Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 05/30/1999
Speaking the truth in love, we grow up into the Head who is Christ, "from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love."
For almost three months now we have been looking at the fact that the first thing we must do to walk worthily of our calling is to make sure that the Church is functioning as God designed it to. To this end we must let the ministers equip us for service so that both we and the Church may grow until we all attain to the unity of the faith, the knowledge of the Son of God, and maturity, even to the measure which belongs to the stature of Christ (v. 13). Now in verse 16 Paul puts together the minister's training and our serving to show how the whole process is supposed to work. It all flows from Christ, "from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love."
What kind of growth are we talking about here? This whole section is about church growth, but not about church growth as we usually conceive it. It is helpful first of all to notice some of the aspects of growth that are NOT mentioned in the passage. There is not one word about numbers, not a single mention of programs, not a hint of buildings or a whiff of budgets. It is not that these things are unimportant but that they are not the focus of true biblical church growth. You see, the Church can be expanding in all those ways but not be GROWING at all! If the Great Commission is the Church's commission, then a healthy church will be growing in the number of disciples it is making and influencing, and this will tend to cause it to be increasing in size. But that is a byproduct of real growth, not the growth itself.
What then are the characteristics of real growth in the Church? The focus here is that each of the individual members should be increasing in spiritual maturity, in their ability to serve, in Christlikeness. The real index is whether the percentage of members who are serving others with their spiritual gifts, who are learning how to speak the truth in love, is increasing, not simply whether the raw number of members is going up. As a result of this, Christ is glorified in the Church (3:21), and as He is lifted up He draws more people to Himself. Therefore, we ought not to let our quite proper reaction against the typical American obsession with numbers become an over-reaction. If a church is not making disciples--more disciples--something is wrong. But we must also recognize that the focus here is not on numbers of adherents at all, but on whether those you do have are becoming active participants whose service reflects the love and truth of Christ. For that is the only thing that can lead to real and sustainable growth in the total number of people being discipled. We must not forget that the Great Commission is not about making Converts but about making Disciples. Conversion is but one step on the road to that greater goal.
The Apostle here not only tells us the kind of growth we should be looking for, he also gives us some conditions that must be met if we are to achieve it. The first one is that THE CHURCH MUST BE CONNECTED VERTICALLY. It is He who is the Head, even Christ, from whom this growth flows (v. 15-16). Unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain who build it. Therefore labor, exertion, dedication, brilliant programming, and talent--none of which are to be despised--are all useless, vain, and worthless without Christ. Therefore, in a healthy and growing church, Christ will be the center of attention, the object of adoration, the source of motivation, the fountainhead of energy. He will be the reason for coming, the subject of every testimony, the focus of every sermon. He will be the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of everything the church does. If not, it is just spinning its spiritual wheels and accomplishing nothing.
The second condition of growth is that THE CHURCH MUST BE CONNECTED HORIZONTALLY. Though all comes from Christ, the church will grow through "that which EVERY joint supplies, " through the "proper working of EACH individual part." The only source of power and blessing is the presence of Christ in his Church; but the primary channel through which that presence flows is not the clergy but the members--each other. It is not the sacraments, it is not the minister, it is not the sermon--it is you! We can do nothing without Christ; but He normally will do nothing without us. Therefore, a church that wants to grow biblically must provide opportunities for interaction and encouragement in building relationships--not just in an occasional "fellowship" event but as part of its ongoing programming, as part of its very approach to worship. If ministry comes only from the pastor, then the whole body will be handicapped in its pursuit of Christlikeness. So spectator Christianity is sub-biblical and sub-Christian.
The third condition of growth is that THE CHURCH MUST BE MOBILIZED THOROUGHLY. The growth comes through the proper functioning of "EACH individual part." In most churches 10 % of the people do 90% of the work. Many American Christians complain about this fact, but they have not reckoned with the fact that their churches are structured in ways scientifically designed to promote passive spectators. They pack in large numbers who can do nothing but simply watch the professional entertainment--er, ministry, provided on the stage--er, platform. But we have already seen that passive, spectator Christianity is sub-biblical and sub-Christian. People who promote and prefer such churches are simply disobedient to the clear teaching of Scripture. At Trinity Fellowship I would like to think we do better than that. But we have not yet arrived either. There is still much to be done to encourage the reluctant, the intimidated, the weary, and the discouraged so that we too may grow as we should.
If we pursue church growth biblically, it will "cause the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love." Paul says that these three conditions "cause" growth. Therefore, if we want Trinity Fellowship to grow, this tells us what to do. We must nourish our own relationships with Christ to make sure we are connected vertically; we must reach out to build relationships with those who can help us grow, and with those that we can help, so that we are connected horizontally; and we must make the use of our own spiritual gifts in the body a high priority so that we are thoroughly mobilized. And the end result of this is that Trinity Fellowship will be built up in love.
What would a growing church, a church being built up in love, look like? It would be a place where the Love of Christ is studied, celebrated, felt, and lived. It would be a place where you know you will be accepted, cherished, and loved whenever you go there. It would be the place where you find those that you love as well as those who love you. And it would be a place people who do not yet know the Love of Christ could find it--in us.
Why have some of us been so stubbornly loyal to this church in spite of all the hardships, obstacles, and discouragements we constantly find in our way? Because the foretastes and firstfruits of such growth are here, because the potential for such growth is here, because the vision for such growth is here. That is what has kept us going when it would have been so much easier to give up, fold our tents, and take the path of least resistance. Let us therefore recommit ourselves to that vision today, to the glory of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams