A Theology of Church Growth & Outreach

Church growth and church outreach have been topics of interest among church leaders for a long time.  These subjects are not new.  In fact, the biblical record can give us some incredible insight into these concentrated areas.

Far from being a field through which we may walk, seeking to ‘cherry pick’ verses to fit our agenda, the Bible is the storehouse of harvested wisdom and the place that one ought to begin his or her investigation of what it means for a church to be involved in outreach and experience real growth.  There are at least several things of which we may be certain as we study the biblical text with a keen eye towards the areas outreach and church growth.

The first thing we may clearly understand about outreach from the scriptures is that God intends His people to reach out.  There are many things that one might consider the ‘outreach efforts’ of a church, so it seems that defining biblical and effective outreach would be a good starting point.  Outreach may be defined as sharing in the ministry of proclaiming the message of Christ – the ministry of reconciliation – and living in (Gal. 5:25), walking in (Gal. 5:16, 25), keeping in step (Gal. 2:14) with that message and its implications.

One of the most famous passages in the Bible is the one found at the very end of Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus says to His disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).  There is much more that could be said of these verses, but we can at least see that there is indeed a great commission given here.

Jesus tells His followers that they are to be the ones who will now take the content of the message that Jesus Himself came to proclaim – namely the declaration of God’s grace upon sinful humanity (Luke 4:16-21, cf. Isaiah 61:1-2) – to the ends of the earth.  With the commission comes the promise that Jesus Christ, by His Spirit, will be with them in their outreach endeavor.

Discipleship seems to be defined, at least in overarching terms, by Jesus in the words that describe the activity of “discipling all nations.”  Baptize and teach are the two imperatives, and these are under the lead imperative of “make disciples.”  Therefore, outreach and church growth are closely linked, and outreach is every Christian disciple’s commission as well as privilege.

The effectiveness of a church’s outreach may be entirely based on its depth of its spiritual growth and understanding of the Gospel message.  Those who have received the message of hope, and trust in the Object of that message, will seemingly have an expected inclination to share that same hope-filled message with others.  A close consideration of what has actually transpired in order for a sinner to be redeemed will be helpful here.

The Apostle Paul says, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:10-11).  Once we sinners were enemies of God and under His judgment.  Now, because of the death and life of Christ, we currently enjoy and look forward to the day when we will ultimately enjoy complete reconciliation with the God of our salvation.

As a Christian comes to understand more profoundly the reality of his or her new position before God, especially when contrasted with their previous position, he or she will likely become a more enthusiastic participant in the ministry of reconciliation – or outreach.  Turning again to the Apostle Paul, he says elsewhere, “All this is from God [the passing from death and judgment to life and new creation], who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).  In other words, we who have been reconciled have received not only our own reconciliation from God, but we have also received the commission from God to play a role in His ministry of declaring reconciliation upon others.

This is a marvelous and humbling reality for all Christians – we have been reconciled and we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, or we who are the beneficiaries have become the heralds of the same Gospel that we received.  Therefore, God intends His people to be actively reaching out with this message of hope.

The second thing that we discover clearly presented in the scriptures concerning outreach is that Christians are expected to stir one another up towards such efforts.  In addition to finding our motivation for outreach efforts in our own reconciliation, we may also find further encouragement towards this ministry in the camaraderie of our fellow Christian community.  The author of Hebrews writes, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Two things seem to jump out from this text immediately.

One, love and good works are to be the theme of Christian life and activity.  Throughout the letter to the Hebrews, the author has been laboring the point that Jesus is the all-sufficient Savior.  Significantly, Christ has performed all that is necessary for sinners to be redeemed and glorified, and He has performed this task in exemplary fashion.  Jesus is the perfect example of all that He is and does – and this is particularly of interest to us because Jesus is both God and man.  Therefore, He is the perfect example for humanity in all that He did and does.  No one can be compared with Christ when it comes to love and good works.  His love was unconditional and His good works were (and are) the evidence of such love.  From self-sacrifice to enriching others in notably personal ways, Jesus is the quintessential picture of what a Christian life ought to look like.

Two, love and good works are clearly encouraged by other believers in the context of time and life spent together.  Love and good works are not meant to be done in passing at a weekly church meeting or merely articulated through some media outlet.  This may get more to the heart of what discipleship actually looks like, but doing life together is where love and good works are actually manifested.  Whether by living out a life of love and good works, or by lacking these in one way or another, only in regular close proximity are Christians able to stir one another to such love and good works.  It simply is not possible for real discipleship to take place without the deep relationship of Christian life upon Christian life.

Both love and good works are two sides of the same coin; good works evidences love, and one will not be present without the other.  These are to be enjoyed by all those who interact with Christians.  Believers and non-believers alike may benefit from the operation of love and good works in and through the life of a Christian.  Non-believers can especially profit from these in the area of outreach.

There may be much more consideration given to the form that love and good works takes on in each local context, but that Christians should impact their community with love and good works is evident.  God has instituted a community of faith wherein all believers are to stir one another towards love and good works as they live in step with the Gospel together.

