Apostle Paul had “success,” but it should not be overly romanticized. Read the Epistles again and you’ll see the results were far more “mixed” than we might choose to recall. Read of those churches founded by Paul just one generation later (in the earliest post-New Testament Christian documents) and learn their post-apostolic fate. It wasn’t always pretty. As you yourself suggested, Revelation 1-3 warns us to look at success as consisting in more than the short-term aggregation of assorted bodies within a particular building.

2) How would you measure the success of Jesus Christ in His own Gospel ministry? And don’t forget Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Micaiah and others.

3) As suggested by number 1 and 2, God holds His servants accountable for fidelity to their calling, not some arbitrary measure of success.

4) There are many evidences that the sorts of “successes” provoking some Reformed people to jealousy today are merely flashes in the pan. Typical fast-growth churches are a mile wide and an inch deep. They bear a frightening resemblance to the seed that fell on rocky soil: it sprang up quickly, but it wasn’t rooted so as to last. I very much expect that within 50 years we shall see that those extravagant churches which today cause some foolish observers to covet with their tongues hanging out, will either have become truly Reformed and thus stable, or will have disappeared or have become thoroughly irrelevant. It is past shameful that some, even from the “best” of the Reformed churches in Europe, lust after these shallow American models of success, sending delegates and study committees who will presumably return to Europe to instruct the once-glorious witness-bearers there how they might sell their priceless birthright for a mess of the pottage called immediate “success.”

5) A careful reading of the later chapters of the Gospels presents us with five distinct types who are very much with us today, dominating the culture to such an extent that we should not be terribly surprised if faithful churches fare as Jesus did.

a) First, you have the religious leaders, whose own righteousness so filled them that there was no room for God’s righteousness. The most stunning of all ironies recorded by John surely must be this: “Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.” They bypassed the reality for the type! So today we are confronted with a culture that senses that it needs nothing more from religion than form. Churches have not been slow in offering increased pomp to meet the demand.

b) Second, you have leaders, rulers, judges, teachers and professors like Pilate. The fact that they must ask “What is truth?” does not keep them from making judgments aplenty without it as a basis. We live in the “post-modern” world where truth has fallen on hard times. Deconstructionism has persuaded a generation to adopt Pilate’s exact position: not so much that there is no truth, but that truth, even if it exists, is utterly irrelevant. What matters is power, and every proposition is a shield for an agenda. No wonder cynicism and suicide are at such high levels. It is interesting that mainline churches have more or less adjusted their entire strategy to accommodating this mindset, extending its pervasive influence by leaving it unchallenged and narcotized. They’ve not come to bury unbelief but to praise it!

c) Third, you have Herod whose only care for Jesus was as another source of amusement. If Jesus would not perform as if on the Ed Sullivan show, then Herod would force, compel Him to provide a chuckle or guffaw, one way or another. So too in our day, an entire generation has been thoroughly television-ized and the churches have adjusted their “programming” to appeal to the brain-dead. Thus we have the entertainment which in many cases no longer even needs to masquerade as “worship.” Movies, TV, dramas, dances, all have been brought forth to satisfy the Herods who would have a Jesus who amuses them in church just as they are amused at home.

d) Fourth, you have the crowd who a week before had been chanting “Hosanna!” now demanding “Crucify Him!” We have raised a generation which does not cherish individuality or original thought but rather has been made ripe for tyranny, a slavish bunch bred to follow their passions and instincts. The answer to every ethical question is sought in a mob survey, in what “most people think,” not in God.

e) Fifth, you have the women, the daughters of Jerusalem, weeping for Jesus when they should have been weeping for themselves. So too do we face a generation of people who wear their emotions on their sleeves but who cannot bear to have their emotions informed and guided by God’s Word. They have no ears for “Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.” So long as there is food on the table and money in the bank, the misery that will be coming upon them in the future induces no concern.

Add to the above the ever-increasing usurpation by the State of ministry which properly belongs to the church (not to mention the family, the private sector and the local community). Mercy is a hard to thing to show when a bureaucracy specializing in entitlements is hawking Robin Hood compassion down the block, all needs met, cradle to grave, no questions asked.

Now, despite all that I’ve said above, I want to make a point it as clear as it can possibly be made, with God’s help: The above conditions only set forth the challenges confronting the Reformed churches today—not the excuses for doing nothing. For looked at in the proper light and with the proper lens, there has never been a better time to be Reformed. We are like the only skilled eye-surgeons in a colony of blind people. It is for a generation such as this that God has uniquely gifted the Reformed churches. It is we who have been entrusted with the understanding that religious ceremony apart from faith, and righteousness apart from Christ are mere futilities. It is we who have been entrusted with an epistemological arsenal that can destroy every argument and pretension which exalts itself against the knowledge of God. It is we who have been instructed in the difference between superficiality and substance. It is we who have been granted a heritage of countless souls who once stood against the tide, often even to the point of offering their lives for the sake of integrity and honor. It is we who have been taught to weep for our selves so that we might truly rejoice.

We have what the world needs. We have Christ. And it won’t go well before the Throne for any of us who might be content to keep the heavenly manna to ourselves. When the four lepers came upon the bounty left in the camp of the Arameans, “they said to each other, ‘Were not doing right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves. If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us. Let’s go at once and report this…’”

The Reformed churches must do the same or punishment will overtake them. Three critical matters for Reformed churches today might be said to be: 1) to truly appreciate the bounty, pressed down and running over, that has been given to us in the covenant, 2) to feast joyously and unashamedly upon Christ as the gift of God to us and to our households, and 3) to bring others to this feast.

The twelve were commanded to distribute the bread miraculously broken off of the five loaves, not to stuff it in their pockets. Jesus commanded us to “Go and tell” not to wait and moan.

We are not responsible for our level of our “success”. The Gospel is not a commodity. But we certainly are responsible for our level of our activity. And for the quality of our authorized messengers. The Gospel is to be communicated. We may not have been choosing our men wisely or training them well. This ought to be considered.

One final note, offered only to underscore that we ask you not to “do as we say,” but to do as we do: We don’t know how many scores of souls we have seen added to Christ’s church here in New York City over the years, but we do know they were added—here and in many other places we can cite—without tricks, gimmicks, bells or whistles. It is possible. There is a message entrusted to us that is ever-new, ever-beautiful and ever-true. If you need help getting that message out, give us a call. We’ll do what we can to help, for Christ’s sake. But please don’t call just to salve a conscience, or if you expect that someone else can do the work instead of you and your local church. Call only if you want to get the church’s message out and if you are ready to bring it.


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