Whatever Happened to Church Growth

Christian Odyssey: Church growth was an idea that was popular 15 or 20 years ago. It promised to halt the decline in congregations and turn things around. Why hasn’t it worked?

Dr. Eddie Gibbs: Well, it depends upon the criteria by which you judge whether something has worked or not. If you have a lot of previously churched people, the insights and techniques of church growth were helpful. In the USA we had a wave of returning baby boomers following Watergate and Vietnam. Many of the boomers resisted traditional Christianity but responded to an approach which was contemporary and which fitted their needs and their cultural context. Some church growth insights were helpful in those contexts.

However, I think that with the wisdom of hindsight, the ideas of Donald McGavran, the founder of the church growth movement, were not really heard in the West. His principles were missionary and outreach principles. In North America particularly, they became marketing principles. In other words, how can I increase my slice of the religious market? The principles were misunderstood—even prostituted.

Outside the US, there was no phenomenon of returning baby boomers. So the standard approach was to remove all the

Six Functions of the Church


Why do we meet together each week for worship and instruction? With a lot less bother, couldn’t we worship at home, read the Bible and listen to a sermon on the radio or the internet?

In the first century, people gathered weekly to hear the Scriptures — but today we have our own copies of the Bible to read. Then why not stay at home to read the Bible on our own? It would be easier — cheaper, too. Through modern technology, everyone in the world could listen to the best preachers in the world, every week! We could have a menu of options, and listen only to the sermons that apply to us, or only to subjects we like. Wouldn’t it be lovely?

Well, not really. I believe that stay-at-home Christians are missing out on many important aspects of Christianity. I hope to address these in this article, both to encourage faithful attendees to get more out of our meetings, and to encourage others to return to weekly attendance.

To understand why we gather each week, it is helpful to ask, Why did God create the church? What purposes does it have? By

What Is the Church

Jesus is building his church

collage of church steeples. artwork by Ken Tunell

Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18 (link is external)). The church is important to him—he loved it so much that he gave his life for it (Ephesians 5:25 (link is external)). If we have the mind of Christ, we will love the church, too, and give ourselves to it.

The Greek word for “church” is ekklesia, which means an assembly. In Acts 19:39 (link is external), 41 (link is external), it is used for a large group of townspeople. But among Christians, the word ekklesia came to have a special meaning: all who believe in Jesus Christ.

For example, the first time that Luke uses the word, he writes, “great fear seized the whole church” (Acts 5:11 (link is external)). He does not have to explain what the word meant, for his readers were already familiar with it. “The church” means the disciples of Christ. It refers to people, not to a building.

Each local group of believers is a church. Paul wrote to “the church of God in Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2

Religion, physicians and surrogate decision-makers in the intensive care unit

Religious or spiritual considerations were discussed in 16 percent of family meetings in intensive care units and health care professionals only rarely explored the patient’s or family’s religious or spiritual ideas, according to an article published online by JAMA Internal Medicine.

Understanding how frequently discussions of spiritual concerns take place — and what characterizes them — is a first step toward clarity regarding best practices of responding to spiritual concerns in advanced illness.

Douglas B. White, M.D., M.A.S., of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and colleagues analyzed audio-recorded conversations between surrogate decision-makers and health care professionals. The study included 249 audio-recorded in physician-family meetings between surrogate decision-makers and health care professionals in 13 intensive care units at six medical centers around the country between October 2009 and October 2012.

The authors report that discussion of religious or spiritual consideration happened in 40 of the 249 family conferences (16.1 percent) and surrogates were the first to raise the religious or spiritual considerations in most cases (26 of 40).

When surrogates brought up religious or spiritual consideration, their statements fell into five main categories: reference to their beliefs, including miracles; religious practices; religious community; the notion that the physician is God’s

When does your religion legally excuse you from doing part of your job?

Can your religion legally excuse you from doing part of your job? This is one of the questions in the Kentucky County Clerk marriage certificate case. But it also arises in lots of other cases — for instance, the Muslim flight attendant who doesn’t want to serve alcohol and who filed a complaint on Tuesday with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the airline’s denial of an exemption.

