On a number of occasions over the last couple of years I have touched on the theme of the basic activities of life, both of biological and spiritual life. They are 1) birth, 2) growth, 3) service and 4) multiplication. Jesus said, "I came that they [that includes you and I]might have life, and have it abundantly." (John 10:10) He said He is "the way, the truth and the life" (14:6) He also said, "I am the resurrection and the life…" Life begins at birth. Jesus said we must be born again (3:3, 5) to enter the kingdom of God. Once we have been reborn, spiritually, it is time for us to grow. Spiritual growth is a process of continual transformation into the likeness of Christ, of becoming more and more like Christ in His beautiful moral attributes. This will enable us to be of greater and greater service to God and to His creation and become ever more fruitful in giving birth, spiritually, to new children of God.
In this article, I want to connect the dots, so to speak, between individual spiritual growth and the numerical growth of the church. Not surprisingly, what is good for individual spiritual growth is also good for the church as a whole, including its numerical size. It is God's will that the Church, the sum total of believers in the world, should grow in numbers until the day when it can be truthfully said that all nations have been discipled to Christ. That is the mission Jesus gave us as His Church (Matthew 28:18-20). How is that going to happen? Thankfully, we have plenty of examples from the Bible and throughout Church history to help us come to a conclusion on how the Great Commission will finally be accomplished. That record shows that the Church grows best when it becomes smaller!
You may be surprised by that answer. Sacramento Friends, after all, is quite small and it is not a powerhouse of church growth! Some are even glad that this is so. They don't want to be part of a "big church" let alone a "mega-church". I also like the small church with its close community and opportunities for service. Yes, Sacramento Friends has been blessed by God over its many years to see a fair number come to Christ and to help others to grow into stronger, more committed Christians. But the truth is that we have never broken through a kind of low-hanging "glass ceiling" of fruitfulness. We need to become smaller to do so. By smaller, I don't mean we need less people attending our regular weekly meeting for worship. What we need, metaphorically speaking, is a more effective way of shepherding the flock and helping it to reproduce.
You see, it is amazing how easy it is to keep out of sight in a group larger than about a dozen people. Someone comes into the meeting room, sits in the back, avoids engagement and is likewise avoided and then goes out without anyone knowing their name, why they came or what motivated them to show up. Virtual anonymity or superficial involvement can be maintained by long-time attenders in churches whose regular attendance is as little as twenty. This is not what being part of the Church was meant to be! The New Testament describes and teaches a rich life of inter-connection between members.
There are numerous commands joined to the words, "one another": John 13:34-35; 15:12, 17; Romans 12:10, 16; 13:8; 14:13, 19; 15:5, 7, 14; 16:16; 1 Corinthians 12:25; Galatians 5:13; Ephesians 4:2; 25, 32; 5:19, 21; Colossians 3:13, 16; 1 Thessalonians 4:18; 5:11, 13, 15; Hebrews 3:13; 10:24-25; James 5:16; 1 Peter 1:22; 4:8-10; 5:5; 1 John 1:7; 4:7, 11. I have left out the negative "one anothers" (those saying what not to do to one another), as well as some of the duplicates, but a review of these verses impresses us with the importance of positive interactions between fellow believers. Yet how many slip in and out of church pews and barely make a ripple on the surface of the congregation! People look to the pastor and the "up front" people to do the work of the ministry while the Bible says such people are given to the Church by God "for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, to the building up of the body of Christ." (Ephesians 4:12)
In our small church and in its regular meetings for worship we actually do have perhaps a greater amount of interconnection and individual participation than many churches have, especially those churches which are larger than ours. But that is the point, even though we are small, we are not small enough! What I think we need are more groups of between two to twelve people who either live near each other or who share significant commonalities (such as gender, age, family stages, etc.). We already have some small groups that meet weekly, bi-weekly or monthly and that is good. What may be partly missing, even from some of these, is the feeling that this is, besides perhaps one's immediate family, the basic "home church" with whom you seek to spiritually grow, serve and multiply.
The small groups that I am advocating would meet weekly or bi-weekly at least and would focus on just two things: pastoral care of its members and reaching others for Christ. Included in pastoral care would be review of, and encouragement in, the basics of Christian faith and life as well as mutual ministry and prayer. Outreach would include encouragement of, and opportunities for, evangelism, works of mercy and missions. Membership in these groups should involve the expectation that every member of the group will eventually, within a certain time period, start a new group that has new people in it who have not already been a part of one of our groups! This would require people to become actively involved in reaching new people for Christ. That is a scary thing for many of us. We prefer to take care of ourselves and the people we have been in church with for decades.
Now I realize that this is not the only way for a church to grow. There is the "attractional" model of church growth whereby people are supposed to invite people to church where they hear the gospel and become believers, eventually assuming active roles in church life. That is the model we have been pursuing for a long time and we see some fruit but certainly not as much as we should. The model I am presenting here, all too inadequately and briefly is what is known as the "missional" model of church growth. This would not mean that Sunday morning "large group" worship would cease or Sunday School but that these would be focused on serving the smaller, basic home groups where the "front-line" pastoral care and evangelistic growth would be taking place. That is the ideal, anyway. Let me know what you think!