Feasting in the Famine
Holistic and healthy growth is the key to any successful organization, especially the church. The church is described as an organism, specifically named the body of Christ. In illustration of the church Paul said “From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16). Biologically and based on bodily composition, the human frame and scheme is not about replication but continued development. The hands are not seeking to grow a third hand, their purpose is to develop and act in their highest capacity. Although it can happen as a collective, the first form of growth that should be present within any church congregation is individual spiritual maturity and development. Regardless of surrounding formations of numerical growth, or a lack thereof, internal growth/development should be in constant motion.
Often in churches of Christ we assess and measure success according to the number of encounters at the baptismal pool. Such an outward and public benchmark can mask what is actually happening regarding personal and spiritual development amongst individual Christians. When numerical growth slows within a congregation, it sets forth an opportunity for members to feast on each other during times of perceived famine. At least that can be the initial perception. The question remains, however, is there something more deceptive and sinister at the root?
The Apostle Paul said in Galatians 5:14-16 “For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 15 But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another. 16 So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves” (NLT). In the past I have used this passage to help describe and warn about what could happen to churches as numerical growth declines or stops, purporting that once growth stops members will begin to bite and devour each other. There may be some truth to that notion but as a stand-alone, the premise is limited in scope. Think about it: Why would the lack of numerical church growth (alone) negatively impact the current functioning of a group of congregational Christians? Especially if said group is mature/maturing and growing spiritually on an individual level.
This brings the most pressing issue to the floor of Christian ontology. Righteousness and spiritual maturity! Paul acknowledges that Love “Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things (1 Corinthians 13:7KJV). Thus, regardless of an absence of numerical church growth, for the spiritually mature, dramatic love in action should not be adversely impacted. If the absence of numerical growth creates an atmosphere of members feasting upon each other during the famine, it is really just the unmasking of a hidden spiritual immaturity that was always simmering beneath the surface.
For years churches were able to hide behind the mask of baptisms; retention did not matter, just the public celebration of the baptismal pool event. Some may be guilty of celebrating the new baptism(s), yet failing to cry out and search for the same lost sheep three months later. With church of Christ decline across America, we can now see all of our nakedness. When there is fresh growth spiritual maturity levels evade assessment and detection. A church can grow in number, while remaining static or even retreating spiritually. This may have been a feature in Corinth. The same is true within various congregations regarding physical growth. A lack of numerical growth is not the problem, such growth can become the serum that veils the reality of what is happening in the individual lives of Christians. In churches of Christ baptisms equal winning and winning can hide subtle but toxic flaws. The goal is for healthy and steady personal growth, numerical growth, and a consistent trajectory of upward individual and collective spiritual maturity. The love and motivation of Jesus is the glue.
The greatest form of evangelism the church can offer is love toward itself. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. 35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34-35). It is this love that has the ability to draw a world to Christ. If a problem does exist, looking to baptisms and numerical church growth in isolation is not the solution. At best they are symptomatic, but not the root. A church can have scores of baptisms and grow or swell numerically each year, still operating under undiagnosed carnality.
Our most pressing charge is to live righteously and obediently. If a church is not physically growing or baptizing, start with the analysis of love, personal spirituality, and development, coupled with maturity within the fellowship.
“Abstain from all appearance of evil. 23 And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:22-24).
Dr. Ammar Saheli