by E. Luther Copeland
When one sets out to write about church growth from the perspective of the four Gospels, he discovers himself confronted by a discomfiting fact: the Gospels have nothing specific to say about church growth.
When one sets out to write about church growth from the perspective of the four Gospels, he discovers himself confronted by a discomfiting fact: the Gospels have nothing specific to say about church growth. As is well known, there is no mention of the church as such in the Gospels, except for two passages in Matthew. In Matthew 16, Jesus indicates that he will build his church upon the confessed faith of Simon Peter (presumably as representative of the faith of the other disciples as well). But the reference is to the budding of the church and its indestructible nature rather than upon church growth and the means of church growth. In Matthew 18, the reference to the church is in the context of the teaching concerning forgiveness (or church discipline), and the growth of the church as not within the purview of the discussion.
One might have expected that the later experience of the remarkable growth of the church as described in the book of Acts would be reflected in the literary development of the Gospels. However, this seems not to be the case – at least in terms of direct evidences of how church growth was viewed by the early church.
Therefore, one is left with the necessity of trying to trace out possible implications for the meaning of church growth. The implications are many, no doubt, but to identify and interpret them is an uncertain and hazardous undertaking; for the phenomena are capable of differing interpretations. Therefore, the following suggestions are set forth with considerable tentativeness.
POSITIVE IMPLICATIONS CONCERNING CHURCH GROWTH
On the one hand, in the instructions of Jesus to his disciples, as well as in his own activity and his teaching, there are intimations that the growth of the church is good. That is, there are indications that accessions to the number of disciples as to be sought after. In John 4;34 ff., Jesus is quoted as declaring that "the fields are already white for harvest" and that the disciples are to reap and "gather fruit for eternal life." And it is added that many Samaritans believed in Jests. Likewise, in connection with the sending of the disciples to preach, teach and heal (in Luke’s account), axed in relation to Jesus’ own ministry in "alb the cities and villages" (in Matthew’s account), Jesus says to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest" (Matte 9:37-38, Luke 10:2).
Similarly, Jesus’ promise to make his disciples "fishers of men" (Mark 1:17, Matt. 4:19) is an indication that the accessions of disciples by drawing the gospel net is pleasing to God. This value judgment is all the more dramatically sit forth in Luke’s account, which is played in the context of the catch of a greet school of fish, so that tie nets were breaking (Luke 5:1-11).
Other instructions to the disciples seem to bear similar implications, if less directly. Such are the metaphors of the salt and light as expressive of the role of the disciples in fulfilling their missions (Matt. 5:13-16) end the parables by which leaven has a similar meaning. Growth in these meanings may be more gradual and less dramatic, however.
In Jesus’ own activity there is tie itineration from village to village, preaching, teaching and healing. And there are evidences that Jesus thus performed his ministry with a sense of urgency (e.g., Mark 1:38). I-here and there, also, Jesus interprets his ministry as his having come "to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10).
The Gospel accounts describe Jesus as having compassion for the crowds, viewing them as "harassed and helpless, as sheep without a shepherd" (Matt. 9:36; cf. Mark 6:34). His parables manifest this same concern. In the stories of the lost sheep, lost coin and lost son, the compassion is for the lost as individuals – as indeed Jesus’ concern seems always to have been. In the parable of the marriage feast (Matt. 22:1-10) or the great banquet (Luke 14:16-24), the servant is instructed to "go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in" (Luke 14: 23).
Even more directly to the point are the universal invitations which Jesus issued: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest . . .9" (Matt. 11:28-30). Or, "If any one thirst, let him come to axis and drink. . ." (John 4:37-38). Similarly, the declaration: "And I. when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12:32).
Then there are the parables that have to do with the growth of the kingdom. In the parable of the sower and the seed (Mark 4:3 ff. and parallels in Matt. and Luke) the accent is upon the diverse responses to the word ‘of the good news) of the kingdom. The parable of the seed growing of itself Mark 4:26 ff.) focuses upon the mystery of the growth of the kingdom. The parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30 ff. and parallels) depicts the surprising, dramatic, miraculous growth of the kingdom.
