Saturday, March 11, 2006

Numbers in Churches - Good or Bad?

Apologies to Luke who left some comments on an entry I wrote this morning before running to work. I was disturbed to find some nasty spam mail had made it onto the entry again so I deleted it, investigated the problem and found that I can do a clever thing that verifies comments as "real" ... or something. Anyway - apologies that you now have to enter in a few letters before commenting. Please don't let that stop you! I love reading comments and being challenged.

The entry in question was thinking through a number of comments left on Dave Skipper's blog by a theologian called Gary North. North belonged to a group of theologians that came from the USA in the late eighties called "Christian Reconstructionism". They were very en vogue at my home church in Dunstable for a time, and we had David Chilton and Greg Bahnsen to come and speak. For those who don't know, Christian Reconstructionism can be summed up with seven 'Ps' (thanks to my pastor Dr Stanley Jebb for this). 1. Post-millenial in eschatology. 2. Preterist in their interpretation of Revelation. 3. Positive in their expectation of victory. 4. Presbyterian in their churchmanship. 5. Paedo-baptist in their view of baptism. 6. Powerful in their scholastic ability. (Founder R J Rushdoony had a personal library of 30, 000 books!) 7. Prolific in their writings.

The quotes from Dave's site struck a chord with me as being extremely similar to the quote I found by Bryn Jones in the January 1978 Restoration magazine. North said;

"There are well over six billion people alive today. About five billion either have not heard about Christ's mercy or have rejected the message. These people are running out of time. Only one thing can save them: mass conversion".

Bryn Jones said:

"It is tragic to hear Christians self-congratulatingly referring to their church as numbering over 200 or 300 people without mentioning the fact that this is still one thousandth of the population of their city!".

The question that I posed was whether we had any right becoming obsessed with numbers. When someone asks, "How is your church?" should our first response be, "Oh it's growing you now ... we now have X amount of members!". Or rather should our concern be with the prayer meeting, the personal devotion and commitment of members, the disciples that are being made (THAT was what the mandate from the Risen Christ was - not to fill pews!).

Now Luke challenged me quite rightly, that we shouldn't swing to excess and be afraid of numbers. He cited a key prophecy that was brought at Church of Christ the King in Brighton that was quite simply; "7 x 7 = 14". The prophecy was weighed and felt to be concerning growth and the fact that their congregation would double. As a response to this word, Peter Brookes (the former senior pastor) preached an outstanding visionary message on it that I was actually fortunate enough to be at and hear. Furthermore they doubled their meetings to begin having evening meetings. So yes - lets not be afraid of numbers. They are a measure and mark of God's blessing I guess. But on the other hand, lets not allow numbers to become our sole passion - and rather wonder whether it should be an issue of quality over quantity.

It's all very well having churches of thousands and thousands of churches, but what is the use if none of them have a clue about the God they have been invited to know? That is why Luke's shameless plug is so timely and apt. Let us hear Terry Virgo's call:

“It’s difficult to overstate the value of systematic Bible reading. To do so with the aid of helpful notes from a gifted Christian teacher simply multiplies the blessing. Let me encourage you to take advantage of Closer to God and ‘discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness’ (1 Timothy 4:7 NASB).”

Article Reference List of this website available here.


SJ said...

I'm not quite sure how the first draft of your article went, but I like this. It demonstrates a good tension that yes - numbers in and of themselves are little use. And a church that spends its time celebrating each new ten members it gets, shows a shallowness I think that is dangerous. But at the same time we can rightly rejoice when God does "add to us daily". But your call for depth is vital - so vital. Too many churches have excellent men as their senior pastors who are reading men but the congregations would snigger at reading anything more deep than Max Lucado!

Thank you for this.

Don said...

I agree that we have far too few churches to take in the fruit of a revival. But what should be the strategy? For many years I experienced the PDI/SGM policy of having one church in a metro area, and having that church get bigger and bigger and bigger -- requiring that people come from further and further away for Sunday services, with larger and larger facilities needed to accommodate them.

