Three Marks of Churches that Grow

Goalposts mark out a footballer’s scoring territory. They help to define success. Coaches may speak of the ‘one percenters’ of contributing effort or praise a player’s execution of strategy, but it is the score on the board that measures the team’s all-important outcomes. How do we improve ‘the score’ in an era of church decline where the message is not tried and found wanting, but is often not tried at all?

Of course, fruitfulness will not develop with any consistency or abundance unless our lives and ministries are located in Christ. John 15:4 reminds us that we do not bear fruit by ourselves but on account of being grounded in Him.

The early church of Acts 6:1-7 pursued this Christ-focused discipleship in three key ways that promoted staggering growth: by evangelising new people; prioritising leadership for growth; and committing to passionate prayer along with their preaching of Scripture. These steps may seem obvious, but are practised less than ever before where ministers and congregations shift their goalposts or feel too busy with personal priorities to address biblical ones.

1. An Evangelistic Passion

Pre-evangelistic connections and post-conversion follow-up can be thought of as important links in a discipleship chain. If the missing link is evangelistic connection of people to the very Person in whose image they were created, then their life is not fully integrated and the chain of discipleship growth remains broken. This is achieved in groups far more effectively when each Christian takes ownership of Christ’s mandate to make disciples.

Does the potential destiny of neighbours, friends and family members without Christ spur our communities to relentless action? This destiny is shown by Jesus to be just as eternal in its consequence as the reward of the righteous (Matthew 25:46),

Community connections are extensive in churches today and these naturally contextualise great efforts to lead others to faith. However, we can never lose sight of the collective need to commit to winning lost people to Christ. Our church services, activities and programs can all facilitate this end but are not an end in themselves. Increasingly, though, the gospel is being diluted and the line-in-the-sand pitch to people to cross from death to life is being lost amidst other ideals.

Being missional means we are necessarily evangelistic. Irrespective of our gifting, we all need, at times, to purposefully do the work of an evangelist (2 Timothy 4:5). Every Christian is a minister of reconciliation, anyway (2 Corinthians 5:18.) There are many more lives we are yet to reach without ever being entitled to retire fully from active duty.

I once journeyed with a young Cambodian enquirer. In building genuine friendship through which I was able to present the need for Christ, there was a need to let my own light shine, but to then reach out with the challenge for him to actually accept a relationship to Jesus for Himself. This was more than just acknowledging Christ alongside his native Buddhism. It was more than simply committing to a church or even to connecting with me.

The challenge was a difficult one and he initially rejected it. This was not a cue for me to relent, but rather to further engage. My continued praying and sensitive discussion prompted his ongoing consideration of the need for Jesus alone, until he finally came to me one day, spontaneously declaring, “I’m ready now.” God brings people to respond, but we need to commit to being an intentional part of the process. I then led him through a prayer of repentance and followed him up personally. Today, he is the senior minister of a Cambodian congregation in Melbourne.

Many similar moments of transaction, whether in personal connection or public ministry, have seen me continue to lead people to Christ. In most of those cases, I have been praying for impact, desiring impact and prioritising impact. It matters not that evangelism is far from being my primary gift. The discipleship journey has several important markers in the databases of growing churches, but its crux is personalised salvation so that the event and the journey of salvation are clearly connected.

Any number of pressing priorities of our own (or of others) can easily squeeze out the priorities of God. We can seek to rationalise or theologise many alternatives to evangelism, too, including the pursuit of programs that might facilitate it but actually bear little tangible fruit. In our churches there must be an urgency in sharing the biblical message of Christ’s gift of salvation. There must be a cry in our hearts to see people call upon the name of Jesus which requires us to proclaim the Gospel (Romans 10:13-14) and to pursue the rescue of souls otherwise lost for eternity.

2. A Leadership Pipeline

It’s a tough fact that many churches in Australia are in decline, or are remaining static. This can be despite tireless and faithful efforts by many people. Healthy churches grow. Any one numerical measure may be simplistic, but multiple measures will be telling. Logically, effective mission means new disciples, and more of them.

