How the Church Grows

Dr. Brian Allison

How does Church growth and prosperity actually come about? What has to take place for the Church to advance in strength and power, displaying the glory of God? Do the Scriptures talk about Church growth? Does it lay out for us how a Church may spiritually thrive? There are many passages in the Word of God that deal with this very issue, but one foundational passage is Ephesians 4:14-16, in which the apostle Paul writes, "As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even 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." The theme of these verses is simply the growth and prosperity of the body of Christ, the Church. There are two main points of focus with respect to this growth and prosperity of the Church – truth and ministry.

Truth immunizes

By way of background, the verses previous to our text mention the fact that certain gifts have been given to the Church. These gifts are in the form of personnel – apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. These ones have as their primary responsibility the teaching and training of believers. As they teach and train, believers are ministerially equipped and enabled; that is, they are prepared for service, with the goal being the edification of the body, and the ultimate end being conformity to the very image of Christ. The teaching-training ministry has the design of promoting the maturation of the Church.

Now, what is stated positively in verse 13 of Ephesians 4, is stated negatively in verse 14. As we receive sound teaching and training, we are to become mature in our thinking and understanding – "As a result, we are no longer to be children [we are no longer to be infantile in our thinking; but rather in the communication of truth, we are to receive that truth, and live in that truth, so that we think God's thoughts after Him, so that we become grounded in the truth]" (v. 14a). We need to receive, pursue, and appropriate the knowledge of the truth in order that we might grow.

There are two basic features that characterize children, according to this text. The first is gullibility and instability – "tossed here and there by waves" (v. 14b). Most small children will believe almost anything. When my son was younger, I would come home with a treat for him, and would pretend to pull it out of my ear. He would look with bright, widened eyes. When I was younger (talk about foolishness), my brother sold me an invisible horse! Children can be extremely gullible. Whatever sounds good on any given day, they will believe.

We are exhorted to no longer be children in our thinking – no longer to be gullible and easily swayed, believing something one day, and a different thing (perhaps the contrary) the next day. We are exhorted not to be taken in by persuasive, charismatic people. If we do not receive the truth, if we do not receive training, we will be gullible, and the result will be instability – "tossed here and there by waves" – believing anything that sounds interesting and appealing. We must be grounded in the truth in order to critically judge and evaluate what we hear.

Not only are children gullible and unstable, but they can be easily misled – "and carried about by every wind of doctrine" (v. 14c). In receiving the truth, we immunize ourselves against falsehood so that we will not be led astray, resulting in our spiritual destruction. My nephew was approached by a cultist on the university campus. He was not grounded in the Scriptures, and, as a result, he was deceived. He is now a cult member. This cult believes that unless you have entered their "church" and are baptized with water, you cannot be saved. A sincere profession of faith in Christ apparently is not enough to save.

There are invidious people who will deliberately seek to lead professing Christians astray. They will do it self-consciously because they want to destroy believers – "by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming" (v. 14d). Let us not be naive. Satan has his lackeys who masquerade as servants of light. They are diabolical and cunning; and they are out to destroy the Church. But if we are grounded in the truth, we are immunized against their schemes and assaults. So, we are not to be ignorant of the truth, but rather we are to embrace it, pursue it, study it, and guard it.

Speaking truth

Having received the truth, we are to practice and propagate that truth – "But speaking the truth" (v. 15a). Speaking the truth should be a life habit. We will only speak the truth in so far as we have embraced it, and are living and practicing it. Simply put, we need to give ourselves to the truth so that we may give the truth to others. Practically speaking, the study of the Word of God must be a priority in our lives. The Word of God must be central because our salvation depends on understanding and demonstrating it. This is not a secondary issue, but rather a critically primary one. Our salvation is at stake.

We are to speak the truth because we have a responsibility to minister to believers, to share the truth with them, and thus to engage in the work of edification, to the end that God's people might reflect the very character of Christ. Every member of the Church has the responsibility to speak the truth to each other – mutual, reciprocal edification. A pastor friend dropped by this past week, being moved by the Spirit. He came along side me and he spoke truth to me. It encouraged and strengthened me. In speaking truth, I was edified. That is the essential nature of truth – it edifies. Truth is the necessary means for individual and corporate spiritual growth. But before you can effectively speak the truth, you must understand it. And not only that, you must first experience it for yourself so that when you do speak it, you may speak it with power and reality; and thus God's people will know that you are just not parodying what you have received, but that you personally know whereof you speak.

Only in having the truth spoken (taught) to us, and experiencing its power in our lives, will we assume the very image and character of Christ – "But speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him" (v. 15a). The Word of God, the truth, is amply sufficient, as an effectual means in the hands of the Spirit, to make us just like Jesus in every way. God has given us everything for life and godliness through His Word. The truth not only sets us free, but it sufficiently sanctifies us. Such effects result from the power of the truth through the presence and activity of the Spirit of God. We need nothing more than the Word of God and the Spirit of God. For instance, we read, "But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth" (2 Th. 2:13). The Spirit never works in a vacuum, He always works according to the truth. We are to worship God in the Spirit and in truth; and thus we will become just like Jesus in every way.

However, it behooves us to speak the truth in a certain way – "speaking the truth in love" (v. 15b). The context in which we are to speak the truth – and we have an obligation to speak the truth – is that of love. It is love that tempers the delivery of truth which, at times, may be cutting. It is love that gives truth its full power to penetrate the heart so that it actually edifies the one who hears. If truth is not spoken in love, it may destroy, rather than edify. Truth is a double edged sword, and wielded in the wrong hands can bring damage and destruction, rather than growth and edification. Some carelessly argue, "Well, it is the truth. I know it will hurt that person, but it is the truth; and he needs to hear it for his own good." No. We are commanded to speak the truth with a commitment to the other's well-being and good.

