I’m no expert on the theology of the Church Growth Movement (or whatever clever moniker it goes by these days), but I can’t help but be disappointed at the continual emphasis on church growth (i.e., numbers) that is so rampant within Evangelicalism. Everywhere you turn there are books, seminars, web sites, blogs, etc. dedicated to the next big thing (read ‘gimmick’) that will draw folks in. Some have argued that the phenomenon of the ‘mega-church’ is on the wane, something I haven’t noticed around Houston, but regardless of whether this may be the case, the infatuation with growing larger churches continues continues to infect much of American Christianity. At it’s core, I suspect the whole thing is largely about self-centered ‘pastors’ trying to build congregations, buildings, and programs to compete with the size of their own egos.
For those, however, who may be truly and sincerely trying to grow the size of their congregations for the glory of Christ and to really reach out to others with the gospel, one thing still jumps out at me from all the ‘experts’–church growth happens because of something we do. That something may be related to preaching style, worship style, small groups, large groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, children’s church, Sunday School, or (insert issue of interest here). Whatever it is, even as we ‘give God the glory’ for the increase of our congregation, at the core, that growth is understood to result from our work, our efforts, our programs, our gimmick.
Bonhoeffer disagrees. He realizes, rightly, that Christ promised to build his church. Such growth is his work, not ours. As he writes:
If is not we who build. [Christ] builds the church. No man builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess–he builds. We must proclaim–he builds. We must pray to him–that he may build.
We do not know his plan. We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are the times of collapse are for him the great times of construction. It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is pulled down.
It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church: you confess, preach, bear witness to me and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is my province. Do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough. But do it well. Pay no heed to views and opinions. Don’t ask for judgments. Don’t always be calculating what will happen. Don’t always be on the lookout for another refuge! Church, stay a church! But church, confess, confess, confess! Christ alone is your Lord; from his grace alone can you live as you are. Christ builds.
–Dietrich Bonhoeffer (from No Rusty Swords, as cited in TDP, p. 841)