The question has also arisen before with regard to:

  1. Nurses who had religious objections to being involved in abortions (even just to washing instruments that would be used in abortions);
  2. Pacifist postal workers who had religious objections to processing draft registration forms;
  3. A Jehovah’s Witness employee who had religious objections to raising a flag, which was a task assigned to him;
  4. An IRS employee who had religious objections to working on tax exemption applications for organizations that promote “abortion, … homosexuality, worship of the devil, euthanasia, atheism, legalization of marijuana, immoral sexual experiments, sterilization or vasectomies, artificial contraception, and witchcraft”;
  5. a philosophically vegetarian bus driver who refused to hand out hamburger coupons as part of an agency’s promotion aimed at boosting ridership;
  6. and more.

And of course it arises routinely when people are fine with their job tasks, but have

Church Buildings and Church Growth

Sometimes a congregation that has declined in numbers and morale comes to believe that their situation could be reversed if they build or buy a church building.

Some may begin to think, with all the best intentions, “If we buy our own building, we could do so many things we cannot do now!” Like the theme of the movie Field of Dreams, some may begin to believe: “If you build it, they will come!”

But experienced pastors know that a building program is not a ready solution for a church’s attendance problems. In fact, it is frequently a death knell for a congregation, generating conflict, hostility, frustration and morale problems the members never anticipated.

Some of our congregations, frustrated after a 60-year history of virtually no local church buildings in our denomination, now feel that owning a building may provide just the answer they’ve been looking for. Some of our churches may indeed be at the right point in their growth and maturity as a congregation where a building is the right and appropriate step for them to take. Before a congregation is prepared for a church building, several important factors need to be carefully considered.


Building Unity the Story of Euodia and Syntyche

Let me tell you about two people who worked side-by-side in the church. But something happened. They fell into a trap—a disagreement arose between them. Perhaps it began as a small argument, but it mushroomed into a rift that not only affected them but began to hurt the entire congregation.

You may know of similar circumstances. The people I’m referring to, however, lived almost 2,000 years ago. Their story is told by the apostle Paul in Philippians. He doesn’t provide much detail, but we get the picture if we read carefully: “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other” (Philippians 4:2 (link is external)).

Here in the midst of his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul exhorts Euodia (yoo-OH-dih-uh) and Syntyche (SIN-tih-kee), to end their disagreement. This short exhortation packs a powerful lesson for us today—a lesson about addressing division and producing unity in the church.

Euodia and Syntyche

Contention had arisen between these women, and it concerned Paul enough to address it in this public letter. Why? Paul knew that contention between members spreads. If unchecked, it leads to a lack of unity in the congregation. Paul was concerned. He wrote the book of

Your Church Needs You

During World War II, some posters displayed a stern Uncle Sam pointing and saying, “Your country needs you!” Many people responded to that challenge, going to work or to fight for the country even though they knew it would mean personal sacrifice and change of priorities. They responded because they believed in the cause they were fighting for.

Chances are, somewhere along the way many of these people realized that not every decision being made by their own side was perfect. But they knew that it was better to keep on helping the right side, for all its faults, than to quit and sit it out on the sidelines, or even worse, to fight against the right side.

Rediscovering our commitment

The idealism and self-sacrificing commitment of that wartime generation are harder to find in our society today. But as Christians, we are challenged to rediscover that commitment. Jesus is saying to his people today the same sort of thing Uncle Sam said in those posters. Jesus is saying to us, “Your church—my church—needs you!”

Remember your promises

Do you remember the promises we made to Jesus when we were baptized? We promised to love, honor, obey and serve him. He called us, and we

The Quest for the Ideal Church

Perhaps you know the one I mean. It is the church where no errors of doctrine or practice ever occur. In the Ideal Church, grace, obedience and legalism are always clearly understood and distinguished. The pastor never gives a boring, irrelevant or inaccurate sermon; and the congregation only sings the songs that you like and think are worshipful. In the Ideal Church, all members love one another all the time. No one ever sins or gives offense. There are no disagreements about how the church should be run, or how money should be spent.