Many believers have been hurt, offended, and upset because some well meaning Christian has felt the moral responsibility and obligation to speak the truth to them, simply because it was the truth. However, these ones have spoken it in a biting, cutting, and even judgemental way. Some people leave churches, and discontinue fellowship, because truth was not spoken in the context of love. Much gossip is true, much backbiting is true; but it is gossip and backbiting that destroys Churches. If you have some truth to say about someone, then say it to the person who it concerns, and not to anyone else. And don't deceive yourself by saying to someone, "Oh, I just want to share this with you so that we can pray about it." The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. We can devise clever ways to gossip and backbite. Many love to hear gossip. We read, "The words of a whisperer are like dainty morsels, and they go down into the innermost parts of the body" (Pr. 18:8). As believers, when we speak the truth to a person – the person it concerns – and only that person, we must speak it in love; but before we speak it, we should first ask God to speak the truth about us, to us.

Again, there are some people who leave Churches because they have been hurt, slandered, or offended because the truth was not spoken in love to them, but, as is often the case, it was spoken to others about them, which eventually got back to them – that is insidious. If you have been involved in such a practice, I am calling you to confession and repentance. If you have sinned against a Christian brother or sister through your gossip and backbiting, I am calling you to honest acknowledgement and radical change – "Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed" (Jas. 5:15b). To speak the truth in love means that we are kind and considerate of that person; what motivates us is that person's good, and not simply venting our frustrations and disappointments because our expectations have not been met. As loving believers, we will want what is best for others. So, truth is the means for spiritual growth and prosperity; and love is the motivation for bringing about this growth and prosperity.

Christ produces growth

What (or rather, Who) is the source or origin of spiritual growth and prosperity? Jesus Christ – "Grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body...[experiences] growth of the body for the building up of itself in love" (v. 16). Christ is the origin or source of the actual growth and maturation of the body. It is in the manifestation of His life, flowing in us and through us, that the body actually grows. Only Christ can make His body grow, for the simple reason that it is His body. His very being and presence is the life principle. He is not simply the agent of growth, He is the very substance and reality of that growth. He is the vine, we are the branches. It is only as we receive and reveal His life, and consequently share this life, that the body of Christ, the Church, actually grows. As the Lord is pleased to reveal His life in and through His people, there must be growth. Now, what does it mean if the body is not growing, if we are not manifesting and sharing His life, if there is no fruit?

Every true believer in the body of Christ should be manifesting and sharing the life of Christ – "from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together [there is unity] by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part" (v. 16a). The first practical point, as we consider this verse, is that every part of the body must make a contribution to the growth of the body – "by that which every joint supplies [supplies what? – the life of Christ, the energy and power of Christ]." Everyone in the body must make a contribution to the spiritual welfare of the fellowship. Everybody has to play a part, everybody has to equally participate, in order for there to be optimal growth of the body. Every member has received the life of Christ, and each therefore has a spiritual obligation to supply the body with that very life which he or she has received. By way of analogy, what would happen (I know the imagery is ludicrous) if in a four year old body, the liver refused to grow any more, and failed to fulfil its function to the rest of the body? Or, what would happen if in a five year old body, the pancreas refused to grow any more, and failed to fulfil its function to the rest of the body? Or, what would happen if in a two year old body, the heart refused to grow any more, and failed to fulfil its function to the rest of the body? The obvious answer is: disintegration and death. Every joint, every member, must supply – do its part and fulfil its particular function – the life of Christ.

So often ten percent of the people in a Church do ninety percent of the work. That is not God's plan. Consequently, some of those ten percent get tired. What are the other ninety percent doing? Are they on the sidelines saying, "Press on, we are cheering for you! You do the work, and we will do the cheering, and we will all share in the reward"? How foolish. Even the players on the field need substitution – fresh legs, fresh arms. Every joint must supply.

The second practical point, which relates to the first, is that every member has a personal responsibility for the growth of the body. Not only must everyone make a contribution to the body's growth, but everyone has a responsibility for the actual growth of the body – "according to the proper working of each individual part." There should be no lone rangers in the Church of Christ. All are players, none are referees or judges. There are some who think that it is solely the leadership's responsibility to grow the Church; and that it is also the pastor's responsibility to evangelize; and if the Church is not growing, then it is the pastor's fault. Statistically speaking, seventy eight percent of Church growth occurs through God's people inviting out family members, friends, neighbours, associates, and colleagues. Evangelism is not a leadership responsibility alone, but it is a Church responsibility. Leaders must take the blame for some things, but they should not take the rap for everything. We all have a personal responsibility, we all have a calling, we all have a duty, we all have a role to play, if the Church is going to grow. What is your role in the Church? Why did God put you in the Church? And do not say, "To warm a pew and to listen to sermons in order to grow spiritually." Such a response is unacceptable, and displeasing to God. What is your calling? What is your ministry? What are your gifts? Do not bury your talent, for there will come a day when you will curse the fact that you did.

As we all fulfil our calling, as we fulfil our particular role, as we perform our respective ministries, we provide an avenue for the display and demonstration of the life of Christ, and as a result the body of believers grows and matures – "causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love" (v. 16c). So, this is how we grow a Church – truth and ministry. By being grounded in the truth, practicing the truth, speaking the truth – being motivated by love – we allow the life of Christ to flow in us and through us so that the body is edified in the context of love, in order that we might reflect the very image of Christ. May God give believers the grace to experience such a blessing and joy for His glory.