The Word Grows: A New Testament Plan for Church Growth

Scroll-1“But the word of God grew and multiplied”—Acts 12:24

Among church leaders today, there aren’t many topics hotter than church growth. Just about everyone wants to see their church grow, and just about everyone is talking about how to make that happen. Now, you will find some churches that delight themselves in remaining the size that they are. These church leaders will say things like, “We don’t want to be like the big church down the road” or, “We’re big enough.” Without being too harsh here, is any church “big enough” if there is even one lost person living nearby? (Now one can argue whether “church growth” should happen by growing one church, planting new churches, or both, but that is a different matter). Among the vast majority of church leaders who are seeking church growth, there are two basic groups—those who seek church growth for the right reasons and those who seek it for the wrong reasons. Some are consumed with “numbers” because they know they can’t “move up” to a bigger church without leading their church to grow. Some seek numerical growth because they have tied their identity and sense of worth to “success,” and in their eyes, the only means to measure ministerial “success” is in terms of numbers. We all need to be on our guard against this type of thinking because we all struggle with a desire for man’s approval. (At least I know I do, and it would really make me feel better if I’m not alone here…but there I go again with wanting man’s approval!) I believe many pastors, however, are seeking church growth for the right reasons. They believe the Bible, they love the lost, they want to obey the Great Commission, and they want to be used to further the Kingdom where God has placed them.

Even with the right motivation for seeking church growth in place, it can still be very confusing for today’s church leaders. Every speaker, every “church growth guru” suggests a different way to “grow the church.” “What you need is better marketing.” “What you need is more contemporary music.” “What you need is a big outreach event.” “What you need is another staff member.” “What you need is a shorter, more ‘relevant’ message.” “What you need is more video in worship.” “What you need is casual dress on the platform.” “What you need is candles, curtains, or ancient-looking décor.” Each guru believes his solution is the missing element that, if put in place, can help take your church “to the next level.”

Well what does the Bible say “grows” a church? Actually the Bible has a lot to say about this; in the New Testament we read many things we can do to help grow a church (quantitatively and qualitatively) and many things we can do to damage a church and stunt its growth. I want to draw our attention to one repeated phrase in the book of Acts which reads, “But the word of God grew and multiplied” (Acts 6:7; 12:24; 19:20). That the early church grew exponentially in the book of Acts cannot be denied. After all, the church added 3000 members on its birthday (Acts 2)! But I believe we may have failed to see the connection between the explosive growth of the New Testament church and this repeated phrase in Acts about the “growth” of the word of God. The two are not unrelated.

When the word grows, the church grows! In short, the message of Acts concerning church growth is quite simple—believe the word, preach the word, and live out the word.  God gave us a promise about the power of His word back in Isaiah 55 when He declared, “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” And what is the purpose for which God has sent forth His word if not reaching the lost with the message of salvation and discipling the saved (Matt 28:18-20)? Yet despite this promise, and despite the word-based pattern of growth in the book of Acts, many church leaders today are seemingly unsure of the power of the word alone to change lives and “grow their church.” Though we are called to “believe the word,” there are portions many church leaders do not wish to believe and therefore do not wish to obey. Though we are called to “preach the word,” many church leaders are shortening their sermons, adding in more stories and video clips until all that is left of the “preached word” is a little kernel. Is this because we believe a kernel is all that our culture will find palatable? Is this because we believe the power to change lives lies in our ability to communicate rather than in the word itself? And though we are called to “live the word,” believers are not living it, because to a great extent our church leaders are not teaching it or modeling it.

We need to bear in mind that increased attendance at our churches does not necessarily equate to the “growth of the word.” The church can grow and the word can shrink. There are many churches in our country where this is in fact taking place; drawing a crowd is not the same as “making disciples.” The inverse can occur as well; one can faithfully preach the word in a church where there are many false disciples and actually drive some church attenders away. In this case, the word grows but the church shrinks. (Remember, Jesus, the Living Word, drove some ‘disciples’ away too (John 6:66)).

It is instructive to look at the context of the instances in Acts where this phrase, “the word of God grew,” is used by Dr. Luke. It is used in Acts 6:7 after the selection of seven servants to minister to the church body. Here, the word of God spreads (and the “number of disciples multiplie[s] greatly”) because members of the body use their gifts and church leaders prioritize the word and prayer (6:4). In Acts 19, Luke writes that the “word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed” (v. 20). In the context, the growth of the word can be linked to Paul’s preaching of the word (v. 8), God’s miracle-working power (v. 11ff), and the confession and repentance of the people (vv. 18-19). Perhaps this last item, confession and repentance, is worthy of special notice. When God’s people confess and forsake their sin, the word of God will grow in them and through them. It was true then; it is still true today. Pastors can lead the way here by modeling confession and by building a “culture of repentance” in their churches.

Perhaps my favorite instance of this phrase, however, is found in Acts 12:24. Here, the context reveals that King Herod attempts to steal the glory that belongs to God, is eaten by worms, and dies. “But,” Luke adds in contrast, “the word of God grew and multiplied.” Thanks to the worms, the egomaniacal King literally shrunk down to nothing. The worms kept on eating, but the word kept on spreading. Perhaps the reason the word isn’t spreading through our leadership is because we, like Herod, are desperately longing to hear from our people “The voice of a god and not of a man!” (This brings us back to the problem of seeking church growth for the wrong reasons—the growth of our Kingdom rather than God’s). Yet ironically, we have been given the chance as preachers of God’s word to speak with the “voice of God.” It happens when we faithfully speak God’s words after him, explaining the Scriptures He has given us, and trusting that God’s word will do what God’s word has always done—“grow and multiply.”