‘Numbers are not important’. How many times I have heard that statement in connection with church growth? At one level I agree with the sentiment but not as an excuse for stagnation. I speak from experience because not everything we have done in our local church has produced numerical growth.
Growth, of course, is far more involved than merely the numbers of people who attend. There is a breadth to growth than needs to be seen in every area of the life of the people.
If we again take the life and ministry of Jesus as our example we can understand more of the implications of growth. There is a core of mystery as to why God sent the Son in the way that he did. Why did he come as a baby? Why did he live for over thirty years?
It seems to me that the context of the incarnation has significance. I am struck by the words of Hebrews chapter 13, verse 8 that describe Jesus as being the same ‘yesterday, today and forever’. At first glance it seems that change is out of the question.
Yet we also know that change took place. The Word ‘became’ flesh.
The unchangingness of Jesus is to be seen in his essential character. His goodness, his truth and his faithfulness are all undiminished by the passage of time. In fact he is completely unaffected by the constraints of time other than in his own choice to be self-limited by it. The Kenosis is the expression of this absolute commitment to his mission. The act of ‘becoming’ is the important factor for us here. God is showing to us in graphic and eternal terms how we are to ‘become’. The eternal, creative Word has become flesh in order to fulfil the will of God. We, the church, are to follow a similar path. We are to be unchanging in the essential nature of what God has made us to be yet, at the same time, we are to become a willing vessel for God.
The development of Jesus the man is shown to follow a similar pattern to that of other human beings. He is shown to learn, grow, hunger, cry and feel fatigue: the full range of humanities experiences. This means that the incarnation was not merely some singular event but a pilgrimage.
It is in this context that we in the Pentecostal church can learn a great deal about church growth. Pilgrimage is essential. We expect if of our natural children when we encourage them to explore and learn about themselves and the world around them. Parents and teachers consider the appropriate lessons that need to be learned at each stage of the growing process. So it is with those who come to faith and begin a journey within the community of the church. Richter and Francis speak of the importance of journey in their writings dealing with those who leave the church. ‘The church that is best at retaining its members is one that presupposes that individuals grow in faith, in their own time and in their own way.’ This is often a difficulty for Pentecostal churches. As with other revival movements a great deal of emphasis is made upon the crisis of conversion. Even where there is talk and consideration given to discipleship it is often done in very narrow terms with them emphasis placed heavily on conformity of belief. People find acceptance when they jump through a series of evangelical hoops and so even where doubt exists there is a pressure to conform.
Pilgrimage, however, is a life giving experience. It is possible to both hold to the idea of a cross encounter whilst encouraging an Emmaus Road journey.