Church growth has dominated the functions of the world church in recent times, providing a giant leap in evangelism and outreach, and taking the gospel to unentered areas around the world. Church leadership and laity have invested enormous resources in this growth. Results have been good. New outposts and new churches have been established.
But what about growth in existing churches? Are they growing or are they largely stagnated, with only the children of the congregation constituting the major increase? Are the new members added in the existing churches the result of a living witness in the surrounding community? Do the church records indicate honest membership figures, or are there names that are not even trace able?
Four New Testament principles of church growth
The New Testament church gives us twin pictures of church growth. While individual church grew daily (Acts 2:47), the evangelistic thrust of taking the gospel to unentered areas went about with vision and vigor. How was this possible?
The answer is found in Acts 2:42: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (NIV). A careful study of this verse and the rest of the chapter explains the fourfold formula of church growth both locally and globally.
The key word is devoted, which means to persevere, to give constant attention to, to remain firm. The KJV and NKJV use the phrase continued steadfastly. Members of the New Testament church would not be shaken. They would not be divided. They stood firm in their convictions. They devoted them selves to four particular principles of church life and growth.
The apostles' teaching
First, they devoted themselves to the apostles' teachings. This involves both knowing the Word of God as well as living the Word. The apostles' teachings centered in the essentials, such as the love of God; the plan of salvation; the centrality of the crucified, risen, and soon-coming Jesus; the hope of resurrection; and the lifestyle that the gospel called for in the lives of the disciples. The members of the church met together (verse 46) to learn the Word, and their lives became one with the Word.
Today many members do not know what they believe and why they believe. Even the central teachings of Jesus affecting our daily life seem neglected in many circles. Often the Sabbath itself seems not to celebrate its primary emphasis in God as Creator and Redeemer, and is often either ignored or relegated to mere ritual. Lifestyle issues do not stand out to reflect what God's grace can do to transform lives as models of citizens of the coming kingdom. On the contrary, the early church believed the Word of God and stood firm for it. There was oneness in their belief. We cannot do any less.
Second, the early church was noted for fellowship—with the Lord as well as with one another. How much fellowship do we have as a church today? Do our churches provide an atmosphere where both members and visitors eagerly await getting together? I know of churches where worshipers would rather not look at one another.
In my early ministry I pastored a small village church. On the first Sabbath of the new year, the Sabbath School superintendent invited me to read Isaiah 58. I went up and read, "Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins" (verse 1, NIV).
I found out later that the Sabbath School superintendent's family in my church and another family were at odds with each other. My reading of Isaiah 58 was seen by each of these two families as a message appropriate to the other, who should be shown their sins and rebellion. In all of this, when one family came to the church, the other wouldn't. What kind of fellowship can exist in a church like that?
Fellowship must not stop with just singing "What a fellowship, what a joy divine," but must transform the lives of Christ's body and create such a unity that the community will take note that here are a people of different backgrounds and interests who can live and worship together—in Christ's name.
Breaking bread together
Third, the disciples devoted them selves to the breaking of bread "from house to house, . . . with gladness and singleness of heart" (Acts 2:46). Breaking bread can mean both the observance of the Lord's Supper and also having a communal meal. The New Testament church strongly believed in the brotherhood of all believers, without any class difference.
Eating together symbolized their oneness, a family created by the saving power of the risen Jesus. Potlucks may bring us together in a social way, but such get-togethers must create a family spirit. The observance of the Lord's Supper must transcend mere routine to actually become the occasion for what was meant in the beginning: a gathering of people who together acknowledge their sinnerhood and find strength as a congregation in confessing corporately what God has done for them in Jesus and their need for one another. The Lord's table destroys every wall of partition and creates a commonality and oneness for the glory of the Cross and for the completion of the mission that the Lord of the table has left for us.
Fourth, the early church spent much time in praying together as a body (Acts 4:31; 12:5,12; 13:3). Much of the strength of the early church was because of prayer and fasting. Nothing works as well as time spent in prayer—in small groups, in homes, in schools. Intercessory prayer for others is a power that, by and large, we have not tapped. When we inter cede for others, when we confess our sins in prayer, when we meet together to seek God's will, there is power. A church that prays grows. Fervent and earnest prayer is the greatest need of the church today. We need to pray for the power of the Holy Spirit.
A geologist studying the strata of rock under St. Paul's Cathedral in London reported that the church building is moving down Fleet Street at the rate of one inch every 1,000 years. A reader of the report commented, "The church ought to move faster than that."
The church will move fast, will be vibrant, and will grow if it follows these four simple New Testament growth steps. Let us be challenged to find ways of putting them into practice in our congregations.