There has been much discussion in recent times of the subject of church growth. Church growth seminars are being held, sensational methods for bringing about increases in membership are being devised, and mass evangelism programs are engaged in that have as their objectives nation-wide and worldwide reawakening and revival. We are seeing the establishment of super churches with memberships in the thousands. Large churches are said to be successful churches and churches which are in a particularly wonderful way fulfilling the great commission. These large churches are looked at with envy by many, and many seek to imitate them.
As is to be expected, much of this emphasis on church growth is completely unscriptural. Men love to glory in the strength and greatness of men; therefore large churches tend to generate excitement and enthusiasm. Churches are often interested in numbers merely for numbers’ sake. The objective of the ecumenical movement is to create one large church, that the cause of the church might be advanced by might and by power. Nowhere in scripture can we find support for the notion that large numbers as such must be the objective of the church. The emphasis on church growth most often ignores the truth of scripture that the true church of Christ Jesus is often very small and insignificant in the world as far as numbers and strength is concerned. The history of the church, with only few exceptions, finds the church very small in the world. The large church is not necessarily the successful church and the one most faithful to its calling. Very often large churches are those which are popular among men because of the man-centered modernistic gospels which they preach. Scripture tells us that in the last days men shall not endure sound doctrine and many shall be deceived to follow after false doctrines that are pleasing to men. This we know is the explanation of many of the large churches of our land. Scripture tells us that in the last days those who are faithful shall be few in number. The strength of the true church of Jesus Christ is not numbers and the strength of men but the strength of her Almighty God. The Lord accomplishes His purpose and realizes His counsel in the midst of weakness and smallness of men. Furthermore, the strength of the church is to be found in her adherence unto God and her faithfulness unto His word and dependence upon His grace. Whether the church of Christ Jesus is fulfilling her calling in the world has nothing to do with her size. Very often the small church can be doing this much more faithfully than the large church.
Having said all of this we do not mean to say that the church must not seek to grow. Always in. a proper way the church must seek to grow to the glory of the name of God. When the Lord in His grace adds unto the church those who must be saved there is great rejoicing in the true church of Christ Jesus. Growing congregations are often exciting congregations, and that rightly so when the matter of church growth is kept in proper perspective. The church has been given the glorious task in the world to preach the gospel through which the Lord is pleased to gather His church. This the church must do diligently by every means and opportunity afforded her. This work involves more than merely the regular preaching in her own midst. Every church must preach to the world in which God has placed her that all those who are ordained unto eternal life might believe and be brought into the fold of the church. This is the work of the church as a whole and every individual member of the church, not only of the minister.
In all of the discussion about church growth one sees more and more one very precious Reformed truth about the church being ignored and even scoffed at. That is the truth that the church of Jesus Christ is a continuing church. It is a continuing church because the covenant of God is with believers and their children. God is pleased to gather His church along the line of continued generations. This the Lord has done from the beginning of time. Only a very superficial consideration of the Old Testament will reveal that the Old Testament church of God was gathered from the generations of God’s people. The Lord gathered His church from the sons and daughters of believing parents. Parents were again and again exhorted to instruct their children in the wonderful works of the Lord, and God was pleased in that way to raise up these children as His continuing church. When God’s people were unfaithful in instructing their children they were cut off in their generations from the church. The covenant and church of God remained the same in the New Testament. Therefore Peter declared on the day of Pentecost, “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God, shall call.” Always the Lord grafts new generations into the church, but centrally that church continues with the generations of believers. This truth of the word of God must always be taken into account when considering how the church grows. This truth has many implications as far as determining where the emphasis of the work of the church must always be. This has historically been one of the major differences between Reformed and Arminian and fundamentilistic churches. Arminianism has a thoroughly individualistic doctrine of salvation and therefore has no conception of a continuing church. Therefore the Arminian church is concerned with little more than bringing about conversion of individuals from outside of their church, or according to their terminology, getting people to accept Christ. The Work of the church is only missions. Every worship service must be so oriented that it has as its chief purpose to bring the unconverted in the audience to accept Christ Jesus.
Historically the Reformed faith, because of its maintenance of the truth of the covenant, has seen that its first and primary calling is to the generations of the covenant. Before the church engages in mission work outside of her own midst she must diligently see to it that her own covenant generations are instructed, built up in the faith, and taught all of the doctrines of the Reformed faith. For this reason the Reformed church has placed great emphasis on instructing their own members. Therefore we have Christian schools and catechism classes. In these catechism classes the children of the covenant receive intensive doctrinal instruction.
