The Forgotten Factor in Church Growth
In recent years there has been a lot of talk about church growth in the evangelical world. Everyone wants to know how to make their church grow and there is no shortage of suggestions for how to do it. What is the key to making your church grow? Is it using a cell church model? house church model? more user-friendly sermons? better music? more skits? candles? bigger parking lot? more exciting youth programs? powerpoint? more lay leadership? something else?
Protestant missionaries have been in Thailand for over 180 years yet the number of Christians in the country is still less than 1%. So, the question has been asked, when so much time, money, and effort has been put into evangelization, how come the church has grown so slowly? Again, many suggestions have been put forth. Perhaps we haven’t contextualized the Gospel well enough. Or our evangelism has been too Western. Or we have used a poor model of church. Or there is a lack of indigenous worship music. Or we haven’t been letting the Spirit lead. Or church buildings don’t look Thai enough. Or we haven’t emphasized house churches. Or we haven’t found the right redemptive analogy. Or whatever.
I am all for reviewing our methods and our strategies to see if we are being effective in communicating the Gospel in a way that creates understanding and promotes an indigenous Thai church. Some methods are better than others and some are more faithful to Scriptural principles than others. However, in none of the discussions that I have heard about why the Thai church has not grown more than it has, there is one factor that I have yet to hear proposed as to why the church has not grown faster than it has. Some may think that I am being really radical for suggesting this as a possible reason for slow church growth, but here it is:
Perhaps God has decided that it is not yet time to give faster church growth than we currently see.
I am not abandoning human responsibility or throwing up my hands in a defeatist way. I am merely saying that it is Christ who is building his church and it is God the Father, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who convicts and converts sinners, drawing them to Christ (John 6:44, 65, 16:8). While it is incumbent upon Christians to be as faithful to Scripture and as clear as possible in their Gospel proclamation, at the end of the day it is God who converts sinners and not us. God can and does use flawed people and flawed methodologies to bring people to Christ, and he will bring them to Christ at his own appointed time. Why did 3000 people repent and believe in Christ on the day of Pentecost and not a week before? Were Peter and the apostles using the wrong strategy or the wrong evangelistic method up until that time, but then when they figured it out, God poured out his Spirit? Not at all. Jesus told the apostles to go to Jerusalem and wait for His Spirit (Acts 1:4-5). God choose the timing of His Spirit’s coming in power. Those 3000 people were not converted earlier because God had appointed the time at which they would be saved. God wanted them to be converted on the day of Pentecost and not a day earlier. While we should always seek to live holy lives and use good methods and strategies that are consistent with Scripture and adapted to the local situation, God is the one who drives church growth forward - often in spite of our flaws, weaknesses, and sins. We might have good methodology or poor methodology but the praise always goes to God because He is the one who convicts and converts sinners. The success of the Great Commission does not depend upon us getting it just right but upon God working in the hearts of men and women.
I share the Gospel because I love God and His glory and I want to see Him honored in the lives of myself and others. And I want others to know the joy of knowing God and worshipping Him. However, I am greatly relieved to know that the burden of their eternal destiny does not rest upon my shoulders. I pray that the LORD would help me to be faithful to Him and use good methods, but it is wonderfully freeing to know that the conversion of souls and ultimately the growth of His church does not depend upon me finding just the right outreach strategy. If I have the opportunity to share the Gospel with someone that I might not see again, and then fail to tell them about Jesus because of cowardice, I don’t need to fear that that might have been their one and only chance to be saved from eternal damnation and I messed it up. Yes, I sinned and need to repent of seeking the approval of man instead of the approval of God. However, if God is sovereign, then God will surely make another way for that person to hear the Gospel and be saved, if God has ordained that person to be saved.
God is bigger than our failures and try as we might, we can not thwart God’s purposes in this world. Jesus Christ is Lord of the church and He is going to save all those whom he is going to save (Acts 13:48). If God wants to bring revival and rapid growth to His church in Thailand or somewhere else, let us not think that God’s work will be limited by our lack of finding the right methods of promoting church growth. God is not sitting up in heaven, wringing his hands, saying, “Oh, if they would just find the right strategies, then I could really work and make my church grow.” We should certainly seek to be faithful and communicate the Gospel clearly but at the end of the day, church growth depends upon God. As the apostle Paul said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6)