Perhaps the parables of the tares (Matt. 13:24 ff.) and of the net ( Matt. 13: 47-50) are more directly applicable to the growth of the church – as distinct from the kingdom because they seem to envision the church as a mixed assembly of good and bad, with ultimate distinctions and purifying waiting upon the final parousia and its accompanying judgment. In this regard, it is only Matthew’s gospel that seems to transpose the actual situation of the developing church into Jesus’ preaching concerning the kingdom.
Similarly, the rejection of unworthy or hardhearted respondents may indicate that places are to be sought where a growth-response is possible. In the parables, such harsh judgment of callous or indifferent respondents is indicated – e.g., in the parable of the sower and seed, of the marriage feast, etc. Moreover, actual cities that failed to respond to Jesus’ preaching with repentance and faith are condemned (Matt. 11:20-24; Luke 10:13-15; cf. also Matt. 12:38-42).
When sending the disciples on their mission of preaching and healing, Jesus instructed them that when the people of a place refused to hear them, they were to shale off the dust of their feet "for a testimony against them" (Mark 6:11 and parallels). Likewise, the disciples were instructed: "Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine; lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you" (Matt. 7:6).
It should be evident by now that these intimations in the Gospels that church growth is good are not without their ambiguities. Especially important is the qualification that we are not sure that even when growth is mentioned or implied that the growth of the church is specifically meant. The growth of the kingdom is clearly indicated, especially in some of the parables, but the growth of the church is not thus surely indicated.
NEGATIVE IMPLICATIONS CONCERNING CHURCH GROWTH
Even more significant than this lack of clarity are the countervailing factors that tend to negate what are suggested above as positive implications for church growth. And these countervailing factors in the activity and teaching of Jesus are considerable.
For one thing, Jesus deliberately avoided the responsive crowds. When it was being reported that the Jesus movement was making more disciples than that of John the Baptist, Jesus left Judea for Galilee (John 4:1-3). When "the whole city" game to him in Capernaum .and everybody was seeming him out, he slipped away to go to other towns (Mark 1:32-39). On another occasion when "great multitudes gathered to hear and to be healed of their infirmities . . . he withdrew to the wilderness and prayed" (Luke 5:15-16). Or, "He left the crowds and went into the house" (Matt. 13:36). Or, again, "When Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side" of the lake (Matt 8:181, etc. Though these deliberate refusals of the crowds and their acclaim may have some specialized explanation such as the "Messianic secret," the fact remains that Jesus is pictured as turning from the crowds and from the apparently rapid growth of his movement.
In John’s Gospel, not only did Jesus refuse the popular acclaim of the crowds (John 6:15), but the crowds turned from him because they were offended at his claims (John 6:41 ff., 66 ff). Jesus’ explanation fear this turning away, as reported by John, may be significant for the meaning of church growth: "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (John 6:44, cf. 6:65).
The withdrawal from the crowds was attended by a deliberate focus upon individuals. Withdrawing into a lonely place to pray, he then chose the twelve (Mark 3:13 ff.; Luke 6:12 ff.). And even individuals who volunteered to follow him were sometimes met with surprising responses from Jesus which at the very least discouraged superficial joining of his movement (e.g., Matt. 8:18-22; Luke 9:57-62).
In fact, Jesus set forth the cost of discipleship in uncompromising terms that must not have envisioned a popular mass movement. He demanded a righteousness exceeding that of Israel’s contemporary exemplars, the scribes and Pharisees Matt. 5:20). He asserted the great all-embracing priority of the kingdom of God and the righteousness of God (Matt. 6:33). Often he spoke of the cost of discipleship as the renunciation of all that a man held dear, including his own life (cf. Mark 8:34 ff.; Matt. 16:24 ff.; Matt. 10:34-39; Luke 14:25 ff.; etc.). He contrasted the "few" who enter the narrow way to life with the "many" who enter the broad way to destruction (Matt. 7:13-14).
In addition, according to Matthew, he placed restrictions upon the mission of his disciples, charging them not to go to Gentiles or Samaritans (Matt. 10:5). His own earthly mission was almost entirely confined to Israel (Matt. 15:24; cf. Mark 7:27). And he condemned the Pharisees for zealous proselytism (Matt. 23:15). These restrictions may be explained upon the basis of Jesus’ sense of priorities concerning the unfolding of redemptive history and specifically by his conviction that the time of the Gentile inclusion must follow God’s action in the cross (cf. J. Jeremias, Jesus’ Promise to the Nations). Moreover, the post-resurrection commissions are truly universal. Nevertheless, even these commissions place a premium upon faithful witness and obedience to the teaching and example of Jesus – not necessarily nor unambiguously upon church growth as a value within itself.
