The Program: Growing Adults
Copyright © 2005 Jeremy Myers
When the majority of people in the United States think of "church growth" they think of a church that has more people in attendance this year than last year, a larger budget this year than last year, and maybe a larger building.
In fact, one popular church growth book begins with the following statement:
"Since 1966, [our church] has grown from 125 to over 13,500 in worship. We have gone through five building programs and two complete relocation projects, the last of which cost over ninety million dollars (including land, construction costs, and architects' fees). We have gone from an annual budget of eighteen thousand dollars to an annual budget of eighteen million dollars."
This is the popular definition of church growth. Bodies, bucks and bricks. More people, more money, bigger buildings.
Since growth is one of the top priorities of every church, those who view church growth in this way will often use whatever means necessary to get it. I have a comic strip in my files showing a pastor getting ideas on how to grow the church. And we have these two other men here giving ideas, and the pastor says, "Besides calling every Sunday 'Easter,' does anyone else have ideas for improving church attendance?"
I also read an article from TIME magazine of a church whose "Ultimate Goal" is to get 40% of the people in it's area back to church within one year. The article went on to report that in order to accomplish this, the pastor sings and dances the Lord's praises in an electric whirlwind he has termed, "Aerobics of the Lord." He executes choreographed jumps, leaps and twists that the faithful try to copy. And when the spirit really moves, he pours buckets of holy water on his ecstatic audience.
And this is fairly mild compared to what some churches do. A pastor in California has been collecting a file of clippings that report how churches are employing innovations to keep their worship services from becoming dull. In only five years time, "some of America's largest evangelical churches have employed worldly gimmicks like slapstick [comedy]…wrestling exhibitions, and even a mock striptease to spice up their Sunday meetings." If churches want more bodies, bucks and bricks, these are some of the things that churches can do to accomplish this kind of growth.
But what if this is not Biblical church growth? If our definition is wrong, then our goal will be wrong. And if our goal is wrong, then our means to reach that goal will be wrong as well. But if we get our definition right, then our goal and methods will fall into place as well.
The definition proposed in chapter 1 of this book was that church growth is teaching and training the people who are in the church to become what God wants them to be so they can do what God wants them to do. Ephesians 4:15-16 is where this definition came from. These verses show what church growth is and how it is accomplished:
15but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.
What Church Growth Is
We already saw what church growth looks like back in verse 13 when we saw the Model. A completed building should end up looking like the Model. The model in verse 13 was Christ-likeness. And that is what we see here in verse 15 as well. We see that the second part of the church program is to grow adults. Paul instructs us to grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ. In other words, a church is growing when the people in the church are becoming more and more like Christ.
Remember, the word "church" is not Biblically defined by how many people meet, or where they meet, or how much they can spend on a sound system. The church is made up of Christians who regularly meet to exalt God, edify one another and evangelize the world. Church growth happens when spiritually immature Christians, spiritual children as we saw from verse 14, are corrected, trained, taught, encouraged, and equipped (2 Tim. 3:16-4:4) in such a way so that they become spiritually mature Christians. Church growth happens when the individual Christians who make up the church grow into spiritual maturity. When they learn the Bible, and learn to obey the Bible. When they learn the spiritual disciplines of prayer, witnessing, tithing and Bible Study. When they learn what their spiritual gifts are and find ways to put them into practice. That is Biblical church growth.
Logically, this means that it is possible to grow a church, and actually shrink in size. So, if a church of 100 loses 50 members, but the 50 who stay maturing in their faith, that church is growing! In the same way, if a church of 50 doubles in size, but few are maturing into Christ-likeness, that church, even though they have gone from 50 to 100, is not growing! Similarly, it is possible that a church is growing when it has to move out of it's facilities and start meeting in a home or if it has to make significant cuts in the yearly budget.
Church growth is not about bodies, bucks and bricks. It is about building up one another to Christ-like maturity and service. A church that does this is a growing church, no matter how large or small they are, no matter where they meet, or what percentage rate their budget increases.
Church growth is like a family. If you have two kids, do you feel like you're not a "successful" family until you have four kids? Then, once you get four, do you feel unfulfilled until you have six, or eight kids? No! Being a successful family has nothing to do with how many kids a couple has. Rather, a healthy family is one where the children grow up into maturity and become productive members of society. The size or wealth of the family is not what matters.