So, what does your church do to retain visitors? If you don’t even know how many you are retaining, then how do you know whether what you are doing is working? Such basic questions help to break down actionable steps toward proactively increasing the number of people in a church and not just fatalistically presuming this is up to God to make happen as if we have little to do with the growth.

Similarly, what leadership focus are you intentionally investing? Churches and groups within them will not grow by themselves and need new leaders to impact people at the personal level. This is an extension of a disciple-making mandate, since making disciples means influencing people and this makes leadership development core business for churches, irrespective of resources.

Rather than take a lack of health personally, we make our response personal. God provides the growth, but we can implement the leadership solutions conducive to it. Most farmers plant similar crops, but some simply produce better yields than others.

Taking ownership of a determination to enact strategy and process means seeking help from others who can speak to our blind spots, irrespective of our church’s size. It means honestly facing up to what is not working and being willing to stop funding or fuelling it. It therefore means professional and personal accountability that balances rights to autonomy with responsibilities of interdependence.

The early church saw growth in Acts 2 in the face of radical generosity, friendship, miracles, teaching and other elements we may value today. Whilst some of these may need to be more effectively implemented in our ministries, there is one significant additional factor noted in Acts 6. The number of new disciples which had once been added daily now becomes a number that is multiplied with the commissioning of new leaders.

Though this link may seem somewhat contrived, we cannot lose sight of the urgent need for a leadership solution in our churches. Strategic planning, effective systems, number tracking, or statistical measures are not necessarily ‘silver bullet’ solutions and we certainly don’t look simplistically to corporate remedies at the expense of a ministry style that must surely be distinctly spiritual.

One cannot, however, escape the fact that churches which grow nearly always demonstrate some very obvious and intentional leadership choices. Healing miracles, for example, may draw a crowd, but effective missional, disciple-making communities grow through sustained and reproducible leadership solutions.

What leadership are you developing in others? It is integral to discipleship for mission. Where we think it can’t happen, we need help to make it happen. Leadership development is foundational to the work of ministers and churches, but this means leadership of particular people who need to be helped to grow and change in response to what God is saying to them.

To responsibly keep watch over the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made us overseers (Acts 20:28) requires that we know the condition of our flock (Proverbs 27:23). A shepherd is not just a pastor of the flock, but an entrepreneur; biblical shepherds were business people who needed their sheep to reproduce and to provide wool or meat. Caring is only one half of our leadership focus.

3. A Prayer Priority

Pragmatic prayerfulness can manifest itself in routine petitions or carpark pleas, perhaps legitimately if we should, after all, be making our requests known to God (Philippians 4:6). Naturally, though, prayer is also an expression of a relationship with God that takes many forms and characterises a life of devotion. When it does so, it becomes inextricably linked to the use of the Bible as a dynamic and inspired book and not a mere collection of teachings. Faith is grounded in the revealed word of God (Romans 10:17).

In a fast-paced world of competing demands, our time-poor efforts to pray sometimes need a ‘widow’s mite’ offering of the little time we have, rather than of none at all. Then again, we also need greater self-discipline to commit to what is important when it does not always seem urgent. Urgent prayer that compels us to enjoy God and to engage with Him involves both personal and collective intent to honour His clear direction to us when we do pray.

In Matthew 6:9-13, Jesus offers a framework for personal daily prayer which is connected to our use of Scripture. This is prayer which is more than a mere postscript to our daily devotions if it is truly relational. Its elements are summarised in a previous post.

Of course, our praying is also a collective engagement with God. The first disciples prayed in one accord (Acts 2:1), literally demonstrating unity of mind and purpose. They also continued steadfastly, not only in teaching, fellowship and the breaking of bread, but also in prayer (Acts 2:42).

Proactively praying in a communal setting both cultivates passion and accountability in our relationship with God. We burn brightest when we burn together. We also excite others with a hunger for God when they first see it modelled in us (1 Corinthians 11:1). It is our prayerfulness that stimulates spiritual passion and draws us closer to the desire and intent of the God of mission who seeks to work through our communities to achieve His purposes.

These three aspects of who we are, though by no means exhaustive, nevertheless overlap to offer a ‘sweet spot’ of fruitful missional synergy. It worked in the first century; it still works in the twenty-first.

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