Successful Churches, Numerical Growth, and Fidelity

This is going to be hard for American Christians.

Since the founding of this nation, churches have evaluated the “success” of a ministry based upon one overriding factor: numerical growth. We pursue growth, sacrifice for growth, and measure God’s blessing by growth. Numbers litter the evangelical landscape.

When a church or ministry does not grow, we assume that something is wrong. I do too. And then I remember that the Word of God offers a different standard by which Christians must evaluate their labors: fidelity. No church can produce growth. “Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7) It is mine to be faithful; it is Christ’s to grow His Church. This is, in fact, what Jesus taught when He said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church.” The power to transform a human heart, to convert a sinner to a saint, and to unite a person to the visible church rests in the hands of God alone. I can and must pursue fidelity; I must plant and water and fertilize, but I have no power to guarantee growth.

That’s why this will be hard for the American church. The rapid decline of nominal Christianity, the rise of secularism, and shifting cultural winds indicate that Christian faith may be on the wane in our nation. It will be hard for the American church to accept that. It will be hard to redefine success, rejecting a “growth = success” model in favor of a “fidelity = success” model. It will challenge the Church to remember that at various times and places in history God’s Church on earth has been but a remnant, small and struggling, while in other times and places it has been broad and deep and growing rapidly. We must remember that it is not ours to determine in which age we live; neither is it ours to demand of God that He numerically grow His Church in this place and at this time. It may instead be His will to allow the Church in America to struggle and to diminish in numbers, even while it grows in depth, fidelity, and devotion to Jesus Christ.

Certainly God is free to send another Reformation or a 3rd Great Awakening to refresh the Church and to renew its vitality. But the Church in America must acknowledge that He is also free to let the Church shrink in numbers in order to cause her to grow in holiness. Will we be content with that, or will we continue to demand “success” according to our own definitions?

This is going to be hard.

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