by Rodney J. Nidever, Ph.D., D.Min.
“For where two or three having been assembled in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt. 18,20 RSV)
Whenever two or three believers gather to pray, etc., the above verse is invariably read to remind them, that the Lord’s presence is not based on the size of the gathering, but rather on the fact that they are meeting in his name. This truth, although, spoken in the context of church discipline, has been a great comfort to every small church since the first century. It has also legitimized their gathering.
With the advent of the Church Growth Movement (CGM), made famous through the writings of Dr. Donald McGavran and Dr. C. Peter Wagner, among others, at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, USA, a new problem for the small church was, perhaps unintentionally, created. Through the teachings of the CGM it became very clear, though not directly stated, that those churches who are blessed by God, are growing churches. And, concurrently, those churches not growing, or declining in growth, must be considered to be not blessed by God.
In fact, in the CGM mentality, small churches are looked upon with distain! There are reasons given why they remain small, such as, that they are not culturally relevant, or not sensitive to the felt needs of the people, etc. The most condemning reason they are not growing, however, is that they do not want to grow! They would rather guard the “purity” of their little group. They view themselves as the “truly holy ones,” it is pronounced. Lack of growth, then, is a sign of disobedience, rebellion and spiritual pride.
Though I have profited by my studies of the CGM and have even taught courses in church growth, I believe the above teaching is both unbiblical and counterproductive. Leaders of the CGM might consider this a small price to pay for the greater good of the movement, but I believe the premise itself that, “growth is a sign of the blessing of God” must be questioned. It might be a sign of His blessing, and it might not be. It might rather be a sign of a “feel good Gospel” being preached, a professional music ministry, or by the charisma of the preacher, or all the above. There may be social-emotional reasons why a church is growing, that have nothing to do with the blessing of God. Consider for example, the amazing growth of many sectarian movements.
Nevertheless, small churches in Europe and the USA are stigmatized by this false teaching of the CGM. I have met many pastors and elders on both continents, who have agonized over the size of their churches. I remember a dear pastor, who told me that if they only had 50 members, he would be satisfied. They only had 30+ members at the time. After years of suffering over this perceived failure, he finally closed the church. He could no longer justify their existence. How tragic.
According to CGM studies, 50% of all believers in the US attend a church with 50 or less members. Does this mean, then, that half of the believers in America live outside the blessing of God? Of course not! Who would make such a ludicrous assertion? This, however, is not stated explicitly, but implicitly in their literature. Regardless of how it is said, the message is communicated, loud and clear, and much damage has been done because of it.
So, what should our response be, as followers of Christ? Let me suggest the following:
First: We need to have a clear understanding of what a biblical church is. It is the gathering of believers together to worship God (via song, prayer and the Lord’s Supper), to study His Word, to encourage one another in the Faith and finally, to care for one another practically.
Second: We need to be sure we, as a church, are teaching orthodox Christian doctrine to our congregation. This is primarily the duty of the elders of the church (see Paul’s message to Elders in Acts 20:17-35).
Third: We need to be clear about the mission of the Church (see Matt. 28:19-20), which is to disciple all the “ethne” (ethnic groups) of the world, as He gives us opportunity. Discipling begins with the proclamation of the Gospel and conversion (baptism), followed by biblical teaching, that includes instruction in a life of obedience. A church which condones sinful lifestyles among its members cannot expect the blessing of God upon its church.
Paul talked about church growth in 1. Kor. 3,6-7, “I planted, Apollos watered, but it is GOD, who made it grow and who is making it grow.” Paul is not eliminating the human element, but identifying the cause to true spiritual growth, which is GOD alone! By His grace, He calls us to be his “Co-Workers” (v. 9) in this great project. Our participation in it is grace from beginning to end (1. Kor. 15:10). In Matt. 18:20, quoted above, the verb is translated “having been assembled” is in a passive voice meaning that the gathering together of believers may be the work of the Holy Spirit, especially since they are gathered in Christ’s Name. To my way of thinking, this is all the legitimization any gathering of Christ requires. If we are truly His servants and disciples, then our responsibility is the care of His church and its growth is and will always be His business. Let us be clear about that, so HE alone will receive all the glory!