There is a question that has been much debated among Christians who are deeply concerned that the world should be won to Christ and that His Church should grow to encompass as many people as possible before He returns in glory. The question can be put as follows: on what should our efforts be primarily expended, producing more or making better disciples of Jesus Christ? The question is not whether or not it is our job to "preach the gospel to every [human] creature" (Mark 16:15) and "to all the nations" (Luke 24:47). Nor is the question whether or not Christ has sent us into the world (John 20:21) to be His witnesses, even "to the remotest part of the earth" (Acts 1:8) in order to "disciple all the nations" (Matthew 28:19). This is our mission, given to us by Christ and it is our duty, honor and joy to carry it out. The question is, how shall we concentrate our energies in order to accomplish it?
Some would say that both are necessary and that we should place equal emphasis and expend the same amount of energy on one as on the other. That makes good sense, to be sure. Christ wants good quality followers as well as a good quantity of them. In fact, He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9) because He desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). At the same time, it is God's will that all believers should "attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ." (Ephesians 4:13) Wow! This certainly is a lofty goal: that we should all become like Christ in spiritual maturity! So both quantity and quality are vitally and equally important. Why not pursue them both with the same energy and drive? But what if it doesn't work quite that way? What if you get both by placing a greater emphasis on one than the other? This is what many would argue but in two different ways.
The Church Growth movement that became especially prominent during the mid-70's to mid-90's took the position that the churches in America and Europe had stalled and were losing membership and influence over the culture because they had not aimed at reaching people. The advocates of this movement alleged that the Church in these parts of the world had focused either on serving the members or were preoccupied with social action rather than evangelism and church growth. They also maintained that spiritual growth is actually the by-product of efforts to reach out to new people for Christ. In their view, the Church that aims to draw in the masses will also find itself achieving a higher quality of Christian discipleship because they will be doing what Christ commanded. It enlivens the Church when new people are coming into it, sparking greater excitement and deeper commitment in the existing membership. This, in fact, is true, provided that the church has not compromised the gospel in order to get that growth. But that is the problem. When you place primary emphasis upon getting people to profess faith in Christ or participate in the fellowship of the believers there is a very strong tendency toward compromise. When numbers are the gold standard, the gospel standard is devalued.
Let's take a look at a couple of passages in Acts that shows the opposite is true, that is, that when the Church focuses on growing in Christ, numerical growth naturally follows. First, let's turn to Acts 2:42 - "They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." This may be taken as a fairly comprehensive statement concerning what the earliest Christians in Jerusalem were doing. Of course, the gospel was being preached to the multitudes as we see at the beginning of that chapter and in subsequent chapters but the emphasis was on growing those who were won by that preaching. Quality was very important to these early disciples, and God showed them it was very important to Him too!
When a married couple, Ananias and Sapphira, claimed that they had given all of the money they received from selling a piece of property they owned, to the church to use for the needy, God revealed through Peter that they were lying. As soon as Peter uncovered their sin, they fell down dead! The Bible tells us the result of this: "And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things." (Acts 5:11) I thank God that He very rarely deals with our sins in such a dramatic and drastic fashion but God undoubtedly wanted to send a strong message of His concern for the spiritual integrity of the Church. Jesus spoke out forcefully against hypocrisy in those who profess to follow God. He told His disciples, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy." (Luke 12:1) His intention was to build a body of followers whose attitudes and behavior were better than those of the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). An emphasis on quality was therefore absolutely imperative.
Let's now look at how this emphasis produced numerical growth. "At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon's portico. But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem. And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number…" (Acts 5:12-14) Ministry to the multitudes took place, to be sure, and it no doubt was accompanied by the preaching of the gospel. But look at what the believers were doing. They were assembling with one accord in the Temple courtyard. This was to listen to the Apostles and worship the Lord. Notice that unbelievers did not dare associate with them. They knew that becoming a follower of Jesus was a serious business as the recent example of Ananias and Sapphira had shown them. Notice also that the believers were held in high esteem by unbelievers. Why was this? It was because of the match between their lives and their profession of faith. The quality of character displayed by believers was what convinced people of the truth of the gospel and led some of them to trust in Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Those who are growing spiritually and are seriously engaged in seeking first God's kingdom will, in fact, be those most likely to share their faith with others - and to be taken seriously by those who hear them. I notice that while we have the commands of Christ to proclaim the gospel and there are plenty of good examples of this being followed by the early Christians, there are no exhortations, instructions or admonitions given to us in the letters of the Apostles to evangelize others. Why is this? It is undoubtedly because the Apostles knew that believers who are growing spiritually will share their faith with others and do so effectively. Working on quality does lead to solid quantitative growth.