Some Thoughts on Paul’s Missionary Method, Church Growth, and Small Churches

Acts 16:9-15 records that on the first Sabbath after Paul arrives in Macedonia, he goes out to the river presumably because there is no synagogue there (he always began his ministry preaching to the Jews in the synagogue) and he knows this is where Jews would congregate for prayer. A quorum of ten males was necessary to start a synagogue, but here he finds women gathered there. Paul doesn’t shrink back from ministering to them as the rabbis would have done. This shows the true universal nature of the Gospel. It also shows Paul’s zeal for spreading the Gospel that no one was beneath being brought to Christ nor was Christ beneath having his Good News given to everyone and anyone. If Christ has looked on you with compassion, you are obligated to look with compassion on those around you.

Lydia was a “worshipper of God” which means, like Cornelius in chapter 10, she was a Gentile believer in the Lord of the Jews but who stopped short of full conversion. But God opened her heart and brought her to faith. Her faith was evident in the hospitality she showed to the servants of God and the church of God. She opened her house to serve as the meeting place for this new congregation and freely shared what was hers with the rest of the church. Perhaps this is one way the church at Philippi, though small, was able to be so generous. This was the custom for the early church. Acts 4:32 (NIV): “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”

She was generous with her faith, also, and led her whole household to faith. This is the way the church grew in Acts. We resort to programs and outreach methods modeled on marketing and sales, hiring the right professional ministers to grow the church numerically, adding the right bells and whistles. But Christians in the early church simply shared their faith with the people they knew.

All the methodology and programs that have influenced church growth in the last generation and a half are finally beginning to reveal their lack of substance. Willow Creek celebrated their 30th anniversary a few years ago and in the study they commissioned to evaluate their effectiveness, they discovered that the programs really don’t work.

I had a conversation with a two pastor friends this week, one with a growing, thriving church and the other just starting a church plant. Both have eschewed these methods because they’ve seen the excess and lack of substance. You can use these methods to grow a big church as far as number, but there’s very little evidence that pagans are being converted and even less that people are being brought to maturity in Christ. When churches are talking about teaching Christians to be “self-feeders” and when these types of church talk about sending their people to churches like ours when they want them to grow or be taught, you have to shake your head and wonder how we’ve come this far from the model presented in the New Testament.

Only when you have abandoned Christ and his Word do you begin to look for something more. As long as you have Christ at the center and rest firmly upon his Word you neither need nor want to look for anything else because what else would you possibly choose?.

Some segments of American Evangelicalism has become enamored with the “bigger is better” mentality and yet, after all this time, less than 2% of American Christians attend a megachurch (2,000 or more) and 75% of all church in the US are 100 people or less in Sunday morning attendance. [1] Could it be that we innately realize that bigger isn’t necessarily better? Anyone who has had to deal with AT&T knows this already.

Dunbar’s number demonstrates sociologically that we tend to congregate in groups of 120 to 150. This way, we know each other, we have access to the pastors, we can be involved and not be overlooked, and we can truly carry out the commands of the NT to love one another and fulfill all the other “one another” commands of the NT.

So if we really want to do ministry like they did in the NT, we have to be smart and strategic, but we can’t let the strategy get in the way of actually doing the work God has given to us.

If we really want to do ministry like they did in the NT, by all means we have to try to reach as many people as possible, but we also can’t forget that the crowd is made up of individual people who need attention and care.

If we really want to do ministry like they did in the NT, we can’t get so wrapped up in and enamored with methodology that we forget that the Apostles and the early church’s methodology revolved around things that seem so quaint and old-fashioned now: preaching, sharing our faith personally, loving and caring for one another, and trusting God to do what is right in his time with his church. This way, all the glory belongs to him.

In the end, it’s not about my ability to win people because I can’t change someone’s heart (and neither can you). But Christ and his Word can. In the end, it’s not about my ability to grow a church in number or in grace, love, and knowledge, because I can’t change people’s lives, but Christ and his Word can.

So what do we do? We stay rooted and grounded in the Word, not just for our doctrine, but also for our practice. We remain faithful to Christ and his Word, we worship and live and serve with Christ as the center standing firm upon his Word, no more, but no less, and we let Christ, through His Word and Spirit, do the work that he has been doing since Paul’s time and that he is doing today.

[1] Gary L. McIntosh, One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Bringing Out the Best in Any Size Church (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1999) 17-18.


About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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