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The pastor is smiling at us from the cover of the full-color magazine. He’s a prominent man with a successful ministry, and I do not doubt that he is a sincere man of God. Making that judgment, outside of the knowledge of obvious sin, is not my job nor is it the job of any Christian. “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4). Nevertheless, I am compelled to question the article in which he is interviewed about his ministry. The title of this piece is “Growing the Urban Church.” Growing the church. May we pause to think about the veracity of the claim that we know how to grow a church? We have, unfortunately, become accustomed to this manner of speaking. There may be an evangelical pastor in the United States who has not attended a conference or read a book about church growth methods, but I doubt it. This is how we talk. This is how we think. I entered “How to grow a church” in the search field on Amazon and discovered there were a thousand books written on the topic. A search on Bing gave me over eighteen million hits.

Church growth is surely on almost every pastor’s mind.

However, we must face this truth. Men devising means by which to grow a church is not biblical.

After I saw the article title on the magazine cover, a scripture immediately came to mind. Paul had written to the church at Corinth. Disputes were rife in that fellowship about which influential leader one should attach oneself to. Peter? Apollos? Paul? Jesus? However, Paul wanted the Corinthians to know that he and Apollos were merely servants who were just doing what servants do. “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:5–7). 1

He and Apollos are nothing, Paul wrote. Nothing. Not super apostles, not outstanding speakers, not church-growers. No, Paul said. He planted. Apollos watered. But neither of them made the church grow, any more than they could have made a plant grow. God alone can do that.

Do we believe this biblical reality?

The answer should be obvious: No, we do not.

That’s a problem. Evangelicals think that lack of church growth is the problem in the United States, and it’s hard to refute that reality as the U.S. culture continues to disintegrate into sinful rebellion. However, which is more important? Believing biblical truth or declining church attendance? Do we even know how to make a church grow? Are you sure? Have you ever read in the Book of Acts how the Lord made the Church grow? Not by human means, I can assure you. No, we don’t know how the Lord makes churches grow. We just think we do. In fact, we know more about how God makes plants grow than we do churches. However, regardless of how much we know about plant growth, we humans still can’t make a plant grow. How would a person do that? Step one. Plant seed. Step Two. Add water. Step Three: Um, make seed sprout.

Game over, as the saying goes.

So, here we are, unsurprisingly, looking at the front page of a full-color mag about church-growing and thus becoming “effective leaders,” and having “successful ministries.” Step One: Plant seed. Step Two: Add water. Step three. Um, do something else that we think makes sense.

While we are trying to find some light on this topic, another scripture comes to mind, in which Jesus made it very clear who will build the Church. “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:17–18).

Pardon me, but who will build the Church? You? The successful pastor on the magazine cover?

No. Jesus will build it. God will give the growth according to His will. These are two very clear truths about church growth which pastors and leaders don’t or can’t manage to embrace. Why can’t we understand this? These aren’t two obscure passages hiding out in an ambiguous statement spoken by one of Job’s counsellors. No, they’re right there in plain sight, in plain language.

Why don’t we abide by them?

I encourage the reader to cogitate on that one.

 

1All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

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