It's the same with the church. Truth church growth is when Christians grow up into Christ-like maturity. This is the ultimate goal of the church. Did you know this? The goal of the church is not to evangelize the world. Don't misunderstand. Evangelism is vitally important. But evangelism is not the goal. Making converts is not the goal either. According to the Bible, making disciples is the goal.
The ultimate goal, according to verse 15, and according to numerous other verses in the Bible is to bring people in to Christlikeness. That is why discipleship is so important. And you know what? Properly trained disciples automatically evangelize. When a church focuses only on evangelism, they are basically telling baby Christians to reproduce. It isn't going to happen very well.
But when people are trained to act like Christ, they automatically share Christ. Discipleship takes the baby Christian and teaches and trains them ho to move on from immaturity and become more and more like Jesus Christ. The rest of verses 15 and 16 explain how this is accomplished.
How Church Growth Is Accomplished
The entire paragraph of Ephesians 4:11-16 has been building up to this single point. And in our pragmatic, quick fix, "how to" society, this is what interests us most. We want flowcharts and action points. We want twelve steps and seven keys. It is pretty rare that the Bible gives us such clear cut directions, but surprisingly, that is nearly what Paul provides for us.
So for all of us who love bullet points, step number 1 is found in the first part of verse 15. 15but, speaking the truth in love. In English, when we put together a sentence, we normally have a word order that we prefer to stick to. The basic structure is subject, verb, direct object. The squirrel (subject) ate (verb) the nut (direct object). To change the order makes the sentence sound weird. "The nut the squirrel ate." Or "Ate the nut, the squirrel did." Only poets and Yoda from Star Wars talk this way: "Like his father is he." "Full of anger you are."
But Greek is more flexible. It doesn't necessarily have a set word order. In Greek, authors often emphasize something by putting it first. When an author wants to emphasize something, they put it first in the sentence or phrase. Verse 15 is one of the places a Biblical writer does this. Even though the main idea of verses 15-16 is growth, Paul wants to emphasize HOW this growth happens, and so he places this first.
How does growth happen then? Paul says it happens by speaking the truth in love. The primary method to accomplish church growth is by speaking the truth, and speaking it in love.
This phrase speaking the truth comes from one word in the Greek, and it is only used one other time in Scripture. In Galatians 4:16 it seems to refer primarily to teaching the Word of God or the preaching of the Gospel. Used similarly here, Paul says that the primary way church growth is accomplished is through speaking the truth – or as his use of the Greek word implies, teaching and preaching the Bible. Of primary importance for church growth is truth speaking, or to put it another way, Bible teaching. This is God's method for church growth.
If you have attended many churches in your life, or are aware of what goes on in most churches today, you will discover that churches are trying to grow using every method BUT this one. Churches that faithfully and systematically teach and preach the Word of God are becoming increasingly rare. Which is a scary thing considering what we have already seen in Ephesians 4. Churches that do not systematically and faithfully teach the Word of God are enabling their members to remain spiritually immature. When a church does not accurately and methodically teach the Word of God, the people who attend that church remain spiritual children. And spiritual children are in danger of being led astray.
That is why Paul mentions truth first. He could have just as easily said, "in love, teaching the truth." That would have emphasized the love. But here he emphasizes the necessity and the importance of truth as found in God's Word.
Since this is the case, why don't more churches preach the Word of God? Have you ever asked yourself that? The reason is because such a method appears to be foolishness (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18-25). Who would ever imagine that the best way to grow a church is by preaching from some book that was written over 2000 years ago?
Surveys today tell us that people today want little sound-bites, and excitement. They want quality music, and humorous jokes. They like to be led on emotional roller-coasters, and be entertained with flashing lights. They want the camera angle to cut to a new scene every 2 ˝ seconds, and you'd better keep them on the edge of their seats or they'll lose interest after 5 minutes. And most importantly, they want it all in half an hour or less, and no matter what, to be out by noon.
But teaching the Bible? How booorrrring… People don't want that…or do they? Despite what all the polls and opinion surveys say, they have missed one obvious fact. Most people want something that they don't know they want. In their frantic efforts for amusement, they are searching for something they cannot seem to find. Despite what the surveys say, the main thing people want is truth. Chuck Colson says that the number one question in our society today is this: "Is there any absolute truth?"
And only the church can say, "YES! There is absolute truth, and it is found within the pages of Scripture." I like to tell people at my church that "God's Word is heard here!" I also used to say that we give people the only thing this world cannot - absolute truth.