The third and overarching characteristic of outreach that one might find in the biblical text is that it may be performed with confidence.  Christians may have the full confidence that the Gospel message they proclaim is true, and the One who promises to save will not prove to be unfaithful.  The author of Hebrews says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).

“Hope,” translated here from the Greek word elpidos, does not mean wishful thinking.  The term loses a bit of its original intent if we hear it with our contemporary ears.  Hope, in the biblical sense of the word, is much more akin to a confident expectation than to a mere possibility.  This has big implications for the confidence of every Christian – both for personal assurance and for public declaration.

Every Christian may indeed hold fast to their confident expectation of ultimate glory.  Why?  Because He who promised has demonstrated that He is faithful!  God has actually and surely saved sinners through the substitutionary obedience and sacrifice of Christ!  We can proclaim this truth with supreme confidence and more than sufficient evidence.

Christians may also proclaim the Gospel message in different ways and in diverse relationships with full confidence that sinners will be saved.  The Apostle Paul says, “If you confess with you mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.  For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’” (Romans 10:9-11).

The imperative here is to believe and confess, but the indicative (that which will be the subsequent result) is that salvation will accompany such belief and confession.  Christians may declare to their unbelieving friends that they not only might be saved upon placing full trust in the risen Lord, but that they most certainly will be saved.

Not everyone who hears the Gospel message will believe.  In fact, many will reject the claims of Christ and the claims of those who have trusted Him.  Conversion may be the result of evangelism, but it is not the ultimate goal; God’s glory is the ultimate goal of evangelism.  Christians glorify God in an accurate presentation of the character and nature of God, particularly as He has demonstrated and revealed Himself in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We play the role of ‘planting and watering’ the seeds of truth, and it is God who causes the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5).  Additionally, we may endure the rejection and assault of as many as will not receive the Gospel message in order that we may continue to proclaim it for the sake of those who will (2 Timothy 2:10).  We proclaim this beautiful message of reconciliation and do so with total confidence in the God of salvation; He will do what He said He would do.

Outreach is the individual and collective participation of Christians in the ministry of reconciliation.  The particular application of what outreach looks like may vary greatly from one church to another and from one situation to another within each church.  The Bible is full of examples of outreach.  They are so numerous and distinctive that it seems foolish to attempt to construct a rigid theological framework around the method(s) of outreach and evangelism.

Of two things we can be sure; (1) the content of the Gospel message is essential to biblical outreach, and (2) that message may be communicated through all sorts of mediums.  Christians may, therefore participate in the ministry of reconciliation, live in step with that message as the Spirit of God empowers such life, and do so with tremendous confidence in the God of all salvation.

Church growth will positively impact outreach and will be positively impacted by outreach.  As was mentioned before, the two are closely linked.  While it is not true that every local community of believers must needs increase in number or that God promises to provide such inflation, God does indeed glorify Himself in the inevitable growth of His universal Church.  We may benefit from turning to the Scriptures once more, this time for wisdom and clarity on the subject of church growth.

First, any growth that a church enjoys is from God and according to His providential and gracious activity.  For the sake of clarity, church growth (at least in the sense it will be used in this essay) is not tantamount to numerical increase in any particular local church.  Instead, church growth is the deepening of spiritual maturity and the numerical proliferation of the universal body of Christ.  Church growth then will have a varying impact on all local churches, possibly even a negative effect on local churches who have become less than Gospel-centered or so liberal that they have lost the Gospel altogether.  Again, God providentially and graciously moves to grow His kingdom, the body of Christ, as He sees fit.

The Apostle Paul says, “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God” (Colossians 2:18-19).  Paul’s letter to the Christians at Colossae includes this section of encouragement, which is that his readers hold fast to God/Christ – who is the Head of the body – as they understand their own operation as members of that body.  Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul goes into greater explanation of the relationship of one member to another.  Here we may at least understand his point that Christ is the head of the Church and He is the one that grows the Church with a growth that is ‘from God.’  Far from being attributable to man in any way, genuine church growth is from God.

Laboring this point further, and turning now to the book mentioned previously, Paul charges the Corinthian Christians to keep from forming factions around any particular man or group.  He says, “What is Apollos?  What is Paul?  Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.  For we are God’s fellow workers.  You are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:5-9).  It seems Paul is not willing that anyone misunderstand his idea here.

There are at least three things of important note in this passage.

One, Paul says that he and Apollos are “servants through whom you [those Corinthian Christians] believed as the Lord assigned to each.”  The Lord’s assignment may be the ‘servant’ to the ‘believer’ or the ‘believer’ to the ‘servant,’ but either way this has profound implications concerning the numerical result of any Gospel ministry.  This statement clearly presents God as an ‘assigner’ of ministerial charge and reception.  Deeper study may demonstrate that both are surely assigned by God.  God distributes the one who spends incredible time and effort in Gospel ministry to the field in which he toils; and God consigns the believers who are regenerated by the Holy Spirit through the use of such ordinary means of grace – the preaching of God’s word – to the undershepherd in whose care they have been placed.

