Church Growth in the New Testament

The churches of men have come up with many devices to produce numerical growth. They cater to man’s desires in order to draw them into their number. They have activities, host events, and make every sort of “ministry” they can think of that will appeal to people. Instead of looking to the denominations for how to produce church growth, we should look to the New Testament. Paul said when we preach and teach the gospel, God is the one who gives the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6). Therefore, all we can do is follow His plan. What caused the New Testament church to grow?

The Message

In Acts 2, Peter preached the gospel for the first time since the resurrection of Christ. His message produced faith among many in the audience (Acts 2:37). When asked what they needed to do, Peter told them to “repent, and…be baptized” (Acts 2:38). He further exhorted them to “be saved from this perverse generation” (Acts 2:40). The message that he preached was that Jesus was the Savior and they needed to be obedient to Him to be saved. We then see that “those who had received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:41). These people were then added to their number – the church (Acts 2:47). Growth occurred because of the gospel message that was preached.

Conviction

After the gospel began to spread and thousands were responding to it (Acts 4:4), the Jews who were in power tried to stop this growth because they saw it as a threat to them. They had Peter and John arrested (Acts 4:1-3) and later called them before the Council. They gave them orders “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). Undeterred by their threat, Peter and John responded, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about that we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). Later, when they were brought before the Council again because they had kept preaching the gospel, they said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). In spite of the opposition and resistance they faced, the apostles had enough faith and conviction to continue preaching without compromising the message. This helped the church to grow.

Fear

Because of the unusual circumstances surrounding the establishment of the church, many of the early disciples in Jerusalem found themselves in need. To help provide assistance for these needy brethren, Christians who were able sold possessions and brought the money to the apostles to distribute to those who had need (Acts 4:32-37). During this time, Ananias and Sapphira sold some property and brought part of the proceeds to the apostles while portraying it as though it were the whole amount of the sale (Acts 5:1-3). Peter explained the gravity of their sin: “You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:5). As a result of their sin, Ananias and Sapphira were struck down by the Lord.

Following these things, “great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11). Many people have the mentality today that something like this would scare people off. Certainly people would leave the church over the divine discipline that was carried out. And surely those who were not Christians would be turned off from the Lord’s church. That is what many believe happens today. But after “great fear” came, then “all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number” (Acts 5:14). When people fear the Lord, they realize the pressing need to come to obedience to Him. “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). Those who do not fear the Lord will be turned away from the strict and demanding nature of discipleship. But those who do fear Him will come to Him. Thus, the fear of the Lord will cause the church to grow.

Open Examination of Scripture

Paul came to Thessalonica and preached the gospel there (Acts 17:1-3). As a result of preaching to the Jews in the synagogue, “some of them were persuaded” (Acts 17:4). After the unbelieving Jews, in their jealousy, caused a riot and ran Paul out of town, he came to Berea (Acts 17:10). Again, Paul first went to the synagogue of the Jews. Luke wrote, “These were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). They wanted to know what the truth was. Therefore, they looked into the word of truth. As a result of this, “many of them believed” (Acts 17:12). Before, only “some” believed. This time, “many” believed. What was the difference? In Berea, they openly examined the Scriptures. This is important because God’s word is what is right. As mere men, we can be wrong. Therefore, anytime we study or teach the Bible, we need to do so with an open Bible. Also, anytime someone teaches us anything in religion, we need to examine what is taught against Scripture. If it is found to be the truth, we will have become convinced of that and gladly accept it. Those who are honest and sincere will accept the truth when they understand it. That is why we need to open the Scriptures and show why we believe, teach, and practice the things we do. The church will grow as a result of this open examination of God’s word.

Contrasting Truth and Error

Many Christians today almost cringe when a preacher exposes the errors of a religious group or false teacher, even if it is done so with the sincerest of motives – that being love for the souls of those who are lost and those who may be influenced by them. But contrasting truth and error will help the church to grow. When Paul came to Ephesus and began preaching, his efforts here were so successful that “all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10). In response to this, a silversmith named Demetrius gathered together those of similar trades to stir them up against Paul. He told them, “You see and hear that not only in Ephesus, but in almost all of Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable number of people, saying that gods made with hands are no gods at all” (Acts 19:26). Paul had been teaching the truth regarding Jesus (Acts 19:4), the kingdom of God (Acts 19:8), and the word of the Lord (Acts 19:10). Along with teaching the truth, he also exposed the error of idolatry, “saying that gods made with hands are no gods at all.” This resulted in “the word of the Lord…growing mightily and prevailing” (Acts 19:20). Rather than ignoring error, we need to expose it and contrast it with the truth of God’s word. This will lead to growth.

Conclusion

Many churches today are not doing these things. They have changed the message in that they are not preaching “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). They lack the conviction to preach the word of truth without compromise. They have no fear of God, demonstrated by the fact that they do what they desire and are not careful to “hold fast the pattern of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13) that we find in the Bible. They shy away from openly examining the Scriptures. In their preaching, instead of reasoning from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence for the claims that they make (Acts 17:2-3), they allude to a passage here and there and then fill the sermon with jokes, stories, and motivational speeches. They are unwilling to expose error and those who promote it. This is not the type of church the Lord wants.

Yet many churches like this are growing. Often times they grow at a greater rate than those who are doing the things we discussed that caused growth in the New Testament. Should God’s word be disregarded for the sake of church growth? No! Paul wrote to the church in Corinth and said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). It is not our responsibility to produce growth. It is our responsibility to follow God’s word and teach it to others. When we do that, growth will come. It may not produce the numbers that some apostate churches produce, but the growth will be from the Lord. Let us be content to follow the teachings of God’s word, spread the gospel to others, and leave the rest in God’s hands.


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