One further negative factor concerning the implications for church growth in the Gospels: Jesus is pictured as deliberately setting his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. If he had expressed urgency concerning his preaching to the many towns and villages earlier in his ministry, now he presses urgently toward Jerusalem and the crucial denouement with the forces of darkness there (Luke 12:49 ff.; Luke 13:33; Mark 10:32 ff. and parallels; etc.). This path to the cross took him sway from the promise of success in Samaria ( Luke 9:51-56; c f. John 4: 39 ff.) and the invitation of the Greeks (John 12:20 ff.).
Thus, what appear to be both positive and negative factors relating to church growth lie tangled and intertwined together in the Gospels. Does this mean that nothing can be said from the perspective of the Gospels concerning church growth? Probably not. Rather it means that whatever is derived from the Gospels on this subject must be treated with caution and with the eschewing of dogmatism.
In this spirit of tentativeness, let me suggest some principles drawn from the testimony of the Gospels that may shed light on the vital and controversial subject of church growth.
1. Specific instructions from the Gospels concerning the missionary task should be viewed in the light of the eschatological expectation in which they were set and in the light of the events of cross and resurrection which illumined and determined the mission. For example, the restriction of mission to "the lost sleep of the house of Israel" is to be interpreted in the light of the universal commissions and universal preaching which follow the resurrection. Moreover, one should not make too much of the instructions concerning an unresponsive field – shaking off the dust of one’s feet, etc. – unless he is prepared to take seriously the other instructions of that highly eschatological situation such as taking nothing for one’s journey but a staff, "no bread, no bag, no money"!
2. In the Gospels it is by no means the church that has priority, but the kingdom of God (heaven). And the two are not the same. If the church is given the "keys of the kingdom," it is nevertheless not the kingdom but the servant of the kingdom. The "good news" of Christ is never the "good news" concerning the church but the good news of the kingdom of God. From the vantage point of the Gospels, then, a focus upon church growth should always take second place to the accent upon the kingdom which transcends the church. Else a church-centrism results against which J. C. Hoekendijk and others may be justified in protesting.
3. In the Gospels it is clear that the character of the disciples and the fellowship which they comprise (church?) is more important than numbers of accessions or numerical growth. Again and again, Jesus issued challenges to the faith (and hope and love) of disciples and would-be disciples. The rich young ruler, for example, would appear to be a splendid prospect for "church membership." But he did not enroll in the fellowship of disciples. After Jesus’ demand of faith-commitment, he disqualified himself.
4. Church growth is indefeasibly related to the cross. The eschatological gathering of the nations is seen to depend on the event of the cross. This is explicitly said in John’s Gospel (John 12:32), but is inescapably implied in the others. The implications of this centrality of the cross may well mean that a "ripe field" is only one of the priorities for determining where the resources of mission are to be allocated. A difficult, unrewarding task may be a priority also – especially a missionary task rendered difficult by the past mistakes and sins of Christians, such as the task among Muslims, Jews, blacks, American Indians, etc. Or a simple cry for help may be a priority quite apart from the prospects for church growth. Cf. the story of the Good Samaritan ( Luke 10: 30-37 ) or the picture of the last judgment (Matthew 24:31-46).
5. Finally, the adding of disciples, viewed from the perspective of the Gospels, remains a mystery and not merely a sociological reality. Unless the Father draws them, men do not come to the commitment of discipleship – or at least so is the conviction of the Fourth Gospel. Or, to put it differently, the reality of human faith, which is to be taken with great seriousness, is nevertheless incorporated within the larger circle of the mysterious sovereignty of the Holy Spirit. The seed of the kingdom grows mysteriously – of itself. And even the preacher is directed by the Holy Spirit to decisions that may run counter to the seeming logic of human calculations. Of such character were the decisions made by Jesus in the experiences of temptation in the wilderness. So also was the unswerving course which led to Jerusalem and a humiliating death rather than to the "ripe fields" of Samaria or the Greek world.
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