Our task given by Jesus is to make disciples not to grow our church.
Now, before I unnecessarily offend you with that statement (or give you undue reason to celebrate), give me a chance to clarify. Christ’s great commission to his church was to go and make disciples of all nations. That’s it. In one sense, that is a really simple and clear commission. It has laser focus and a clear objective. In another sense, that is a full-orbed life-encompassing directive. After all, Jesus qualifies his statement about making disciples by saying that this includes baptizing them and teaching these new disciples to obey all that he has commanded. That is some life-encompassing stuff!
I write this today to point out how easy it is to take pieces of that directive and make them the total focus of the directive. When we do that, we start to chase the wrong objective, and we find “success” in the wrong places. We can feel like we really accomplished something when, in fact, we have been working toward the wrong goal. In specific, it is very easy to confuse making disciples with growing your church larger. This is a subtle but very significant issue.
Sometimes those are the same thing.
My point in this post is not to say church growth is a bad thing. Far from it. In many instances, that is a thing we should celebrate. As God gives a local church a broader reach in its community, the ability to make disciples can increase. If the members in your church receive good discipleship themselves and spread the gospel, then they become ministers in their own context, trying to make disciples as well. If your church has members like this, then more members means more ministers. In addition, larger churches often have more resources, and when those are used properly, that aids in disciple-making.
Sometimes, making disciples and growing your own church are the same thing. But the latter should never be the goal. Instead, it should be the byproduct of the actual mission. Unfortunately, church growth often becomes our metric for gauging the success of our mission. That is a problem, because church growth does not always result in better disciple-making.
Sometimes they are not the same thing.
If we make church growth our success metric, we miss all the other (and often more significant) ways of making disciples. There are so many aspects of our mission that we miss when our focus is on making our own church bigger. That naturally leads to thinking that is additional not multiplicative in nature. Instead, a local church that understands its disciple-making commission will seek to spread the gospel as far out from its church as possible. This necessarily requires reproducing yourself not just adding to yourself.
Furthermore, all local churches have a life cycle, and a healthy church realizes that it needs to replace itself as many times as possible over the course of its life. Again, it is more concerned about making disciples than working toward its own sustained growth. For the healthy church, the goal is that the community (and as many communities as possible) have a sustained gospel witness, even when they are gone.
Thinking this way can change a church’s ministry paradigm in a number of ways. First, it opens the options for missions and ministry. No longer is the test of a good ministry whether it can add to our number. Now the test of a good ministry is how much gospel it spreads and how well it can baptize and teach others to obey all that Christ has commanded. That means faithful ministry in the church, and it means helping to establish more places where that kind of ministry can occur.
Thinking this way leads to sending your best instead of keeping your best. When the goal is church growth, then the church desires to hold on to its best ministers and disciples. However, when the spread of the gospel and the making of disciples is the goal, then the church sees the strategic importance of releasing its best. An important ministry of the church actually becomes identifying its own members that it wants to raise up simply so it can send them out somewhere new.
Thinking this way creates more points of service and more cultural expressions of the gospel in a community. Often, a church is happier sending its best across the world than it is sending them across town. This goal of multiplicative disciple-making does not apply only to international missions or to those big cities across the country where there are no churches. It applies to your own community as well. Sometimes, one of the best things a church can do to spread the gospel is help aid local church planting efforts in their own city. I mentioned it above, but churches all have a life cycle, and no single church can reach a city. Instead, sending your best to engage all the various groups of people in a city with evangelistic Bible studies that lead to church plants multiplies gospel access points in that city. More churches means more cultural ways of expressing the gospel, and when these diverse congregations partner together to reach their city, they can reach many more types of people than any one church.