Is there an Imperative to Grow?

The sainted Reverend Father Rudolph Kurz once wrote a paper saying that there is no command in Scripture for the church to grow in numbers.  He went through every passage of Scripture referencing the church to prove his point.  That point was lost on the then burgeoning church growth movement.  It shouldn’t be lost on us.  We now see to what lengths, to what depths, to what shame – clown ministry, polka worship, silly string in the Divine Service – pastors and congregations are willing to go to in service to the cause of growing.  The theological imperative is “grow in numbers, somehow, some way” rather than “preach the Word in season and out.”  I have no doubt that humans can grow a human organization but only God can grow a Church and He doesn’t do it by any means possible but only by the Means of Grace.

Calvinist with their emphasis on predestination, unfortunately and unbibilicaly dual in nature, see this more clearly than we do. John W. Robbins writes in the foreword to Gordon Clark’s Today’s Evangelism: Counterfeit or genuine? “One of the sins for which Christ condemned the scribes and Pharisees – the religious leaders of his day – was their dynamic evangelistic program. ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves’” (v).

Robbins goes on to observe that whether it’s synagogue growth or church growth the making of converts is not enough.  The question is: to what are people being converted to?  I have always said what you win people with is what you win them to.  You win them with programs, service to others, good feelings, community, your ebullient personality, etc. and that is what you have won them to.

In a most startling way Robbins points out the danger and even destructiveness of having growth in numbers as your goal.  “Growth, as a goal, is the ideology of the cancer cell” (vi).  He says that the concern and focus of Christian evangelism is not growth but truth.

Conservative columnist George Will wrote an op-ed piece for Christmas (“The Happiest Holiday,” The Washington Post, 24 December 1998, p. A17).  In the column he referenced a late 19th century British skeptic who said these three words should be engraved above all church doors: “Important if true.”  He then went on to quote at length English poet-laureate John Betjeman’s poem “God was Man in Palestine.”  The poem ends with this verse:

No love that in a family dwells,

No caroling in frosty air,

Nor all the steeple-shaking bells

Can with this single Truth compare –

That God was man in Palestine

And lives today in Bread and Wine.

And then Will closes with “Important – very important – if true.”  If it’s not true, it’s not important. We who are servants not of a truth but the Truth must lead with and emphasize most that we have the Truth that redeems, saves, empowers, and satisfies.

Because we live in the age of the skeptic, we are tempted to take our culture on from the “if” standpoint, precisely where the British skeptic invited his century to do battle with Christianity.  We are moved to rise to the challenge: “Prove to me what you’re saying is true and I will concede it is important.”  Apologetics does address the proofs that show Christianity is not unreasonable and is based in history, but this is a scholarly undertaking.  So what the church at-large has done is to start with what everyone considers important: family, serving others, and even entertainment.  Putting the best construction on this, these Christians hope to go from the things everyone will admit are important to the one thing needful: the Truth.

Neither the apostolic ministry nor Church proceeded this way.  They started with the Truth that is so big, so important that it could be simply proclaimed.  Paul was not ashamed to proclaim the Gospel to the biggest skeptics, most important philosophers, and greatest thinkers of his day.

Ah but the results where rather poor in Acts 17.  The numbers just weren’t there.  That didn’t stop Paul from moving on to Corinth in Acts 18 with the same message, but evidently even Paul got discouraged because the Lord said to him one night, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.”  The Lord had many people in that city, and the Gospel preaching of  Paul would reveal them.

“Grow, grow, grow” is the imperative of cancer.  Keep on preaching, keep on teaching, keep on sowing is the imperative of Truth.



About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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