By Jack Glover
The church grew quickly when it began on the day of Pentecost, by 3,000 souls (Acts 2:41). A little later, another 5,000 conversions are mentioned (4:4). Then we read of multitudes being added to the church (5:14) and of the number of disciples multiplying in Jerusalem exceedingly, including “a great many of the priests (6:7). When the persecution became great in Jerusalem, the believers simply scattered to other places, preaching the gospel and making more disciples (8:1).
The church also grew during the American Restoration Movement as people accepted the plea to return to “speaking as the Bible speaks.” During the 1950s and 1960s, it was said that churches of Christ collectively grew the fastest in the nation.
It seems that things have changed. No longer does our growth astonish anyone. Why do you suppose that is? There was an interesting study in the February issue of The Christian Chronicle that raised the same question. A chart with figures from 1980 and 2006 showed a decreasing trend in many areas and slow growth in others. I think most of us would have to agree with the assessment of a slowing growth in the church.
What has happened, and what can we do to reverse this trend? The study mentions various reasons (or suppositions) as to why growth has become a problem. There is some validity in all of them, but I don’t have space to list them here. I encourage you to read the article. Though I agree that we have a problem with growth, some of the reasons why concern me:
- The Word alone is not enough. There seems to be an indication that old-time preaching is not enough in today’s society. While it may be true that our nation is becoming like Sodom, and is developing many traits that have destroyed other nations, that calls for more plain, gospel preaching, not less. It was God who chose to put the power in the gospel and to save by the foolishness of preaching (Rom. 1:16-17; I Cor. 1:21-25). Let me suggest that we may find other methods to grow in numbers, but we will just make crowds, not Christians. It was plain, non-compromising preaching that caused the church to grow in the beginning, and it will still work because it is God’s plan. Should we consider that when we began trying other methods to attract people, it caused our growth to slow, or stop, because we were no longer distinct?
- Evangelism — methods or words? There seemed to be a lot of discussion about the need for evangelism and methods. Have we become so obsessed with our gains or losses that we are losing sight of the scriptural method of conversion. Jesus said some followed him for the loaves and fishes (John 6:26). When they found out provision for this physical body was not the purpose of Jesus, they left Him. We have tried many methods of attracting people, hoping to convert them later. It has not worked and will not work. While we may have more methods available to us now than those in the first century did, the attraction must be to the spiritual, not the physical. It seems that the scriptures always take us back to the same method of evangelism: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction (II Tim. 4:2). Yes, we want to bring people to Christ, but the first-century method is still relevant.
- How others view us. The article suggested that some view churches of Christ as a “hard-line, fundamentalist denomination.” That may be true in some cases, but because our society has become one of compromise in about everything, should we change to please them? Jesus could have changed but did not. The apostles could have compromised but did not. People had to accept the teaching as it was, or the apostles moved on. “Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet” (Matt. 10:14). Changing in order to grow is not acceptable and will not convert others.
The world changes; the scriptures do not. Society teaches compromise on sin; the Bible does not. We can use the wisdom of man in order to grow; it will not work. It serves no purpose to “travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15).
How can we grow? Not by compromise; we have tried that. Not by developing worldly, or business methods; we have tried that. Not by loaves and fishes; we have tried that. Not by recreation; we have tried that. When all is said and done, and other methods tried, the answer still goes back to “the foolishness of preaching” because that is God’s way.
I know many will not listen; they didn’t to Jesus. I know our nation wants us to preach everyone into heaven, but we cannot because only obedience to truth can get them there. I know we don’t like to be told what to do, but God will tell us, either here or at judgment. I know we want to believe there are many ways to heaven (one church is as good as another), but that is not true (Matt. 7:13-14).
Paul told the Thessalonians “He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (II Thess. 2:14). Preaching worked in the first century; it worked in the American Restoration Movement; it worked in the ’40s; and it will work now. If it does not, those who reject it will suffer the consequences, not because we did not preach it but because they rejected it.
God “will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation (Rom. 2:6-8).