Growth and the Gospel

So I had a wonderful conversation with a friend - you know the kind where time flies and you are both deep and yet casual from the shared time. Well, the question we were discussing was simply this, "Is growth inherent to the Gospel?" By growth, we meant numerical growth. It is primarily an evangelistic question. If we are faithful, are we guaranteed numerical growth? I mean, we believe the Gospel is life changing - it is the fellowship of God offered to us. Who could find relationship with the one true God anything less than completely exhilarating? It seems, in one light that the Gospel would always spread like wildfire when it is preached and lived truthfully.

And yet I totally don't believe that.

It's a little too triumphal, a little too US, a little too business-like, as if the sure fire sign of the Holy Spirit is an efficient outreach campaign run like an excellent business. Drawing from the parables of Jesus, primarily in Mark 4, we thought about the seeming unlikeliness of the gospel going forward given its "hiddeness," but recognized that it ultimately brings a harvest, and a harvest that, in Mark 4, is described in expansive terms.

I find there are some exegetical problems though, as well as
1. The fruit born 30,60 and 100 fold seems like a harvest of people, but it may actually be a harvest of "Word," meaning that Christ intended no specific number of human outreach here, but rather the fertile, life giving effect of God's word. Finding numerical growth in terms of "conversions" may be too far, ahem.., afield.
2. Context: The parables are explanations of why so much is hidden, not why the harvest is so great. To root a theology of increase in them might not take seriously enough the dismaying hiddeness the disciples actually find in the parables. Verses 21 to 25 of Mark 4 suggest Jesus is encouraging them in the face of small numbers with the knowledge that the hidden will be unhidden. Revelation is promised, but it takes a bit of exegetical work to see the revealing as a numerical harvest, -though it is not an unwarranted conclusion.
3. The mustard seed: Again, is this a parable about people converting? The parable begins with the famous logion, "How shall we picture the kingdom of God..." It is about the kingdom, not people. I'm not trying to draw a firm distinction between the two, but the parable could just as easily refer to the strength or presence of the kingdom of God as it might evangelistic fruit. It may in fact refer to what Jesus will accomplish with his death and resurrection...
Certainly we are promised fruit for our labors, but that fruit may not be our harvest. We may be Pauline "planters". And there may be sociological reasons that a community grows numerically, not Holy ones. Drawing a direct line from our efforts to the Spirit's work lays a lot of the Holy Spirit's job at the feet of our ability.

Recently, I've thought a lot about John 12:20, "
24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. " This passage speaks much more directly to a numerical growth of believers, but the key insight for me is that the growth is a result of death. Jesus is explaining why the disciples must open themselves to the Greeks seeking Jesus, the very thing that seems like a bad religious business idea to them in the same way the coming crucifixion does. Their problem is that they think they know how the world works, -how good outreach should happen.

And that's my problem with the idea of a direct connection between growth and our efforts: it doesn't seem to take death seriously enough. Death is a big sign that the world doesn't work. So much of scripture seems that grace presupposes barrenness: the wives of the patriarchs waiting for the promised children, the nation of Israel scrambling for the promised land, the hiding of David, the Captivity, the unknowing disciples, Gethsemane and ultimately, the cross itself. So on one hand, I believe we see fruit from our efforts, but on the other hand, I'm not sure that the fruit is the intended child of our efforts.

The mystery of Christ is that the exact worst outreach event that could happen, a cruel betrayal and ignominious death, resulted in the must triumphant proclamation of God's power, not because of a well executed outreach plan. It was the unwarranted and nonstrategic death of the Christ that brought fruit. It is mysterious because death should sever cause and effect, but it didn't. No one, not even the 12 disciples who knew Jesus best, understood how the radical disjunction between the Kingdom mission and death was necessary, precisely because it was a terrible thing. Death severs our causality. It screws up our best plans, even when we account for it! (Ozymandias anyone?) It stands as a barrier and a roadblock to achievement, reminding us of our fractured, decay inhabited nature. So to believe that our efforts directly affect the world in the way we desire, as if we can draw a straight line between what we are doing and the results we desire is impossible looking forward. It is only in hindsight (or prophecy?) that we see how the Word of God was going out exactly as planned.

This is not to rob us of a sense of mission, but it is to correct our grandiose sense of the business-like nature of the gospel going forth. We need to be more in touch with the Spirit of God than a good evangelistic strategy. ("Of course," the evangelists say, "we never said go get people into our program...") We need, like Paul, to have the life of Christ living in us, so that we can offer a stream of living water as a person, not just a plan for salvation, a tract, an altar call or a bible study to join (though I am more than biased towards the last one!)

Nor is it to rob us of accountability, but we so often use the "objective" metrics of things to define our faithfulness, that we run the risk of completely secularizing the message we are trying to proclaim and the goal of what we hope to see. We can only measure the flesh, not the spirit. So for now, I conclude that the "faithful" act of outreach is the unblushing giving of self to someone else, regardless of its strategy, in the faith that despite my dead efforts; limited and human, the presence of God will be faithful to me and bring fruit about not because of my efforts, but despite my efforts, turning what should be my shame into my glory again. At least that's how I think it's supposed to work.

So I'll invite your feedback and close with this excerpt from Bonhoeffer's Ethics that serendipitously appeared over at faith and theology today(!)
So also the church of Jesus Christ is the place [Ort] – that is, the space [Raum] – in the world where the reign of Jesus Christ over the whole world is to be demonstrated and proclaimed. This space of the church does not, therefore, exist just for itself, but its existence is already always something that reaches far beyond it…. The space of the church is not there in order to fight with the world for a piece of its territory, but precisely to testify to the world that it is still the world, namely, the world that is loved and reconciled by God. It is not true that the church intends to or must spread its space out over the space of the world. It desires no more space than its needs to serve the world with its witness to Jesus Christ and to the world’s reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ” (pp. 63-64)


  1. Dude, what a great post! I love the exegetical work, and of course, you always bring a fresh perspective that forces us to think more about our evangelical assumptions. Though this is not about church growth per se, while reading I couldn't help but be reminded of Dr. Anderson's comments about the Christian obsession with converting people. He asked his students one time during class if we thought missionaries would still have reason to go into the field if there was no heaven or hell, if that was not an issue. Sadly, I think many in the class concluded, "No, what's the point then?" But he rebutted that we must have a low view of Jesus then. "Isn't it reason enough to share God's love with people?" Ouch. Of course, there is an eternity issue at stake. But those comments took the goal off of converting people for converting people's sake and re-centering it on loving people period, with the hope that many would find life in Christ in the process, because that is the best way to live! Nevertheless, I cling to hope that even after death, there are decisions still to be made, and my faith informs me that Jesus will be making those decisions. And Jesus has revealed himself to be far more compassionate and just than anyone can ever imagine. And that is great news! Though I espouse that there is no eternal life apart from Christ, I have a sneaking suspicion that there are a lot of Christians who are really closet Universalists like me but are too afraid to come out of the closet. We are well aware that even our best efforts to share Christ with others often fall short, that in the great mystery of life, the lives of our family and friends are ultimately in the hands of God. But that is a real hope because of Christ's redeeming work.


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