Is an expectation for numerical growth biblical?
As I approach the submission date of my ordination exam, I'd like to share again some of the questions I was asked and how I answered. Perhaps it would stimulate thought and prayer as you pray for missions. Should we expect numerical growth in the local church? Why or why not? Numerical growth is a biblical expectation and desire; however, numerical growth is not a mark of the church. On one hand, it is clear that God takes pleasure in a large Church. The glorified Church is described as a “great multitude that no one could number” (Rev 7:9). Clearly this heavenly reality is can be traced to the very beginning: the Abrahamic covenant promised that God's people would be as numerous as the stars in the sky (Gen 15:5-6) and the Cultural Mandate of Adam to fill all of the earth with God's image-bearers (Gen 1:28). Furthermore, on a practical level, if churches are faithful in baptizing children and raising them in the faith (Deut 6), then the local church should naturally grow in numerical numbers by baptisms. Hopefully, these covenant children would grow in faith, have Christian households, and have a multiplicative effect. Moreover, the Great Commission assumes a proactive stance to make disciples of all nations with the promise of Christ’s presence through the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:20); therefore, if the church is faithful to it, then there is an expectation of growth. Just as a planted seed or a human is expected to grow through ordinary measures (cf. Matthew 13, 1 Cor 3:6, 1 Cor 12, Eph 4:1-16), the Church should expect growth through the ordinary means of grace. Therefore, the Church should never be satisfied with merely doing "maintenance ministry." Missions, evangelism, and church growth is not merely expected but commanded by our Lord Jesus Christ because he takes pleasure in bringing in and having compassion over the 'multitudes.' We must guard our hearts from hiding behind the label of being a 'faithful church' to hide our complacency for the proclamation of the Gospel. In fact, it is completely 'faithless' to not desire, labor, sacrifice for the advancement of the Kingdom. However, numerical growth does not define the Church; numerical growth is expected, but is not part of the nature of the Church. Throughout the OT and NT, the Abrahamic patriarchy, Israel, the disciples of Jesus and the Church were groups of people who had little to no influence on the global stage. The small fledgling remnant of 7000 (1 Kg 19:18), the last remaining true Israelite hanging on the Cross, the eleven disciples hiding in a room (Acts 1), and the picture of a struggling NT Church (e.g. Rev 2-3) should help us see that church growth is not a mark of the church. In fact, Jesus delivers a "church-shrinking" sermon when he proclaims that he is the "bread of life" (John 6). What is clear is that the Church is not defined or valued by its size. The Church is defined by its three marks: Preaching of the Word, the Sacraments, and Church Discipline. As Paul and John shared their "last words" in the Pastoral Epistles and the Johannine Epistles, they clearly emphasize the protection of the Apostolic deposit, the ordering of the local church, and the call to holy living; however, value was not put on numerical growth. In fact, the church was expected to be persecuted by the world, to suffer (1 Peter 3-4), and to be sojourners of this world (1 Pet 2:12). Some argue the rapid growth of the Apostolic age should be expected in the local church as well. However, the Apostolic Church (or the Early Church) should not be remembered as a “golden age” of church growth: immorality was rampant (Corinth), the Gospel was threatened (Galatia), false teachers were thriving (1 John, Pastoral Epistles). Furthermore, a broad understanding of Church History should also help us remember that we are not too different from the Apostolic age; many times rapid and expansive church growth is also accompanied by many perversions, false teachers, nominal believers, and immorality. It is important to to see church growth biblically and holistically. Numerical growth should be seen through the lens of suffering, faithfulness to the Gospel, and the call to holy living--not merely the number of baptisms. Church growth is never a perfect linear (or exponential) line, nor is it ever free from the rotting effects of sin and the perversions of Satan.