You see, people are tired of lies. Politicians and newspapers lie. Teachers and lawyers and policemen may lie. Even pastors sometimes lie. But God does not lie. His Word is truth (Num. 23:19; John 17:17). The Bible is 100% accurate truth. And when people start to hear this truth, spoken from the pulpit, into their lives, when they discover a place that unashamedly teaches the truth, they cannot get enough of it. They soak it up like rain in a dry and thirsty desert. This is why Bible teaching churches, although rare, are some of the largest and healthiest churches in America. People go and hear the Word of God, and say, "YES! This is what I've been searching for!" Walter Kaiser writes this:
In the midst of all the feverish activity to restore the church once again to her former position of influence and respect, all sorts of programs and slogans have appeared. But regardless of what new directives and emphases are periodically offered, that which is needed above everything else to make the Church more viable, authentic, and effective, is a new declaration of the Scriptures with a new purpose, passion, and power. This we believe is most important if the work of God is to be accomplished in the program of the church.
When people hear the truth, it transforms their lives and they begin to grow spiritually. When that happens, the church also begins to grow. This is all due to what Paul prescribes: speaking the truth. But then he qualifies it by saying that truth must be presented in love.
Some people, some pastors, some churches, focus just on speaking the truth. If they see someone who is in sin, or who has a false belief, these people feel it is their responsibility to point it out. I'm sure we've all run into Christians over the years who only seem to be over critical and judgmental. They always are on the look out for something you did wrong, or said wrong. Or for something you should have said or should have done, but didn't. And when they find something, they let you know. These people believe that the highest ideal is truth.
Some ministries out there seem to do nothing but point out the errors of other ministries. I know of one highly respected ministry led by a well known author and teacher where it sometimes seems the only goal is to point the finger at everything wrong with everybody else. In one year alone, I watched them attack Focus on the Family, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life, the theology of several well known pastors, and the phenomenon of contemporary music.
Now, I am not saying I agree or disagree with him. I actually think he made several very good points. All I am saying is that his presentation of these truths often seemed to be overly harsh and critical. His choice of words was sometimes sarcastic and the tone of his newsletter has the feel of a stinging rebuke. Whether he is right or not is not the issue. Even if he is right, he does not teach in a loving manner. He has taught the truth at the expense of love. But Paul says the truth must be taught in love.
Of course, there are other people, pastors, churches and ministries who err just as much on the other side. They want everybody to get along, to love one another and be in agreement in all things. They believe it is always better to overlook an offense than to correct or rebuke someone for wrongdoing. They only want positive words to come from their pulpits and out of their printers. They never want to rock the boat, never want to stand up for the truth if someone might get offended.
Jay Adams has noticed this modern tendency and writes:
"In some circles, the fear of controversy is so great that preachers, and congregations following them, will settle for peace at any cost – even at the cost of the truth, God's truth. The idea is that peace is all important. Peace is a biblical idea (Rom. 12:18 makes that clear: "If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with everybody"), but so is purity. The peace of the Church may never be bought at the cost of the purity of the Church. That price is too dear.
"But why do we think that we can get along in the world or for that matter, even in the Church, without conflict and controversy? Jesus didn't. Paul didn't. None of the preachers of the apostolic age who faithfully served their Lord were spared controversy. Who are we to escape controversy when they did not? The story of the advance of the Church across the Mediterranean world from Jerusalem to Rome is a story of controversy. When the gospel is preached boldly, there will be controversy."
So we have two extremes. Some who teach the truth without love, and others who teach love without truth. But Paul calls for both. He calls for a balance between the two. To err on one side or the other causes great problems. Truth without love is harsh judgmentalism and dogmatism. Love without truth is blind sentimentality. But truth in love is compassionate concern.
Truth without love makes Cactus Christians. All prickly, and full of good points, but painfully difficult to be around. Love without truth makes Cotton Candy Christians. Tastes good and looks good, but there's nothing really to them. They're just a lot of fluff. But truth in love makes Christ-like Christians. Balance between the two is always needed. Truth, as important as it is, must always be taught in a loving manner.
God, as always, is the perfect example of how this is carried out. He never skirts around the truth, but speaks in plainly in the most loving words possible.
Rarely does God point out to us our faults unless we honestly ask that he reveal them to us. When we are sinning but don't know it, we often have to ask that God search our hearts and see if there is any wicked way in us. And when we do, he kindly and gently takes us to Scripture passages that reveal our faults to us. Rarely does God come along side us and beat us over the head with some harsh judgmental attitude. Softly and gently, tenderly and kindly, he washes our feet with the water of the Word cleansing us from all our sin.
