If you’ve been a part of Felton Bible Church during the past ten years or so, undoubtedly you’ve heard the word “growth” mentioned more than once. The demographics of FBC skew decidedly older in terms of age, and we are by no means a large church, at least not in our own limited self-conception. Let me be the first to praise and thank God for a smallish group of people graciously endowed with the wisdom of age in Christ. “Young” and “large” does not necessarily equal “faithful” and “good,” and I love the long history of faithfulness here at FBC. Many of you are part of that history. I praise God for you! Nonetheless, as we’ve articulated to one another, and as we’ve persistently prayed, we long to be refreshed for present and future ministry. It seems to us that refreshment has something to do with growth, and so “growth” is a word never far from our thoughts.
What is growth and how does it happen? We ask questions like these because we care about the growth of Jesus’ kingdom. Insomuch as FBC is a faithful embassy of that kingdom (to borrow an allegory championed by another pastor), then we also care about the growth of FBC. I want to offer two basic thoughts: First, a definition of growth, and second, a brief consideration of the words attractional vs. attractive:
Here is my working definition of growth: Growth, in the context of a local church, is the process whereby disciples of Jesus progress in sanctification; that is to say, they progress on the path of being truly conformed, by God’s Spirit, to the image of Jesus Christ. Notice that this definition has nothing to do with numbers, though, as I suggest below, it also has everything to do with numbers. Growth in a local church is not first a matter of how many people attend worship, how big the membership roll happens to be, how many programs are underway (we should all be allergic to the word “program” with reference to ministries of the church), or how big the budget is in terms of dollars. Growth is first a matter of increasing faithfulness and obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ, both on the part of the church corporately, and on the part of each individual believer within. Here we must pay close attention to the New Testament. It’s crucial to note that while we read of the church growing numerically, particularly in Acts, nowhere does the Bible prescribe how big a congregation should be, how much it should progress year-by-year in terms of numbers attending, or any other such measure. The concern in Scripture, and especially in the apostolic letters, is always for godliness.
Having said the above, let me now offer a caveat. While my definition of growth has nothing to do with numbers, as I said, it also has everything to do with numbers. What do I mean by that? I mean three things. First, I mean that we shouldn’t expect God to grow FBC if our perspective on growth isn’t the Bible’s. If our perspective on growth isn’t first a matter of discipleship – if we’re fascinated by numbers and not faithfulness – then we shouldn’t expect that God will add to our number. Indeed, we should pray that he doesn’t! A sizable church built on a hollow foundation is a disaster waiting to happen. Second, I mean that God often works to increase the size and impact of faithful local congregations. We see it in Acts, and we’ve seen it in the history of the church across time. Let’s be clear, it isn’t a rule that good and faithful churches must grow numerically. God isn’t bound by our expectations, and larger does not mean better. Sometimes the largest churches are the most unfaithful, looking a lot more like the congregations of Sardis or Laodicea than those of Smyrna or Philadelphia (Revelation 2-3). Sometimes the smallest are the most faithful, punching far above their weight in terms of kingdom impact. Still, it’s worth noting that often it pleases God to increase the size and influence of faithful local congregations (Matthew 25). If such should ever be the case for FBC, may God mercifully protect us in humility. Third, I mean that there is a certain logical connection between faithfulness and growth in a local church. Again, I’m speaking proverbially here, and not definitively. A proverb makes a general statement about life, and not a definitive pronouncement for all cases. What’s the logical connection between faithfulness and growth in a local church? Simply put, it’s the matter of attractiveness. Faithfulness after Jesus Christ is attractive. It wafts the aroma of Eden-restored into the world. Who among those God has called, or is calling, to himself can ignore that scent? This last point brings me then to the matter of attractional vs. attractive.
Sometimes in discussions of church growth, conversation will turn to the question of how we attract people into our doors, as if we’re a business seeking customers. Where, from Scripture, did we get the idea to conceive of Jesus’ body, an embassy of his kingdom, as a business? Often such conversations are well-intended. Sometimes they’re even appropriate. But, I venture to say, more often discussions of church growth informed by the word “attract” tend to confuse the ideas of attractional and attractive. It’s a dangerous point of confusion, and potentially lethal to a local church. What’s the difference between attractional and attractive? Nothing less than the difference between what’s fake and what’s real, or between what’s hollow and what’s solid. An attractional church doesn’t major on discipleship, it majors on numbers in attendance, or external metrics of effectiveness (like number of programs, or dollars in the budget, or community reputation, etc.), or lowest-common-denominator Christianity. Do such things as numbers, or metrics, or “mere Christianity” (to quote C.S. Lewis) have their place in the church’s consideration? Yes, sort of, but only as questions of faithfulness in making mature and maturing disciples of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, an attractive church – a church that is attractive with the image and aroma of Christ – majors on matters of discipleship. It takes the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:7-8) in its fullness seriously. Think of the attractional vs. attractive difference as the distinction between a made-up television model and a bride about to walk down the aisle. The model feigns attractiveness (with make-up, fine clothing, and the like) in order to sell something. Hers is the attractiveness of commerce, not covenant. In contrast, the bride is truly attractive in her beauty, her purity, and her readiness for the sober joy of marriage. The bride doesn’t try to attract anyone. She already has the groom! She simply glows, publicly, with the radiance of anticipation as the moment of pronouncement approaches: “You are now husband and wife.” Jesus’ church is his bride, not his model. We are to be attractive as the people of Christ, not attractional.
Everything I’ve said above is important because how we think about the church and its growth – attractional vs. attractive – will directly impact how we live as the church. Are we more interested in selling ourselves, or in being the bride and publicly pointing others to the groom? Needless to say, I’m convinced we must be the bride. Scripture commands and demonstrates as much. I’m also convinced that attractive (not attractional) churches attract people. Who do they attract? Precisely the people whom the Chief Shepherd sends them. Some of those people are not yet followers of Christ and need to meet him. Others are already believers who, for one reason or another, need a new expression of the universal church with whom to fellowship. Regardless, attractive churches will attract Jesus’ sheep; the not-yet saved and saved alike. Because this is true, even as faithful churches must think about growth, they need not worry about numbers. We may pray about numbers, we may desire a certain critical mass in terms of church membership and age demographic, but we need never worry over that which God, and God alone, determines.
I’ll close with three practical considerations for FBC as we seek to be attractive, not attractional:
1. In order to grow and be attractive let’s concern ourselves with being the church, faithful to our groom. At heart, this means giving close attention to God’s Word in every aspect of our corporate life (not to mention our individual lives); in our worship (praying, singing, preaching, and teaching), discipleship, ecclesiology, doctrine, evangelism, service, etc.
2. Let’s pursue excellence in communication. I’m thinking here of the testimony we give to those outside of FBC about whom and what we value, and why. I’m also thinking of the person, who isn’t a part of FBC, and yet walks in our doors on a Sunday morning, or a Wednesday evening, or any other time and place we gather. Let’s be ready and able to welcome that person with joy, and to clearly point them toward the groom for whom we wait.
3. Let’s not put unnecessary barriers, roadblocks, in the way of those who need to meet Jesus through the life and ministry of this church. What are we doing (or not doing) that isn’t a matter of faithful discipleship, and which might otherwise hinder someone from encountering Christ among us? Are there things we should let go of, or should begin doing (according to gifts and opportunities), in order to be a more winsome bride?
May the Lord grow this congregation, and may he mercifully sustain us in humble faithfulness. Amen!