I took a trip to another city and happened to attend a Vineyard church. I witnessed a different model that made far more sense to me. The Vineyard came to this city and established one ongregation, meeting in home groups until ready to meet corporately in a rented facility. As soon as possible, they began establishing satellite congregations in nearby neighborhood, and established a pastor and new small groups. All the small congregations met periodically with the "mother" congregation in that city, to foster unity, worship in larger numbers, etc.

Their goal was to establish 3-4 more small congregations around the city within the next year, based on home groups. They aggressively trained home group leaders as future pastors. They were deliberately taking the congregations to the neighborhoods, instead of establishing home groups in a large area but making people all drive increasingly longer distances to attend the single church building.

Last year I was introduced to the Ed Young model, in which his enormously successful Texas church is expanding into new neighborhoods -- not by establishing new congregations, but by renting halls at which people can come watch a Jumbotron monitor of Ed Young preach at his own church on a Sunday morning. These satellite churches are virtual participants in the home-church services, but I don't see any way that God can meet the unique needs of their *own* people if they're watching Ed Young's church in a virtual-worship setting.

I think the Vineyard model I witnessed has a much better chance of handling the fruit of a sudden, massive revival than either of the others, as well as a much better means of training and releasing gifted people into ministry as soon as they prove themselves ready for it.

Don said...

On Rushdoony and North -- I read many of their books, and received many newsletters from them and their disciples, in the 80s. These guys were one-man publishing phenomena. North was cranking out multiple books per year, trying to apply Old Testament law to modern-day economic and political situations. Chilton and Bahnsen and others like Gary DeMar were taking on the premillennial-hopelessness crowd through multiple books. And they were all addressing various facets of our crumbling society in their indefatigable newsletter volumes.

The secular press found out about them -- partly due to North's other job as a financial advisor through another set of newsletters! -- and began the refrain that Christians were trying to take over the country and turn it into a theocracy in which people would go to jail for disobeying reinstated Old Testament laws.

Christianity Today magazine reported in the 80s on Reconstructionism, and named CJ Mahaney and Larry Tomczak as being part of the movement. Technically this was wrong -- PDI never overtly embraced Reconstruction, to my knowledge. But its then-focus on Restoration overlapped enough in beliefs to warrant identification with the Rushdoony/North contingent.

jul said...

I personally don't like the super church idea. I think it becomes very difficult to actually disciple and equip believers once a church starts gettin over 1000 and beyond. Our church is over 1400 now and it takes us about 3 months to actually get a meeting with a pastor ( it may have taken longer because one of the pastors we met with was one of our executive pastors). The longer we have been part of a big church, the more determined we are that we don't want to aim for that as church planters. We would much rather have several smaller churches that meet together periodically, such as the Vineyard model Don mentioned. I think this model will also convert easily to a persecution environment as well. What will happen to all the people of a giant church if the governments of any of our countries decided to start shutting down or controlling churches? Aren't these mega chuches going to be major targets? Just a side thought.

I think the New Testament model stressed smaller groups, meeting in homes together, and probably more loosely organized and structured. I'm not sure, as I've not studied early church material. I should though, we have a set of the early church fathers now. I guess I don't have trouble believing that some churches are called to be bigger. There is definately a different level of resources available to serve the greater church. I'm just not sure that having so many resources isn't a major temptation to stop depending on God and forget what our priorities should be.

Baxter's Boy said...

I think the super/mega church can work as long as it is planned and planted carefully with much prayer and insight from prophets. Newfrontiers seem to have it fairly right. You don't see a huge amount of mega churches - correct me if I'm wrong but I think Jubilee in South Africa is the largest followed by CCK, Brighton.

But the majority is the flood of church plants - of "going to the nations".

Yet we shouldn't discount the power and influence that a mega-church can have. They do have the ability to be a "lighthouse" (I think Dave Holden called it) - to attract the interest of the media. After all a couple of large Newfrontiers churches have had televised worship celebrations go out.