Two, Paul says emphatically, “Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything.”  Now, most ministers would not likely consider their efforts “nothing;” and it does not seem that Paul intends to describe Gospel ministry as nothing here.  Yet, it does seem that he intends to make perfectly clear that all the effort in Gospel ministry that can be conjured by all humanity will amount to ‘nothing’ on its own or without something or someone else.  Unless or until God moves in such a way as to provide or generate growth, it will at best remain potential rather than actual.

Three, “God gives the growth.”  This statement needs no lengthy explanation.  God alone, only, and singularly is responsible and due glory for any growth of His Church.  When His good pleasure is to generate growth, His body will indeed grow.  All genuine, Gospel-centered growth that any local church enjoys is due to the sovereign work of God in and through the means of grace and by the power of His Spirit.

Because church growth is from God, we may secondly understand that church growth is inevitable.  Christ, God the Son, has stated in no uncertain terms that He is about the work of growing His church.  “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16-18).  Whatever else Jesus Christ is saying here about Peter or the ‘rock’ upon which He will build His Church, He is at the very least declaring that He will definitely build His Church, and His Church growth production will actually be successful.  This clear pronouncement from the lips of Christ cannot be overstated. Coupled with the declaration of Christ (already cited in the previous section on the ministry or outreach of the Church) in the Great Commission, which seems to be the method by which He will do such a thing, Christians may be fully confident that Christ/God is successfully building His Church and will continue to be thus.

Briefly recalling the powerful claim of Jesus in Matthew 28, He says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples… And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, abbreviated).  The King of heaven and earth says to ‘make disciples,’ and He will be with His disciple makers all along the way through the end of the task – He will build His Church!  Of this we may have no doubt – Church growth is inevitable.

Third and finally, Church growth is ultimately to the glory of God.  Because it is from Him and empowered by Him, it is to Him and to His glory that the task be done.  It is true that all things are created for the glory of God, chiefly God’s apex creation – man.  Everything of creation, because of the fall, has been marred by sin, but the purpose for which creation was brought into being has not changed.  In the current estate of creation, God is pleased to bring sinful rebels into His Kingdom – the Kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:13-14).  This extension of His Kingdom is for His glory and for the benefit of sinners.

The Apostle Paul says, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were to first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.  In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:11-14).  So much more is said here than what is of particular interest to the topic at hand, but there are at least a few things that apply.

Once again, as has already been presented at length, any who are beneficiaries of the ‘obtained inheritance’ have been ‘predestined’ thus ‘according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.’  God is the Giver of growth and the Appropriator of the same.  Additionally, the growth of each individual member of Christ’s body (to draw upon the analogy used previously) is ‘guaranteed’ to continue in growth until he or she is fully matured and takes complete possession of the promise in glory.  Lastly, and of great importance to the subject of church growth to the glory of God, both the obtaining of the inheritance and the delivery of such endowment is ‘to the praise of HIS glory’ (emphasis added).

God is about His glory!  He glorifies Himself in the conversion of sinners, the regeneration of dead men to life in Christ Jesus.  The growth of God’s Kingdom through the proclamation of the Gospel is to the praise of His glorious grace.  He also glorifies Himself in the sanctification of those He has redeemed.  The growth of love and good works (Heb. 10:23) enjoyed by the Church and by all those who are touched by her is to the praise of His glorious consecration.  God ultimately will, and now does, glorify Himself in the total salvation of all those who are found in Christ.  The steadfast God who is worthy of our confident hope above any other guarantees the growth to maturity, which every Christian will enjoy – sinners will be glorified to the praise of His glorious splendor!

We may at this point breathe in a restful sigh of worshipful serenity in the God of our salvation, for He does and will glorify Himself in our salvation and that of others.  However, as with seemingly every aspect of theology, there is a bit more that might take us over the superlative edge.  Just after the Apostle Paul speaks of the ‘mystery’ of the gospel, he closes the section of his letter to the Christians in Ephesus that consists of the basis for the unity and life of love, which is the thrust of the remainder of this letter, with a call to look to and trust God for that which only He can do.

He says, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Through all generations this same God who works within us to will and to do His good pleasure will do far more than we might ask or think.  The fullness of His redeeming work, sanctifying progress, and glorifying result is too high for us to comprehend!

He who is able to do far more than our minds may conceive, to Him be glory.  To Him be glory in the Church – in the salvation and loving good works of those who are compelled by the Spirit of Christ towards such activity of thought, word and deed.  To Him be glory in Christ Jesus – as the Gospel of Jesus Christ is spread abroad by participants in the ministry of reconciliation and glorifies God in the exaltation of His triune salvific work.  To Him be glory throughout all generations – every generation that passes one to the next will be to His glory as sinners of a new demographic come to understand their universal dependence upon God’s gracious grace.

To Him be glory forever and ever – for we who are the redeemed will be the venerating display of God’s saving work among a sinful creation in order that all eternity will know that God is both the just and the justifier of all those who have faith in Jesus Christ!  Amen.

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