A while back, a Church of England bishop was interviewed about what he did. And the interviewer asked, ‘So what’s your vision for your work?’ To which the bishop replied, ‘I’m not sure I’ve really thought about that.’ And then after a pause he said, ‘I suppose my vision is simply that my in-tray is empty by the end of each day.’
Well, our vision for God’s work here is somewhat bigger than that. Currently, we’re a church of 1,000 and four years ago we planted a church that’s now 250 strong. But our vision is that, under God, in one generation, we will grow to be a church of 5,000 people with a further 5,000 in churches planted from us – both locally and around the world. And that vision came out of a period of prayer and planning several years back.
And I wonder how you react to it. Maybe your reaction is, ‘Aren’t we big enough – or even too big – already? Why should we want to grow more?’ Or maybe your reaction is, ‘To be honest, I’d rather be part of something smaller – where it’s easier to feel you know everyone.’ Or maybe your reaction is, ‘I feel over-stretched as it is. I don’t see how we can possibly do more.’ That reaction is like the Pizza Hut manager I met once while taking an American friend out for supper. My friend saw the map of the city on the wall, which showed the circle within which they delivered. And he said to the manager, ‘Did you realise that half the student accommodation in town lies outside your circle, but that you’d include it all if you just expanded it by half a mile?’ And the manager said, ‘Oh, we could never do that. Just think of all the demand there’d be.’ And after we’d left, my friend turned and said to me, ‘Am I missing something?’ And I said, ‘Only that you’re not in America.’
‘We could never do that,’ is such a British way of thinking. Which is why we’ve set ourselves this sermon to help us think Biblically – rather than Britsh-ly – about church growth. And the first, and most important, thing to say is this:
First, CHURCH GROWTH IS WHAT GOD IS DOING
And I start there because talk of church growth can provoke a negative reaction. Sometimes that’s because it’s just not been our experience. A 2005 survey put the average congregation size for churches in England at eighty. So talking about big churches can feel foreign to us – and can sound wrongly ambitious, as well as dismissive of the many faithful, small churches around. But another reason for negativity can be the suspicion that church growth is basically an American idea – typical of their ‘big is better’ way of thinking, but not really for us.
So the first thing to remind ourselves is that church growth is God’s idea. So let’s turn in the Bibles to Luke 24. This is when the Lord Jesus has just risen from the dead. He’s appearing to his disciples, who still don’t understand that he had to die for our forgiveness. And the Lord Jesus is saying to them, ‘The Old Testament (OT) actually said this was God’s plan all along.’ Look at Luke 24, v45:
45Then he [Jesus] opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures [ie, the OT]. 46He told them, “This is what is written: [ie, this was the plan] The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day [so that part of the plan has already happened – but read on:], 47and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24.45-47)
And that part of the plan, God is still working on. That’s what he’s doing today – working to call more people from all nations to turn to Jesus as Lord. But he works through us. So now turn on to Acts 1. Acts is Luke’s ‘Volume 2’ and picks up where his Gospel left off. And it begins:
1In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2until the day he was taken up to heaven... (Acts 1.1-2)
Ie, what the Lord Jesus did up to his death and resurrection was only what he began to do – the implication being that he is still at large and at work today. So if you look on to Acts 1, v8, he says:
8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1.8)
Ie, ‘I will be at work by my Spirit – moving people to respond to me. But I’ll work through you. So now look on to Acts 2, v41. The apostle Peter has just finished the first ever evangelistic talk and, v41:
41Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
[Then skip down to the end of v47:]
And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2.41, 47)
So church growth is what God is doing. And believing that makes all the difference in the world to our attitude. Some of you may have heard of John Wimber. He founded the Vineyard churches. And I’d disagree with their theology at some important points – but having said that, Wimber exemplified the conviction that church growth is God’s work. So I once heard him say in a talk that several years in to his ministry, he was exhausted and at the end of his tether – and that that his attitude to church up until then had been that it was something he had to make happen: he had to attract people in, he had to keep them, he had to make the thing grow. But then he had this Copernican revolution as he realised that was totally the wrong way of looking at it. He’d been looking at it as if he was doing all this work for God, while God was sitting passively on the sidelines. Whereas the Bible says, ‘No: God is the one ultimately doing the work – but he catches us up and uses us in what he’s doing.’ So Wimber said, ‘From then on, I headed off to my church office each day with a new attitude. Before, I’d headed off wondering, ‘How am I going to make things happen in this church today?’ But now I headed off wondering, ‘What is God going to do today?’ Which doesn’t mean he now thought it was all God’s work so that he could sit passively on the sidelines, doing nothing. He simply got a fresh vision that God is the one ultimately doing the work – in peoples’ hearts, in circumstances, in providing all the resources that are needed – and that we’re just co-workers.
