It is a rule of nature with only a few exceptions: Healthy Things Grow. I marvel at how quickly my 6 year-old daughter has ‘grown up’. It seems like just yesterday that Anya employed basic sign language to articulate her needs. Today, she can hold her own in an argument while employing well-reasoned responses. It seems like just yesterday she was drowning in her oversized pajamas. Today, I see those same pajama bottoms fitting more like a pair of capris. Yes, healthy things grow. If Anya wasn’t growing, if we weren’t observing outward and obvious signs of development, my wife and I would be quick to consult with a doctor. Since we regard growth as a normal expectation, we would be highly alarmed if we weren’t seeing any.
Why then, do we not express similar alarm when we observe stunted growth within Christian congregations? I have heard some of the explanations given within my own denomination, “Well, you see, there just aren’t that many Presbyterians moving into the neighbourhood anymore?” (At the risk of sounding harsh, since when did the mission become ‘fishing for Presbyterians’?!). Others lament, “We’re an older congregation. Our kids have grown up and moved away. We can’t expect growth the way we used to.”
These statements may be absolutely true. Convinced Presbyterians may not be moving into the neighbourhood. A congregation may very well be aging, while not retaining their youth. Even still, we ought not to resign ourselves to a position of non-growth. If we do, I reckon that is tantamount to an admission of sickness…because healthy things grow.
As I spoke on this subject this past Sunday, I referenced one of my favourite passages of the New Testament. Following the confession of Peter, that Jesus was the Christ (Matthew 16:16), Jesus responds with a promise: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). I love that verse. That verse gets me out of bed each morning. That verse inspires me to enter the pulpit each Sunday. The expansion of the kingdom of God, the spread of the Gospel, does not depend on me! Jesus promises to build His Church. I’m not being counted on to ‘make converts’, but rather, Kingdom growth comes from God (see Ezekiel 36:26, 27; Acts 2:47; 1Corinthians 3:6).
What do we say then, when local Christian congregations diminish and eventually close their doors? Has Christ’s promise failed? Absolutely not! Jesus has not promised that my particular congregation will grow, or that your particular congregation will grow; He has promised that the body of Christian believers worldwide will increase.
And while Kingdom growth ultimately comes from the Lord (1Corinthians 3:6), God’s people should not view themselves as irrelevant to the process. It is God’s design for us to participate in the process whereby people become followers of Jesus (see Matthew 4:19; Matthew 28:19,20; Romans 10:14, 15). To this end, there are things we can do to promote the conditions in which growth is likely to occur. Again, we can’t control growth anymore than a farmer can control the size of his harvest. But we can do some things which promote a healthy environment. When reading about the habits of the early Church, we glean certain priorities that, when applied, will contribute to the health of a local congregation. For a more thorough treatment of Acts 2:42-47, I commend to you the audio of Sunday’s message.
The early Church was marked by 1) Study, 2) Generosity, 3) Worship, and 4) Outreach
I would maintain that the degree to which we are marked by these four things will chiefly determine a congregation’s health. And while we look ultimately to the Lord for numerical growth and growth in grace, we are nonetheless encouraged by the truth of the principle, Healthy Things Grow.