Is this Ideal Church what you are looking for? If so, I’ve got bad news for you: you won’t find it. Why not? Because it doesn’t exist!

To create a perfect church, you need perfect people, and all Jesus’ churches are made up of imperfect people. Since the Real Church is made up of flawed people, it is inevitably a flawed body. The mixture of good and bad, success and failure cannot be escaped by changing denominations or congregations.

Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn points out that the separation between good and evil does not fall conveniently between groups of people, or between those in our church and those outside

Why You Need the Church

The second chapter of the book of Acts tells the story of the birth of the New Testament church. It was born in a dynamic display of power that was a dramatic witness to its divine origin. The community of believers multiplied as the power of God was evidenced by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The disciples of Jesus Christ were filled with zeal. The sermons of the apostles proclaimed Christ and his resurrection from the grave. Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection ignited the church.

On that first New Testament Pentecost, the apostle Peter bridged the gap between the old and the new by proclaiming this outpouring of the Holy Spirit to be the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams” (Acts 2:17).

Nearly 2,000 years later, Christians still band together as a community of believers. The Holy Spirit still bonds and unites Christians as in the first century. In common with our New Testament family, we are

Working Together for the Gospel

The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20 (link is external)) states the purpose of the church. It involves going in order to make disciples, whom we are to baptize and teach. The Great Commission isn’t a stay-at-home project. We won’t catch fish unless we go to the water, and it doesn’t do any good to catch them if we just throw them back in. We need to go, and we need to make disciples.

Eager to share

Every Christian should be “ready to give an answer.” Being ready implies not just having an answer, but being on alert to actually give it. When we believe the gospel, we become eager to do what Jesus Christ wants us to do. Faith make us eager to look for opportunities, even create opportunities, because we want to give this answer that God has given us.

We do not share the gospel to chalk up points or get an obligation out of the way. We share the gospel because Christ, who died and rose again, lives in us. Just as Christ did not come to be served, but to serve, so the church cannot rightly be his body in the world by keeping its faith to itself.


Responsibilities in the Christian Community to One Another

The Greek word allelon gives us a helpful introduction to the ways in which Christians should serve each other, because this Greek word means “one another” or “each other.” It is often used to describe our mutual obligations — the responsibility that all members have toward one another.

Perhaps the most comprehensive command Jesus gave was the well-known “Love one another” (John 13:34 (link is external)). “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (verses 34-35). This command is such a fundamental statement of our Christian duty that it is given again in John 15:12 (link is external), 17 (link is external); Romans 13:8 (link is external); 1 Thessalonians 4:9 (link is external); 1 Peter 1:22 (link is external); 1 John 3:11 (link is external), 23 (link is external); 4:7 (link is external), 11-12 (link is external); and 2 John 5 (link is external). This is the attitude in which we should always interact with

Give Me One Good Reason I Ought to Go to Church

“Why do I need to belong to a church? Why shouldn’t I just believe in Jesus and live a good life? Church can be a real pain, you know.”

Yes, church can be a real pain. All human relationships can be. Jesus’ command that we “love one another” (John 13:34-35) would not be much of a command if there were no good reasons not to love another. When we love one another in spite of how unlovable we are at times, we are loving others the way Jesus loves us. He loves us even though we are sinners, even though we betray his love.

We want the church to be close to perfect, even though the church is made up of people just like ourselves—quite imperfect. No church is exactly the way “it ought to be.” Every church has problems. Despite that, there are good reasons to belong to a church, and we will look at some of them.

Participation in Christ

Jesus said that his followers would be known by their love for one another. We demonstrate our love for one another in the context of a committed fellowship. If we avoid such a commitment, we are shunning our personal participation in the

Lay Members’ Role in the Early Church

Acts 2 describes the setting: God-fearing Jews from various nations had gathered in Jerusalem for the Day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit filled the apostles and other disciples, and they spoke in tongues. Although the pilgrims came from 15 territories — north, south, east and west — each traveler heard his or her own native language. After Peter spoke, 3,000 baptisms took place that day (Acts 2:41). The church continued to grow rapidly (verse 47).