And that should foster expectancy among us. That’s what led us to that vision of growing to 5,000 with a further 5,000 in church plants. It came of asking, ‘What do we believe – realistically – that God could do through us?’ Whereas if we ask the very different question, ‘What do we think we can do?’, then we tend to say, like the Pizza Hut manager, ‘Not much more than we’re doing right now.’
Now a numerical vision – like ‘5,000 plus 5,000’ – isn’t a prediction. No-one’s saying, ‘The Lord’s told us this’, or that he’s bound to make it happen. A vision is a faith-stretching but realistic idea of where we could be – if we work at being church as the New Testament (NT) sees church – and God works in and through us. And one of the values of a vision is that it shapes our praying and planning. So, eg, if we never envisage anything more than the year ahead, all we’ll pray and plan for is to find five new home group leaders and three more guide leaders and to mend the church boiler. (I exaggerate – but perhaps only slightly.) Whereas if we envisage ‘5,000 plus 5,000’ then we have to start planning for how we’re going to develop dozens of ordained ministers from among our own number (maybe that’s you in ten years); and how we’re going to acquire more property to accommodate multiple congregations; and how we’re going to support those who leave us to plant churches. And so on. And the Lord has given us signs that he could do, through us, something like we’re envisaging. Eg, in the 16 years I’ve known it, the Lord has doubled JPC in size. And in the last four years, we’ve seen a church plant grow from 60 to 250. So shouldn’t we expect the same and more from the Lord, as we learn to keep up better with what he’s doing?
So that’s the first thing: church growth is what God is doing – and is therefore what we should be expecting and praying and planning for. For the rest of our time, I want to talk about:
Second, THREE KINDS OF GROWTH – AND HOW WE NEED TO CO-OPERATE
1. God is growing the numbers in his church – and we need to co-operate
So this is what you might call ‘conversion-growth’ – God bringing more people to faith in Jesus. Eg, look again at the end of Acts 2, v47:
And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2.47)
Now we’re not told that was the early church’s experience all the time; and it’s not our experience right now. Maybe our experience is more like the apostle Paul’s in Acts 18. Paul had got a very negative reaction to his initial witness in Corinth – and there’s nothing like that to dampen our expectancy about how many people are ‘likely’ to come to faith. But look at Acts 18, v9:
9One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. 10For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” (Acts 18.9-10)
What does that mean? It means, ‘There are many people I’ve chosen and plan to bring to faith in myself through your witness – so stick at it’:
11So Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God. (Acts 18.11)
And the same principle applies to us: we’re not to base our expectancy about the numbers who could come to faith on what we’ve seen so far, or what seems likely. We’re to base it on the thought that there are many people in this city – who knows how many – whom God has chosen, and plans to bring to faith in himself through us. So we each need to be working at our individual witness in the walks of life God has put us in: if you’re a Christian, you’re a missionary. But we also need to be working at our corporate witness as we develop, and invite people to, a growing range of events aiming to introduce people to the Lord Jesus. And can I say: if you look at our church and think, ‘There’s really nothing that the non-Christian people I know will come to – nothing that’s helping me introduce them to the Lord’ – then come and say so to one of us on the church staff. Because I certainly think that of some of the people I know – and we’ve got a long way to go together, to lay on what’s going to help our contemporaries – aware that, as someone put it, ‘Yesterday’s method becomes today’s millstone.’
2. God is growing the maturity of his church – and we need to co-operate
And to see that, let’s turn to Ephesians 4, v11:
11It was he [the risen Lord Jesus] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God’s people [ie, the whole church] for works of service [literally ‘for ministry’ – so all of you who are Christians are the ‘ministers’ of this church], so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4.11-16)
So that’s saying: the Lord wants more than just numerical growth. He wants spiritual growth – maturity – which can’t be measured by numbers and graphs.
