Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Church growth, gospel growth and church decimation

I like church growth as much as the next man. Who wouldn't? If it's your own church, you love to see people coming under the sound of the gospel, and even if we don't like large numbers, that is easily solved by taking 30 people out of the congregation and using them to start a new church when things get too big.

But the only sort of church growth that is of interest to Christians is gospel growth. Acts 6:7, speaking about the booming church in Jerusalem, encapsulates this idea beautifully:

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

So the question naturally arises, can you have gospel growth without church growth? After all, if the word of God is going out, you would expect churches to be growing in size, wouldn't you?


Here is Isaiah hearing what the result of his gospel ministry will be:

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” 9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people:

“ ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
10 Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is a desolate waste,
12 and the LORD removes people far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
13 And though a tenth remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
whose stump remains when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.

A dreadful shock, really. The word of God is preached faithfully, according to God's instruction, and the result of this word going out is a judgement that results in devastation. Even verse 13, which speaks of a remaining stump, pictures a stump that has been doused in petrol and then burned, just to be on the safe side.

Those who are church growth afficionadoes (CGAs for short) may well respond that this is a unique event in the history of Israel, bearing no relevance to the situation of our growing churches today.

Perhaps, perhaps not. But it is hardly unique.

Jesus picks up this very passage to describe his own ministry in Mark 4 and elsewhere. After Jesus' death and resurrection, Paul applies it to his own ministry in Acts 28, and uses it more broadly in Romans 11 to describe the current state of gospel ministry amongst Jews and Gentiles.

The one comfort CGAs may still draw from this is that the devastating judgement that accompanies gospel growth appears to be linked in all these passages—Old Testament, Gospel and Epistle—to the particular sin of the Jewish people.

So it may well be that the sin of the Jewish people is specific to them, and has no relevance whatsoever to the Gentiles. Indeed, in this biblical scenario, the Gentiles end up benefitting from the sin of the Jews, because Jewish rejection of the gospel means that the preachers of gospel truth go on to speak to the Gentiles about the salvation and restoration that they can find in Jesus.

Unfortunately, the sin of the Jews doesn't appear specific to them.

Indeed, in the early chapters of Isaiah, their sin is greed, idolatry, materialism, addiction to alcohol, complacency, apathy and lack of concern for widows, orphans and foreigners, religious hypocrisy, failure of leadership, haughtiness amongst women and a murderous spirit amongst men.

Perhaps it will be OK.

Perhaps when God pays close attention to people in London, Durham, Pittsburgh, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Johannesburg, Singapore, and Perth, he will not discover greed, idolatry, materialism, addiction to alcohol, complacency, apathy and lack of concern for widows, orphans and foreigners, religious hypocrisy, failure of leadership, haughtiness amongst women and a murderous spirit amongst men.

On the other hand, he may discover just these things. And if so, we should be very anxious when we hear about gospel growth, because if the gospel grows as it did in Isaiah 6, then it may well mean not church growth but church decimation.


michael jensen said...

maybe some martyrs getting made would be good for church growth too...yet they are never mentioned in the textbooks. Weird that, huh?

Stephen said...

When the gospel is preached and the people clear out - as happens in many church situations today, and has happened to me and friends of mine - do we still call that 'gospel growth'? The proclamation is growing but obedience isn't - the Acts passage you qouted mentions the positive response of the people to the gospel. I would not deny that the gospel is going forward in these other situations - in fact thats the very reason that people are leaving - but I would only use the phrase 'gospel GROWTH' to denote occasions where the proclamation results in repentance and faith. Is that wrong/right? Semantics?

Gordon Cheng said...

If you take the full picture, the growth of the gospel really only happens as the word of judgement is pronounced.

In the Isaiah 6 passage, there is a seed left in v 13. For it to appear, the wholesale destruction of Israel by God's word was necessary. Salvation (and with it continuing gospel growth) happens in and through judgement.

Maybe as michael jensen says we need a few martyrs before we start seeing growth.