One of the reasons for the present day discussions on church growth is the fact that many so-called mainline churches of our land are losing members faster than they are gaining them. This is true in spite of all the effort toward mass evangelism. This is true in most of the large Reformed churches of our country. While many of these Reformed churches are busy trying to gain members through sensational evangelism programs, they are losing their own covenant generations out of the back door so to speak. This is due in great measure to the inundation of Arminian and Fundamentalistic ideas of evangelism and church growth into these churches. I see Reformed churches around me that no longer have catechism classes. These have usually been replaced by Sunday school classes which are at best very superficial and often outright Arminian. These classes are chiefly oriented toward getting outsiders into the church rather than the instruction of covenant generations. I see Reformed churches where there is no longer in existence such institutions as young people’s societies where there is regular and intensive study of the Word of God by the young people of the church. Where these still exist they are shamefully poorly attended. One hears very little about the need of diligent and regular Bible study by the members of the church, both young and old. The generations that are growing up are woefully ignorant of the truth of the Word of God and the doctrines of the Reformed Faith. Yet there is talk about missions and more missions. All kinds of mission programs are being tried so that virtually everyone can be a missionary. The people of the church need nothing more than a very superficial knowledge of the Word of God and then they have arrived, and the attention of the church is again turned to missions. I have attended enough meetings outside of our own denomination in order to notice at all of these the characteristic absence of young people. Many churches are more and more becoming churches only for the elderly. Is it any wonder that these churches are losing members? Are they not losing the most precious of their membership that will never be regained, no matter how much work is done on evangelism.
I have heard even in circles of Reformed ministers the notion of covenant generations scoffed at. Even in many Reformed churches the success of the church is determined by how many people from the outside they have brought to accept Christ. On the other hand, a church where children grow up to continue in the church of their parents is considered to be a dead church where there is no true zeal for the preaching of the gospel.
We as Protestant Reformed churches profess to love, the truth of God’s covenant. This truth we must always seek to keep in proper focus as we strive toward growing as churches to the glory of the name of God. We can rejoice how in recent years the Lord has caused our churches to grow. The Lord has given us much work to do outside of our denomination. In recent years the Lord has brought in many from the outside to swell our numbers. Those who have been brought in have come to love the heritage of the Reformed faith which the Lord has given us. We are being shown new open doors for mission work. Yet our first calling, even before missions, must ever remain the ministry to the covenant generations which the Lord gives to us. A truly faithful and strong church is the church where children grow up to love the Word of God and the doctrines of the faith which they have been diligently taught by their parents and their church from their youth up. A strong and continuing church is one where young people grow up to take their place as full members in the church where by God’s grace they were born. A strong church is where young people seek their marriage partners in the church. In the truly Reformed church children grow up to love the church of their parents not because of tradition or because of adherence to an earthly institution but because that church possesses the true marks of the church; in that church is maintained the pure preaching of the gospel.
We believe that it is God Who gives us children and that these children are His covenant heritage from which He will raise up His church. This is a wonderful and exceedingly precious truth for godly parents. This truth is an encouragement to have children and even to have many children that the church of Jesus Christ might grow. One of the beautiful aspects of the covenant promise to the Patriarchs and to all the saints of God is that the seed of the covenant shall finally be innumerable, as numerous as the sand of the sea shore and the stars of the heavens. God will glorify Himself in the great company of saints that He will raise up from the generations of His people. In this connection we might well consider our calling in regard to the size of our families. The church of Jesus Christ grows as the generations of God’s people grow. Should it be the case that there is a noticeable decline in the numbers of the church because of the influence of the godless philosophy of birth control? Today even Reformed Churches in analyzing membership statistics admit to decline because of the influence of birth control. I wonder, if such statistics were compiled of our churches, whether there would be a noticeable effect of this philosophy on our numbers. Godly parents have the blessed privilege of bringing forth the church. This must remain a high calling with us as we seek to labor toward the growth of the church in the proper way.
We as parents must see to it that we fulfill our calling to instruct our children with all diligence in the Word of God and to nurture them in the fear and love of the Lord. Along with that goes that we teach them to love the true church of Christ Jesus and the importance of continuing as members in that true church. We take our children to church because we believe that they belong to that church. We urge them as they get older to take a living and active part in all of the life of the church.
We as young people must understand the blessed privilege that we are born in the line of the covenant and in the sphere of the church. We must understand our obligation to remain in that church and to be zealous members of that church.
Our churches have blessings from God that perhaps no other church has. We have intensive catechetical instruction from a very early age to young adulthood. We have opportunity to receive hours and hours of instruction in the Reformed faith. These catechism classes teach doctrine. They are not merely superficial Sunday School classes as those that have replaced catechetical instruction in so many churches.
All of these things we must maintain. By faithful and diligent instruction of its members our churches will remain strong and we will grow along the line of generations as God has promised in His covenant promise. Surely we must have zeal for mission work to those outside of our churches but only after we have fulfilled our calling with our own members and covenant generations.