Now on the one hand, that means the individual maturity of each of us who’s a believer. It means you and I knowing and trusting and becoming like Christ more and more, individually. And we’ve got a long way to go in that: eg, people have said to me recently, ‘I don’t really feel I’m growing as a Christian. I don’t feel I’m being stretched in understanding the Lord, or helped spiritually in new responsibilities like marriage or parenthood.’ But Ephesians 4 is saying the Lord wants corporate maturity as well. He wants us corporately trusting in Christ more, as we face possible big and costly steps forward; corporately becoming more Christ-like in real, family-like commitment to one another; corporately working as a body in which everyone is using their gifts to the maximum, to do the ministries they should.
So we need to remember that size doesn’t equal maturity: eg, if there are significant numbers here whom we’ve not helped into the ministries they should be doing, and who just feel like passengers on the ship rather than crew members – that’s not corporate maturity. But it also needs saying that size isn’t the enemy of maturity. People sometimes ask me, ‘Can you really love 1,000 other people?’ And, in the sense of, ‘Can you be really personally involved with and committed to them?’, the answer is, ‘No.’ But that would be equally true of a church of 50. That’s why, in any size of church, the key to fostering what Ephesians 4.16 is about – growing and building ourselves up in love – is to develop small groups, like Home Groups and the many other small groups we have. That’s why we regard committing to a small group as the way to belong to this church. And yes, in a big church – and God-willing, bigger than we are now – none of us is going to know everyone else at main gatherings like this – they won’t have that feel of a church of 50. But that shouldn’t matter if we’re working at small group life and the life of ‘congregations within the congregation’ (like 20s&30s, Globe Christian Fellowship, CYFA and so on).
Now people sometimes wonder whether it wouldn’t be better for us to be, say, four churches of 250 in different parts of the city. The answer is partly that, in God’s sovereignty, we’re not – he’s done what he’s done so far, and he’s given us this strategic position in the heart of the city, not least on the doorstep of 40,000 students. But the answer is also partly that big churches have advantages and opportunities that small churches don’t: like enabling all sorts of specialised ministries – eg, student ministry; like enabling good peer groups for children’s and youth work (our church plant numbers 250 but has struggled with that at the upper end of the age range); and like enabling training for ministry and church-planting; and so on.
3. God is growing the reach of his church – and we need to co-operate
Time permitting, we could have looked at the Lord Jesus, in Matthew 9.38, saying:
‘Ask the Lord of the harvest… to send out workers into his harvest field.’ (Matthew 9.38)
And we could have looked in Acts – which is the Bible book on church growth – at the Lord sending out missionaries and church-planters, as well as moving Christians around through force of circumstances like persecution, so that the gospel spread. And he still wants to grow the reach of his church today. He wants us to be ‘exporting’ both the gospel and gospel-minded people from here. And he’s doing that by force of circumstances, as students and internationals and young professionals regularly move on from us (because of the job market, or the need to return to home countries). And instead of complaining that we’re losing potential future leaders, we should be rejoicing in the privilege of sending out believers whom God has matured and trained among us. He does that ‘exporting’ as we send and support mission partners – the newest of whom are Geoff and Celia Linkleter, leaving to work with Mission Aviation Fellowship. He did it with the 60 who left to plant Holy Trinity Gateshead and we pray that he’ll do that again and again in this next generation. And we’re also conscious that we need to do more to help existing church life in this region – eg, through preaching teams that can go out and help others.
So if you belong to this church, can I ask, ‘Are you not just on board, but on board for growth?’ Because church growth is what God is doing – and is therefore what we should be expecting and praying and planning for, and paying the price for. And the price is that we work hard together with the Lord; that we give prayer and time and trouble to all the things I’ve mentioned – and more; that we each find and play our part in this church, doing it so diligently that the Lord gives us more to do by way of reward; and that we give money like we’ve maybe never given before.
And this isn’t for our sake – we’re not concerned to grow for our sake. We’re concerned to grow for the sake of hundreds of thousands around us who’ve never had a decent chance to hear the gospel. We’re concerned to grow so that, individually and corporately, the brief lives we have here on this earth will actually count for Christ. And we’re concerned to grow so that, far from worrying how we’ll cope if we lose people, we’ll be eager to send more out from us and see what the Lord does through them.
Are you on board for all that?