What happened to these people? Where did they go? What is their legacy? We know of Peter, John and Paul. Stephen’s strength in martyrdom inspires us; Philip’s faith encourages us. What of the other members?

Every great work finds support in a group of people with a shared vision. The church is no different. Thousands of members supported Peter, John, Paul and other leaders. The mission of all these dedicated people was to preach redemption through Jesus Christ beginning in Jerusalem and extending to the whole world.

Heroic literature seldom mentions the commoner standing side-by-side with the hero. However, God’s Word records the faith, courage, dedication and work of many members of the early church. Their lives are inspiring examples of personal evangelism. They helped spread the gospel.


Teamwork in the Church

Sometimes Christians assume that full-time pastors serve the Lord more than other members do. Although that may be true in some cases, it is not true in all cases. Paul tells us, “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31 (link is external)). Whenever a Christian works in a bank, he or she does it for the glory of God. A Christian who teaches school does it to glorify God. A Christian who takes care of children at home glorifies God in changing diapers and scrubbing floors. They are all serving the Lord—full-time, perhaps 100 hours a week!

Every member lives to the glory and honor of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:15 (link is external)). Every member serves him as circumstances and abilities allow. Every member is a witness of Jesus Christ working in this world—and that includes secular occupations just as much as it does religious jobs. Jesus himself served God by working as a carpenter for many years. Even today, Christian carpenters serve God in the work they do.

Members have a mission

As we know, the church is not a building. It is not a social club or a self-benefit

Leadership in the Church An Examination of Eight Words

The New Testament mentions a wide variety of leaders in the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, bishops, elders and deacons. What are these offices? Are they commanded for the church today? Let’s examine the evidence, starting with the titles given in Ephesians 4:11 (link is external): “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.”


The word “apostle” is often used for the highest rank of church leadership. However, the word had a different meaning before the church existed. It originally meant “one who has been sent” — an ambassador or representative. This general meaning is seen in some New Testament uses.

Jesus used the word in a general sense when he said that a “messenger” is not greater than the one who sends him (John 13:16 (link is external)). Similarly, Paul referred to some apostles whose names were not given; the NIV calls them “representatives” (2 Corinthians 8:23 (link is external)). That was the general function of an apostolos. When Paul called Epaphroditus an apostolos, he may have meant that Epaphroditus was a messenger of the church at Philippi (Philippians 2:25 (link is external)).

Jesus, who was sent by

Ministry Means Service

When the Bible talks about “ministry,” what is it talking about? When it says that Christians are to be involved in “works of ministry,” what does it mean? This article examines the concept of ministry by seeing how the biblical writers were inspired to use the words for ministry. This can help us understand a little better what we are to be doing in the church and in the world. It also gives us a context in which we can examine other topics about ministry.

Some of the words, although Greek, are not completely foreign to us. For example, our English word “deacon” is related to the Greek word diakonia, which is sometimes translated “ministry.” The English word “liturgy” comes from leitourgia, which can also be translated “ministry.”

The word diakonia is used to describe the “ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4 (link is external)), the “ministry of the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:8 (link is external)) and the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18 (link is external)). Leitourgia is used to describe the ministry that Jesus has received as our High Priest (Hebrews 8:6 (link is external)). Similar Greek words can also be used

Why Don’t More People Go to Church

The most precious gift God has given us is our personal relationship with him. God knows us personally, and we know him. By God’s grace we are calmed by his presence in the midst of our difficulties. When everything and everyone else fail, we rest confidently in his loving care. During less troubled times, we soar like eagles on the updrafts of joy. There is nothing more important than this intimate relationship given us through Jesus Christ.

According to George Barna, many Americans want a personal relationship with God. God created us to have this relationship with him, so it would seem that evangelism would be easy. Since people are hungry for a personal relationship with God, let’s open the church doors wide and let them pour in.

