One of the major movements within the church of the west is that of the church growth movement. Though such a movement was birthed a half-century ago, this has been a major part of church life in the west for the past 20 years or so. I’ll be honest and say up front that, for me, this movement has been more in line with the ideas of free-market capitalism rather than seeing the gospel of the kingdom extended and God’s glory filling the earth as the waters cover the sea.
What do I mean?
Well, in all, I sense that the church growth movement is more about building upwards rather than extending outwards. And, so, such a method seems quite counter-productive to how the kingdom actually expands.
How can I make such an assertion?
I simply read the book of Acts.
The book of Acts is all about Jesus continuing His work through the empowering presence of the Spirit in the life of the church (1:1). And this is all summed up in Acts 1:8, a kind of thesis statement for the book:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
Acts is fundamentally about the Spirit being poured out on the church and, as a result, seeing God’s people thrust out and mobilised into mission. In all the pages of Acts, nowhere do we sense God calling His people to build upwards. Rather, it is about extending outwards.
As an interesting note, we don’t really see God’s people inviting others to come along to their Sunday (or Saturday) gatherings in hopes that the people will respond to the pastor’s altar call. Acts is all about God’s people going to the people. Now, granted, there really is nothing wrong with inviting our friends along to our Sunday gatherings or a home group. Such could draw people to Christ as they see the people of God functioning as a community of faith. As Larry Crabb termed it, we are really to be ‘the safest place on earth’. Unfortunately, that has not always been true.
But I point out the major function of mission in the book of Acts because it reminds us that we are called to emulate their action of moving outwards. We are an apostolic people, or a mission-minded people. This simply means that we are a ‘sent’ people, just as Christ was sent by the Father and the Spirit was sent by both the Father and Son. Hence, why I believe this is summed up well in those empowering words of Acts 1:8.
When the Spirit comes upon God’s people they are witnesses. Witnessing isn’t something we so much do. It is who we are. ‘You will be my witnesses.’
Ironically, it seems that, when the church was somewhat reluctant to go out into greater Judea and Samaria, God providentially sent persecution to mobilise His people (see Acts 8:1). And we know the vision that Peter had in Acts 10:9-16, the one where God had to show him the same vision three times. After heading to Cornelius’ house, even before Peter could finish his sermon, the Spirit fell on the group at hand (Acts 10:44). Even God seemed bored with Peter’s message and did not find it necessary to wait for the altar call!
So, when one reads Acts, we see that it’s all about being sent out, reaching out, going out to the people. Nowhere do we get the sense that God was asking the people to build upwards. Sure, there were times in which we read of thousands responding to the gospel – 3,000 following Peter’s post-Pentecost message in Acts 2:41 and 5,000 responded to the gospel in Acts 4:4. Nevertheless, such does not encourage us to build upwards. It challenges us to see such massive amounts of people actually trained and discipled so that we can continue to extend outwards. Not in our cleverly-crafted and competently-marketed programmes. But in authentic, relationally-based, maturity-oriented training.
Matter of fact, there is one major biblical story that always comes to mind when I think of people building upwards – the Tower of Babel. And we know what happened in that situation:
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:4-9)
Ouch! That smarts!
I am thankful for our Sunday gatherings, small groups, and deeper study training. I think such opportunities will continue to be needed as we disciple and mentor and train. But we must keep in mind that our mission is not so much about getting hundreds, or thousands, into our buildings. Our mission is to extend the gospel of the kingdom into the nations, into the lives of people that live outside the walls of our church buildings. And that starts where we are now and continues into the furthest four corners of this planet.
This is what Luke was getting at when he summarised those important words of Jesus in Acts 1:8. We will receive power, we will be His witnesses and we will go out…
So, let’s stay focused and extend outwards rather than build upwards.