The Actual Plan for Church Growth

(Part 2 of a series on Unbranding the Church)

Churches that intentionally engage in marketing efforts are most often seeking to grow their congregations numerically. There are two passages I would reference when thinking about church growth. God’s Word is clear on both the method and means of growth in the church–and Who provides or efforts that growth.

Matthew 4 details Jesus’ calling of the first four of His disciples. He tells these fishermen, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). That’s a loaded sentence in the context of first century culture. “Follow me” in an imperative command–stop everything else, follow (be with) me, and do it right now. In this we see Jesus setting the standard for being a disciple (or what we might call a Christ-follower today).  We must set aside everything else and sacrifice it to the goal of being with Christ–not a request or choice on the part of the follower. Once the command is accepted, Christ Himself sets the conditions of being His disciple.  These men knew Christ as a teacher or rabbi. In their culture, this call meant they would leave their families and be with Christ–literally in His footsteps–for as long as Christ required.

Secondly we see in this verse what is going to happen–“…and I will make you…” Jesus is going to mold and change these men over time into “fishers of men.”  He didn’t say, “Follow me and you’ll just pick this stuff up…” or “Follow me and I’ll share some strategies that you can expand upon as you get the hang of it…” Christ was clear that He would be doing the work in the lives of these men. Why is this important?  Because we need to realize that Jesus’ method of building His church is for His disciples to follow Him as closely as possible while He does the work in their lives. That method is also a command–a call that, once accepted, means the disciple lays down his or her life for Christ as they begin living life on His terms.

Skip over to Acts 2 and we begin to see what this looks like in the early church. Jesus has ascended into heaven and His followers are now a small group in Jerusalem. Acts 2:42-27 tells us they devoted themselves to “the study of the Word, to the breaking of bread, to the fellowship and to prayer…” Luke is detailing those activities that are important to the church–God’s Word, the breaking of bread (referring to communion, which was their primary form of corporate worship), the care of the fellowship (body) and prayer. These are the very basic functions of the church as a body of believers.

When we look at these verses we have to ask ourselves, are we following in Jesus’ footsteps and in the footsteps of the early church? This model was given to us for a reason. Have we ignored it for the sake of our own church models, which are far more complicated and culturally biased?

Acts 2:47 concludes, “…and the Lord added to their number daily…” I think this verse is tremendously important. What we see in the model of the early church is a group devoted to Christ and His Word, and that growth came from the Lord–He added. When we look at the North American evangelical church today, we find ourselves increasingly devoted to “adding to their number daily” and sacrificing prayer, the Word and fellowship. Even worship to a large degree has become devoted to our own image as we seek to make it “relevant to the worshiper” versus seeing God as the object of our praise.

Strong words I know, but look within the leadership of most North American churches and we find ourselves evaluating success or ministry effectiveness based primarily on the perceptions of other people. Why do we not evaluate based on what is pleasing to the Lord and in alignment with His Word? Because we have largely aligned “success” to whether or not we are “connecting” with non-believers.

Now, what does all this have to do with “church marketing?” We need to look at the fact that the majority of church history has passed without marketing even existing. The growth of the church through history has not been primarily due to promoting the body of Christ to non-believers. Rather, it has been because people have sacrificed themselves to Christ’s agenda and plan, and devoted themselves to His body through His Word, worship, fellowship and prayer. The body grew not as a result of promotion, but by the hand of God.

Nothing in Acts 2 tells us to grow the church. Growth here is a tack-on. The example given us in Acts is a church immersed in Christ and His Word, repentant and humble worship, friendship and service to the body and to others, and desperate and constant prayer. Growth of the church may or may not have been a result of these actions–the passage is not really communicating cause-and-effect. God added to their number, but that was a separate action. This obviously flies in the face of the notion that Jesus knew something about promoting the church, or that the early church was somehow responsible for promoting itself to the world.

Neither Jesus nor Paul were marketers in any way, shape or form. A tenet of modern “church marketing” is to point to God’s leaders in Scripture as “savvy in marketing”. This kind of statement is just made up out of thin air. Christ may have, on occasion, done things that seem in some ways similar to marketing concepts, but these arguments fall apart easily. A great example is Jesus’ use of parables, which some often equate to His desire to relate to us more easily and clearly communicate more complicated spiritual concepts. “Jesus spoke in simple stories,” some will say, “so we could relate to Him more easily.”

In reality, Scripture tells us that the opposite is true–He told His disciples He used parables so that it would be more difficult for others to figure out what He was talking about (no I’m not kidding, look it up–Matthew 13:10-11). Why else would Jesus tell parables to the crowds, and then take His disciples aside later privately to explain them? If Jesus wanted the crowds to know what He was talking about, He certainly would have explained the parables to them as well. So Jesus told the parables to conceal the “mysteries of heaven” from all but His closest confidants. How is this a helpful marketing practice as it certainly does not make Christ “more accessible”?

Paul is another often-held example of an early church “marketer,” specifically because of his statements in 1 Corinthians 13:19-23 (“I have become all things to all men… that I might by some means save some”). This verse on the surface seems to indicate Paul’s desire to “market” or “brand” himself in various ways in order to interact with various groups of people. This passage is often referred to as the “doctrine of accommodation”.

The reality of these verses have nothing really at all to do with marketing or branding. They must be taken into context within the broader message of 1 Corinthians, which overall was addressing the disorder and division within the church at Corinth. Paul is not saying that he will “look like the world in order to reach the world,” which is the marketing dictum often attached to this passage. We have dangerously misinterpreted this letter and used it to cloak the church in a world-savvy facade that looks attractive but is likely not functioning as the church should.

In fact, Paul was addressing in his letter a church that looked too much like the world, and was to a large degree losing its effectiveness. These verses have been used to help justify the common practice of secularizing the message (using the world’s music, messages and methodology) in order to connect with unbelievers, then “allow Christ” to grab hold of the audience once we have their attention.

1 Corinthians is a detailed explanation of the balance between our freedom in Christ and the need to connect to the world without compromising core principles. Paul here is voicing that he chooses not to exercise certain freedoms in order to better relate to other cultures with which he would like to share the gospel. The view here is not one of “positioning” on Paul’s part, but rather of “limiting” as he chooses not to exercise the full freedom in Christ he has spoken about in the first eight chapters in order that Christ be glorified through his example among both Jews and Gentiles.

Paul would not, for instance, engage in or condone homosexuality in order that he might reach some homosexuals for Christ. But he might forgo eating certain foods in the presence of a Jewish person in order not to draw attention to the fact that his beliefs were different with respect to honoring traditional Jewish customs. In our culture, we have to question whether our high “production value” and constant focus on the issues and challenges of the day in the church have actually made us less relevant rather than more relevant.

What I mean is, in and effort to identify with the world, have we sacrificed the very core of being different by “positioning” ourselves in others’ eyes rather than simply “limiting” ourselves? There’s a big difference in those two words. “Positioning” implies movement on our part to alter perception or gain attention. “Limiting” implies we choose not to do something that we may have the freedom to do, but it may be perceived negatively. So, is the North American evangelical church positioning or limiting? These verses are calling us to ask this question in the light of trying to market ourselves so that we avoid looking more and more like the world in the process of trying to reach it.


Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.