Posts tagged ‘Church Growth’

October 10, 2012

How Fast Does a Church Have to Grow to Take Over the World?

Between the time of Christ and about 300 years later Christianity took over the known world.  What started with Jesus and his 12 followers ended up conquering the Roman Empire.  When Jesus died he left 120 odd followers who birthed his church on the Day of Pentecost.  That church grew and grew and ultimately Rome bowed to it.  When you read about the early church in the book of Acts it really gives a picture of triumphant growth – the gospel spreading at an alarming rate.

So what rate did the church actually grow at?  Sure it was fast, sure the results were amazing, but what percentage each year did it grow by?

The sociologist and historian Rodney Stark has analysed the data.  And here’s the result – 3.5% per year.  And whilst there is some ebbing and flowing of the growth rate it is surprisingly consistent for long periods.

Yes that’s all, 3.5%.  That doesn’t sound like anything special to me.  Imagine that you went to a church with 100 people.  At the start of the year your pastor stood up and said, “Church, this year I’m believing that God will pour out his Spirit just like he did on the early church.  Let’s pray and work towards adding 3 more people to our congregation this year – no, 4 people!  Will you believe with me for that?  Can we do it???”  I think any pastor who cast that “vision” would get stunned silence from the congregation.  Talk about underwhelming!  And yet that is exactly what the early church did, and it resulted in a large harvest.

The reason that that growth rate was enough to bring the Roman Empire to its knees is because 300 years is a VERY long time.  When you have compound growth that’s what happens.

So what about today?  How is the church doing today in comparison?  If you live in a Western country you could be forgiven for thinking that the church is declining and in danger of vanishing all together.  That’s far from the case.

The missions encyclopaedia Operation World says that evangelical churches are growing at 2.6% per year.  (An evangelical church is, in short, one that believes that Jesus literally rose from the dead and believing in him is the difference between going to heaven and hell.)  That compares with overall global population growth of 1.2%.  But of course the overall numbers are huge compared to the estimated 6 million Christians when Emperor Constantine turned to Christ in 312 AD.  There are currently somewhere between 550 and 600 million evangelical Christians, and well over a billion Catholics, Orthodox and other Protestant Christians as well.

So our current growth of 2.6% is not that far off the growth of the early church of 3.5%.  In fact just a couple of decades ago evangelical churches were growing at 4.5% as huge numbers of new believers in East Asia, sub Saharan Africa and Latin America were added to the church.

Whilst there is huge variation from continent to continent overall the church is in very good health, and evangelical churches have just capped off a remarkable century of unprecedented growth.  And there is plenty more to come.

Of course there is nothing special about slow growth as opposed to fast growth.  If a church can grow fast so much the better – that means more coming to Christ, more lost sheep being found.  But I think we need to review out concept of what fast and slow growth is.

So imagine that you are a part of a church that is about to end the year in a pretty similar position to where it started.  Welcome to a church not unlike the early church.  That’s a church that can play a role in turning the world upside down.  That’s a church that can make a difference.  It’s a bit like the tortoise and the hare – slow and steady wins the race.


September 20, 2012

What to do with Islam

There has been plenty in the news this week about fallout around the world from the Muslim reaction to an internet video regarded as blasphemous.  It extended to a somewhat violent protest in Sydney last weekend.

My gut reaction to these protests is, “what on earth are you upset about?”  I’m a Christian.  If I got upset every time someone, somewhere on the internet said something critical of Jesus or Christianity…well, when would I find the time to eat? To sleep?

That gut reaction is not based on my faith, it is based on my Western mindset.  As someone who has grown up in a modern, Western culture I have absorbed our individualistic way of thinking and our commitment to freedom of speech.  Yesterday there was an article in The Age explaining how the Muslim mindset works in these matters, and how it differs from a Western one.  (Rough summary: Muslims feel a strong sense of solidarity with one another; when one is oppressed by a Western power, ie the USA, all other Muslims are upset about it.)

So as I Christian what response do I have?  Some churches have embraced “interfaith dialogue” in an effort to increase the understanding between different faiths.  Pope John Paul II put quite some effort into such meetings in the 1980’s but his successor has not been as interested.

As an evangelical, that’s not my approach.  If I spent 10 years with Muslims, talking and learning from them, what I would come away with is that they fundamentally believe different stuff to me.  My faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, in his claims to be the only way to God make me convinced that, “there is no other name under heaven by which men can be saved” to quote the apostle Peter.  So there can be dialogue without limit, but at the end of it, I believe that Jesus is the only way to God, and that therefore Islamic beliefs about Muhammad are wrong.

Granted that reality interfaith dialogue might be well-intentioned,  it is ultimately of no use.  You are highly unlikely to win converts meeting with other religious leaders.  It is a distraction from the task that Jesus has given us – making disciples.

Therefore Christians should be reaching out to Muslims with the message that Jesus is the only way.  However Muslim people’s are generally not very receptive to the Christian message.  There certainly are individual Muslims who have found faith in Christ, but on the whole they are not open.  At this point Christians have a choice to make.  They can prioritize reaching those who are responsive, or they can just toil away with people who are unresponsive.

The Church Growth Movement led by scholars (mostly former missionaries) such as Donald McGavran and C Peter Wagner argued in the 60’s and 70’s that God wants his lost sheep found.  Because of this if we are to properly steward the resources of time and money that God has given us then, they argue, we have to harvest where it is most fruitful.  To do otherwise is not co-operating with the Holy Spirit, who is clearly more active in some parts of the world than in others.

It’s a provocative argument, and many Christians find it counter-intuitive.  I think that if God is clearly directing you to minister in a particular place then that’s where you must go.  But otherwise it is right to be strategic in being as fruitful as possible.

Meanwhile, back in Sydney, if Muslims are protesting about something silly, someone silly said on the internet then those protests are a matter for the civil authorities to deal with.  They can handle them as best they can.  I’m busy making disciples.  I am reaching out to anyone open to hearing the good news of Christ, regardless of what they currently believe.


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