Shrinking a Growing Church – Part I

Shrinking a Growing Church- Part I

Brian O’Day
September 2016

When I was in eighth grade, I was below average for height- several of the girls were head and shoulders taller than me. The summer between my eighth and ninth grade years things started to change. I began a journey that saw me grow four inches per year for a few years in a row. It seemed a regular occurrence to go shopping for new pants, shoes, and other items that no longer fit. I typically ate three dinners and consumed a seemingly endless amount of food throughout the day. This was a time of new excitement and new challenges. Grabbing the rim on a basketball goal was fun, but hitting my head continually on things and becoming un-coordinated in actual competition was challenging. Growth is exciting, but it can also be difficult.

This season has been a season of growth in the life of our church. It is exciting on Sunday mornings to see larger gatherings for our young church family. After spending many hours preparing a sermon, the preparation seems better utilized when more people listen than less. When we sing together corporately, it is more encouraging to hear my voice drowned out by the voices of many than to feel as though I’m singing a solo. (I am not what you would call musically gifted.) When I look at our church infiltrating various aspects of our community, it is easier to see the Gospel impact now than it was when we were a small band of 10 or 20 people.

But this growth is also challenging. As a member of the church, I can only know (and be known by) so many people really well. People may encourage my public persona, but do they really know the struggles that I have in my Monday through Saturday life? I may know their name and where they live and/or work, but do I know them well enough to empathize with their daily and weekly struggles? As a shepherd of the church, I know that I am supposed to keep watch over the souls of the flock (Heb 13:17), but how are we supposed to do that faithfully as the church grows?

It seems that the prospect of a growing church leaves each of us with some really bad options before us if we do not think well about this topic. Should I work to keep the church from growing and just focus on the people we have? That seems unloving to my community and counter-biblical. Should I burn myself out and encourage others to burn themselves out seeking to know everyone to the same level we always have? That seems to be a recipe for disaster and counter-biblical. Should I water down all my relationships so that I can maintain equality among the body? This seems to be a typical American church model, but it also seems to be counter-biblical.

This first part of tackling this idea of shrinking a growing church, let’s ensure that we understand the clear commands and instructions from the Bible so that any practical advice I can offer myself and others on this topic is grounded in the Bible’s clear teaching.

The “One Anothers”- Big Picture

The New Testament continually commands Christians to practice things to “one another”. In the book of Romans, we see several of them: “Love
one another with brotherly affection.” “Outdo one another in showing honor.” (12:10) “Live in harmony with one another.” (12:16) “Let us not pass judgment on one another.” (14:3) “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (15:7) “Instruct one another.” (15:14)

These “one anothers” are tangible things that we are supposed to be doing as we live the Christian life. Paul envisions these things happening in our actual lives in real and tangible ways- not merely in the hypothetical realm. They are also to be read as instructions or commands therefore, we who are in Christ, must be seeking how to obey them.

As you look at these examples from Romans (a book written to a wide audience), they seem to be things that I can be doing generally in the context of a very large and broad manner. I should be doing these things toward every member of my local church, toward the other local churches in my community, and even toward greater Christendom. These instructions pose very little problem for me as the church increases in size. It is when Paul addresses specific churches and individuals that the problems begin to surface.

The “One Anothers”- Small Picture

When Paul writes to specific local churches, the instructions seem to get more personal. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) Am I to assist every Christian with every burden of which I become aware? “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32) “[Address] one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,” (Ephesians 5:19) “[Submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21) Who is this I am supposed to submit to? Every Christian in my church? America? The world? “Therefore
encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

Later in the New Testament, other biblical writers echo similar instructions. Attempt to think through practically applying these instructions. How many people can you legitimately do this with? Ten? Twenty? A hundred? A thousand? James writes, “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers.” (James 4:11) “Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged.” (James 5:9) “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (James 5:16) Am I supposed to confess all my sins on social media or publically on a Sunday morning in front of hundreds?

Peter writes, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (1 Peter 4:9) Is every Christian I know welcome to show up at my door unannounced and me them? “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” (1 Peter 4:10)

Biblical Community

I pray that the picture you now have of biblical community is far deeper than mere bumper sticker platitudes toward one another for which we often settle. We can keep up with one another’s public persona on social media, but it will take true, genuine, face-to- face interaction to carry out these commands in Scripture.

Perhaps I am one with a more limited capacity than most, but I cannot picture doing this with 100 people in a given season of life. Therefore, I need a way of thinking and acting that allows me to shrink a growing church in some of the practical aspects of Monday through Saturday each week while still enjoying the benefits of a larger community on Sunday mornings and in carrying out the massive mission of impacting lostness in my community over months and years.

In my next post, I will explain a practical thought process I use to attempt to walk in the New Testament instructions we have looked at in this post.