Do you want to know the best way to speak the truth lovingly? Be willing to be part of the solution. Be willing to take the time and effort to help that person through their time of temptation. Do you remember the time when Jesus washed His disciples feet? When He noticed they had dirty feet, He didn't just point it out to them and tell them to do something about it. He took the role of a servant and came along side them to wash their feet for them.
Do you see somebody with dirty feet? Don't just point it out to them. Be willing to serve them by washing their feet. Speak the truth, but do so in love. Another example of this is found in Acts 9:10-13. God tells Ananias to go see Saul who has been blinded. Saul's reputation of persecuting Christians has preceded him, and so understandably, Ananias is a little scared. He says, "God, I don't think that's the best idea. If I don't get killed, I'll get put in prison for sure!" Ananias clearly rejects God's command. He is in blatant rebellion and sin.
At this point, most of us would do one of two things if we were God. We would either flat out rebuke the man. "You sinner! Away from me you evil doer! Get in step with God!" That would be truthful, right? But not very loving. This kind of response would be truth without love. And some of us handle things like that.
The other way is much more common today. This way is so afraid of not being loving, that all truth is left out. In this case, God could have said, "Ananias, I understand your fear. I would be scared spitless, too. Well, thank you for listening to me. Thank you for letting me share this with you. It's okay if you don't want to obey me right now. I'll hope someone else comes along. Have a nice day. Go in peace." This seems real loving, but there's not much truth. In fact, in the name of love, there's even a lie. It's NOT okay to disobey. Very often, when love is the goal at the expense of truth, lies creep in (which is not very loving!).
These are two of the possible responses to Ananias' disobedience. The first is to be so focused on the truth, that we beat people over the head with it saying "Obey or else!" The other is to be so afraid of offending people, that we say, "Well, here's kind of what God wants you to do, but if you can't right now, that's okay. He's a forgiving and merciful God. He'll understand." These are the two extremes most of us fall into. Truth without love or love without truth. But God speaks the truth in love.
In Acts 9:15, we read, "But the Lord said to him, 'Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.'" God says, "Go. And let me give you some reasons why you should. I am not rebuking your lack of wisdom for resisting my viewpoint. I'm telling you again to do it, and I'm giving you more reasons why you should." And in Acts 9:17, Ananias went.
That is how God deals with us. He never gives us truth without love, and never thinks of hiding the truth in the name of love. Scripture repeatedly tells us that God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and wrath (Ex. 34:6; Neh. 9:17; Psa. 86:15; Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2). When we resist and rebel, He gives us reasons to obey. If we continue to resist and rebel, His reasons slowly but surely become much stronger, until, after a while, He begins to discipline us. Truth balanced with love is how God deals with us and how we are to deal with one another.
Here are some tips on how to achieve this balance between truth and love. If you sense the desire to correct someone who you feel is sinning, you need to several things before you go talk to that person.
First, remember what the ultimate source of truth is. If you feel someone is in sin, you had better have a strong Biblical case. You cannot base truth on what your opinion is, or on what your traditions are, or on what some pastor, teacher or author said. God's word is truth. Jesus prays in John 17:17, "Sanctify them by Your truth. Your Word is truth." Before you confront someone with the truth, make sure you have a Biblical case. This helps too, because then it is not you saying "I think you are wrong" but it is God's Word saying "Here is what you are doing wrong."
Second, make sure God is actually calling you to address the problem. Maybe he just wants you to pray about it. In fact, it might be a good idea to do nothing but pray about it for a whole month before you say anything – just to see God work.
Third, ask yourself what you might have contributed to the problem. Remember, we talked about this back in 4:1-6.
Fourth, try to discover what your motive is in pointing out the error. Maybe you simply want to get noticed, or maybe you want to get back at someone, or maybe you have had a bad day and feel like lashing out at someone. If you are unsure of your motives, spend a lot of time in prayer before going to the person.
Fifth, if you confront, are you doing it in a Biblical way? Have you gossiped about this to anyone or, according to Matthew 18, are you following the steps for church discipline?
Sixth, you might want to ask yourself if you are demanding perfection. Nobody is perfect except Christ - not even you. And remember that with the same measure you use, it will be measured out to you at the judgement day. Are you overcritical and judgmental, or are you gracious and understanding about other people's failures because you know you have your own struggles?
