Is it down to their buildings? The music? The location? The leader? The preaching? The style of their meetings? Their website? Which factors combine to create the elusive growth dynamic and ensure that the numbers are on an ever upward curve?
I preached on Acts 11 a few weeks ago. Cracking sermon. Small crowd (just a reminder that growth isn’t necessarily automatic!) But in Acts, the church in Antioch grew. God grew it. And He did it using three factors.
Without these we won’t grow. At least we won’t get biblical growth. With them, we may grow. That’s up to God. But these are three factors that He invariably uses.
1. God grew the church in Antioch through evangelism on the ground (19-21)
In Acts 8 God’s way of getting Christians out of one geographical location so that they could share the gospel in another was persecution. It’s an unusual missional strategy. But an effective one. And as a result, Christians ended up travelling as far as Phoenicia (modern-day Lebanon), Cyprus (modern-day venue for package holidays) and Antioch (modern-day Turkey). As these Christians fanned out across the Eastern Mediterranean, they shared the gospel. But their evangelism had a narrow focus. They went only to Jews. The idea that the gospel was good news for the world was slow to catch on. But some enterprising men from Cyprus and Cyrene understood that Jesus had died for the sins of the world, not simply the Jews. And so they employed a very different strategy. They went to Greeks. This was deliberate cross cultural mission. And it was the first time it had happened in the history of the Christian church. They intentionally reached into a very different culture from their own in order to share the gospel. The Lord clearly thought this missionary endeavour was a good thing because He blessed their efforts (21). And this church grew. And it happened simply through evangelism on the ground. It was carried out by unnamed church members. Luke doesn’t say who they were. They were just the normal men and women of the church family sharing their faith in the Lord Jesus. And so this was a church that grew through the evangelistic efforts of everyday church members on the ground.
2. God grew the church in Antioch through encouragement from the side (22-24)
What happened in Antioch was so remarkable that the church back at Jerusalem HQ decided to send an envoy. They sent Barnabas. And I think they knew exactly what they were doing when they sent a guy whose name meant ‘son of encouragement’. When Barnabas saw the undeniable evidence of the grace of God, he took it upon himself to encourage the church. But his encouragement had a particular shape to it. It wasn’t that he was generally encouraging (though I’m sure he was). His encouragement had a specific purpose. He encouraged them to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He urged and exhorted them to steadfast wholehearted loyalty to the Lord Jesus. What a blessing this man must have been to the church! That’s the kind of encouragement that I need. And I suspect it’s the same for you, isn’t it? I need people in my life who are there for me when I’m tempted to half-hearted discipleship. It can be a very powerful thing when one person takes it upon themselves to encourage another. So ask yourself, is there someone in your small group who could benefit from some encouragement? There will always be people who are les mature in their faith than we are whom we can encourage. This is something that every single one of us can do. Imagine how much better you’d live the Christian life if everyone around you was roaring on their support! Imagine how much difference we could make if we were as positive and as vocal in our encouragement as we sometimes are with our criticism! Churches can grow through encouragement from the side.
3. God grew the church in Antioch through education from the front (25-26)
Very quickly Barnabas realised that he needed outside help. And so he went to Tarsus to get Saul. It takes a big man to admit that a church needs more than he can manage. Whether he realised that the workload was beyond him or that he was out of his depth, we’re not sure. But he knew that this church needed a teacher because they needed educating from the front. And so this church grew because they had at least one gifted teacher. The New Testament takes it for granted that churches will appoint senior, godly men to instruct them. Churches need people who can spend time studying the scriptures for themselves so that they can teach those scriptures to others. In Ephesians 4, Paul makes it clear that pastor-teachers equip the rest of the church body for diverse works of service so that the church can reach maturity, unity and stability. And so churches need teachers to explain and apply the truth of the gospel. When that happens, men and women like Barnabas know what to say to encourage others to wholehearted service of Christ. And every church member then knows how to explain the gospel. Churches need gifted teachers with time to teach. And we need to access good teaching.
Every single church member has a crucial part to play in the growth of their church. All of us can contribute. We can all get involved in sharing the gospel on the ground. We can encourage one another from the side to keep serving Christ. We can demand andwelcome teaching from the front. The ‘formula for growth’ is actually very simple. And so we’ll send our forthcoming Streatham plant off with little more than a leader, some people and a Bible. And we’ll send them off with every confidence that God can use that to grow them if He so chooses.