Impediments to church growth

An exciting feature of the aboriginal church is its phenomenal growth subsequent to the Pentecost blessing. Not until then did impetuous Peter see more than 1,000 sinners turn to the saviour through an ordinary sermon. Thereafter, the harvesting of thousands became business as usual. It struck no wonder. Surely these were days of revival, days of an exceptional outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This is in sharp contrast with the rate of conversions noted during our saviour’s ministry. In itself this is an endorsement of the need of the Holy Spirit in the church. Christ himself made it clear that it was expedient that he gave way to the Holy Spirit.

We observe that this church growth was in every sense positive. It was neither growth by fragmentation nor growth by mutation, as is the growth of much of the modern church. Growth by fragmentation is the kind in which a church denomination expands through splits. In mutational growth, a new denomination is born out of an existing one. Early church growth, in contradistinction, came out of a harmonious loving church earnest in preaching Christ crucified.

This growth, however, went beyond numerical expansion at a local level, it extended to the establishment of churches in places beyond the initial towns and cities, as the promise foretold (Acts 1:8). It is not clear whether the earlier growth rate continued to characterise the church as it expanded beyond Palestine into Europe. Indications are that there was a slowing down in the numerical status to more ordinary levels of growth, but not in the establishment of local churches.

As we reflect on this fascinating growth, the question we should be asking is, what ordinarily stands in its way in our times? I will draw the reader’s attention to seven usual impediments to church growth. With these impediments removed, it can be expected that healthier levels of church growth can be sustained.

Poor preaching ministry

There is no doubt that all the numbers that were drawn into the fold were as a result of the preaching of God’s word. 3,000 were drawn by a single sermon on Pentecost! “The apostle’s doctrine” was closely adhered to and this drew in the numbers. This preaching, from what we read in the book of Acts, was simple, direct (in addressing sin and the need for repentance), Christ-centred and scriptural. But these were also powerful sermons, they caused fear and trembling. This is because they portrayed the awfulness of sin and the fate of sinners accurately. Little time was spent on entertainment, story telling or any form of frivolity (see 1Corinthians 2:1-3). The gruesomeness of the cross was laid bare. So both content and attitude are important to effective preaching. When preaching inhales these regularly and with boldness, much can be expected from it. Church growth which is not based on sound preaching is fleeting.

Slackness in evangelism

Not only the apostles preached, many others did, thanks to the persecution following the death of Stephen. In fact, it was these who took the gospel out of Jerusalem (Acts 8:4 cf. 11:19-21). This spontaneous proclamation of the gospel by all who are converted is what we refer to as evangelism. Where it is lacking, conversions will be wanting and churches will not replicate themselves. Church leaders therefore have a duty to not only encourage members to evangelise in their private interactions, but to organise them for this specific task. Whatever methods of approach to be used, the task of communicating the gospel to the lost is not to be neglected. It is a divine commission (Mathew 28:18,19). This is God’s ordained means of realising church growth (Romans 10:14,15).

Ministerial famine

Before the formal inauguration of the church on Pentecost, ministers were undergoing training in the school of Christ, to equip them for the task of directing affairs in the church. When the time was ripe, the apostles, as pioneers, took up the challenge of proclaiming the word and organising the church into local institutions. Ministers are a pivotal part of church establishment and expansion. They provide, by their gifts and calling, the needed vision and impetus. Without them the work of the Lord, not least church expansion, progresses poorly. In the days Samuel was born, it is said that the “word of the Lord was rare.” Why? Because its ministers were lacking (1Samuel 3:1). Only churches that have gone long without ministers of the word fully appreciate the struggle involved in maintaining a consistent effective ministry that attracts growth. Hence, prayer must always ascend to the Lord of the harvest for more labourers to tend the ever ready harvest.

Myopic vision

Even with the best ministers, churches that are too inward looking will experience very little growth. An inward looking church is one that preoccupies itself with its internal life at the expense of needs beyond it. Even when evangelism occurs, it is purely for subjective reasons, it is purely for the sake of internal growth. This is unhealthy, and it leads to harmful perfectionism. The early church was guilty of this inwardness, perhaps for different reasons. Its problem was cultural and religious. Jews then sow little in terms of social-spiritual transactions beyond themselves (cf. Acts 10:28; 11:19). Until the God-sent persecution drove members of this church to look beyond Israel, it was content with the status quo. The spread of the gospel, as a result, was under severe threat. Many a church that would have been greatly used of God to influence vast communities across the nations has been hindered by applying too much detail to internal concerns. Let it be emphasised that ordering of the house is an endless process, it should not hold external obligations.

Internal conflict

Where human beings assemble, conflict in one form or another is not uncommon. Positively perceived, this may be healthy, in that it may be an integral process in establishing God’s will (1Corinthians 11:19). Unfortunately, conflict, even among God’s people, is usually destructive. It divides churches and families. The early church was not immune to such conflict (cf. Acts 6:1-4). Fortunately for it its leaders nipped the problem in the bud and found a lasting solution. Hitherto, nonetheless, the conflict drew away spiritual resources, it debilitated church life and stifled growth (cf. Acts 6:7). Everything must be done to manage conflict well.

Poor funding

The work of the Lord, like any enterprise on earth, requires money for its advancement. Money is a catalyst to internal and external church growth. The success of Paul’s ministry was in large part due to the support it enjoyed from churches (Philippians 4:14-19). Unless churches appreciate that great material sacrifice is required for the work to advance, they can forget about such advancement.

Lacking the Spirit’s power

Finally, it must be conceded that ultimately, success in the Lord’s work, whatever its kind, depends on the level to which the Spirit of the Lord is present. Much prayer escorted with godly living offer the hospitality the Spirit seeks to attend and bless a work. Events culminating in Pentecost demonstrate this.

A church sustaining biblical preaching, a burden for the lost and passion for evangelism, a concern to have more ministers, true unity, faithful giving and an incessant dependence on the Spirit’s power, is one well set for great success in all its God-ordained endeavours.