Seventh, if you do confront the person, can you give input in the form of constructive suggestions rather than outright criticism and complaint?
Finally, are you willing to be part of the solution? God may be showing you this error because He wants you to help out, not to criticize.
These eight ideas will help us keep truth and love in balance. And as we speak the truth in love, both personal growth and church growth will be accomplished.
Truth in love results first of all in personal growth. Paul says in the last half of verse 16 that we will grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ. We learn several things here about this personal growth. First, we learn that we grow up in all things. This is complete maturity. Everything changes, not just bits and pieces.
Junior High is a rough age. The main reason it is so rough is that Junior Highers are changing from children into adults. They change mentally, emotionally, and physically. Legs and arms get longer. Male voices start to deepen. Hormones begins to rage. Some kids have it worse than others. I (Jeremy) remember one classmate of mine from Junior High whose arms and legs outgrew the rest of his body. I never made fun of him, but I often thought that he looked somewhat like a spider. He had this little torso, and these long, gangly arms and legs. It was also quite painful to watch him run or play sports because he had a lot of trouble controlling his arms and legs. They seemed to have minds of their own going every which way when he ran. I've seen him since Junior High, and his torso caught up so that now he looks very normal. He has grown up in all things, not just in his arms and legs.
Sometimes Christians, as they grow and develop, grow too fast in certain areas, or neglect certain parts of their development. Maybe they become experts at evangelism, but neglect systematic study of the Word. Maybe they love the thrill of studying prophecy, but are underdeveloped in theology and doctrine. Maybe they know the Bible backward and forward, but have not accomplished some of the basic Christian disciplines. As a result, the Christian life is difficult for them. They are Christian Junior Highers.
But God wants them to grow up into all things. He has given us everything we need for life and Godliness, but we need to grow into them so that we can become mature adults. And just so we know what a mature adult looks like again, Paul reminds us that the maturity goal is to become like Christ. Paul says we are to grow up in all things into Him who is the head - Christ. If you ever think that you have "arrived" as a Christian, just start comparing yourself with Christ, and see how far you still have to go.
Again, take Junior High students. One of the thing that this age group develops for themselves are heroes. Musicians they want to sing like. Sports heroes they want to emulate. Movies stars they want to dress like. And it is often these heroes that cause Junior Highers to make choices about life and preparation for their future. It is not uncommon to see a Junior High girl trying to look like Brittany Spears (God forbid this happens to my own girls!) or a Junior High boy trying to act like an NFL quarterback. And how tragic it is when the hero leads these developing young people down the path to destruction.
As Christians, our hero should be Christ. We should want to talk like Him, and be like Him, and live like Him. We should make decisions and choices in our lives with this goal in mind. When people look at us, they should be reminded of Christ. And Christ will never lead us to destruction, but only to the abundant life. With Christ as our head, we will experience personal growth into all things. And when the individuals grow, the church grows too.
Paul concludes this revolutionary passage on church growth by summarizing and reminding us that all growth is accomplished only when every part does its share. Just as a body will never mature if the arms refuse to work, so also a church will never grow if certain members refuse to take part in God's work. Here is what Paul writes in Ephesians 4:16.
16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.
A healthy and mature body knows what each part does best and how to use those parts correctly. An eye does the seeing, the ear the hearing, the mouth the talking, the feet the walking, the hands the working. And according to verse 16, every part, even down the joints, needs to do its share if the body is going to effective.
Pastors often hear complaints from various people that they are being overlooked or neglected. These Christians complain that nobody is reaching out to them and meeting their needs. But Paul would say to them, "Whose need are you meeting? Who are you serving? What part of the work are you sharing? Very likely, the member of the body that is supposed to meet your need is weak and sickly because you have not been meeting their needs. As you do your part, it will strengthen and edify them, and in return, they will begin to function properly to meet your needs."
As each part does it's share, then each part cared for by all the other parts as well, and so the body remains healthy. The mouth could not eat if the hands did not bring food to the mouth, but in the same way, if the mouth refused to eat, the hands would not have enough energy to bring food to the mouth. When Christians refuse to get involved by using their spiritual gifts, they are really damaging themselves and are causing sickness and weakness within the entire body. But when every part does its share, the entire body is strengthened. When every part serves, the body grows.
There are no gimmicks, ingenuity, creativity or cleverness. It's so simple it's amazing. Every part of the body has a task, and if every part does its task, the church grows! It is so simple - only God could have designed it. These are His blueprints for church growth.