But this isn’t happening. People who have given exit surveys after visiting a church say they found the people to be friendly but they didn’t perceive God’s presence. They complain that the church doesn’t seem relevant to their need. We could point out that God is always present, so if they didn’t experience him, they must be spiritually deficient. While this would be true for some, we need to consider our part in this.


When We Fall Short

“Some of the pastors in my region are discouraged,” a district superintendent said recently. “They haven’t been able to rally their churches to a vision of reaching out to the community. Some of them have general goals, but don’t have a specific vision. Others are frustrated because the congregation isn’t supporting the vision the pastor has.”

Let me offer a few encouraging words for those who are discouraged.

It is good to have goals larger than what we are able to achieve. On an individual level, Christ calls each of us to perfection, or wholeness (Matt. 4:48; Eph. 4:13). Even though we are unable to achieve complete wholeness in this life, we should still strive toward it — yet without discouragement, for we know that we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ, and there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Because of God’s faithful grace, we are encouraged to go forward with confidence, knowing that Christ lives in us, even though we haven’t yet reached our goal.

Jesus Christ sets before us a job far beyond our abilities: to bring the gospel to the entire world. Christian churches have

Turn Key or Makeover

If you are thinking about finding a new church home, you might want to consider doing your shopping with a real-estate tip in mind. The “perfect” church might not be the best spiritual investment.

In the real estate market, a house that is in tip-top shape is often referred to as a “turn-key” house. If you buy the home, it is in nearly perfect condition. Someone else has done all the work and the only work you need to do is “turn the key” and move in. Such properties are popular, and they usually sell for a premium. Unfortunately, when it comes time to sell, you stand to make little profit unless the market has appreciated considerably.

My wife and I, on the other hand, have purchased fixer-upper properties. In the last 15 years we have bought seven and lived in three of them. These properties were “cosmetic” fixers, rather than fixers that needed highly qualified, skilled work. The types of improvements our properties have needed were new paint, flooring and fixtures. The most “construction” we have done was to tear out and replace kitchen and bathroom counters and sinks. When more difficult repairs needed to be done, we always hired skilled

The Goal of the Christian Life

One old catechism says that our chief goal in life is to glorify and enjoy God forever. This is true. Scripture says that we were created for God’s glory and to proclaim his praises (1 Corinthians 10:31; Ephesians 1:11-12; 1 Peter 2:9). We exist to worship God, and in order to be genuine, this worship must come from the heart. It must be a genuine expression of our real feelings. We adore God above everything else, and we submit to his every command.

How do we help people get to this point? I think we are unable to achieve such a task. It is God who changes people’s hearts; it is God who converts the soul, who leads people to repentance, who touches people with love and grace. We can describe God’s amazing love and his astonishing grace and we can set an example of adoration and dedication to our Savior, but after all is said and done, it is God who changes each person’s heart.

Yet another way to describe our goal in life is to become more like Christ—and here I think we can briefly sketch some practical ways for how we can help one another as we grow toward

Upward, Inward and Outward in Words and Deeds

People sometimes use the phrase “upward, inward, and outward” to describe our Christian lives. “Upward” refers to our relationship with God. “Inward” refers to our relationship with fellow believers. “Outward” refers to our relationship with nonbelievers. Let’s look at some of the ways these three areas can be expressed in words and in actions.

Our upward relationship is the most important, and I will say more about it shortly. But I’d like to begin with our inward responsibilities – the relationships Christians have with one another.

Inward in words

There are two major ways in which we relate to fellow Christians. One is through fellowship, and the other is through ministry, or service. That is, our relationships are expressed in words and in deeds. Sometimes our words are simply “small talk” – chatting about the weather, sports, jobs, and other facts. Other times, as relationships develop, our conversations go beyond that, so that we are also discussing opinions, feelings and matters of the heart.

Christian fellowship includes spiritual matters, too – not just doctrinal facts, but the practical issues of the spiritual life. Small group fellowship is designed to bring out discussions on such a level, because sharing such things as the people of