By Mark Dever
(Originally published as chapter 10 of What Is a Healthy Church?)
An important mark of a healthy church is a pervasive concern for church growth as growth is prescribed in the Bible. That means growing members, not just numbers.
Some today think that a person can be a "baby Christian" for a whole lifetime. Growth is treated as an optional extra for zealous disciples. But growth is a sign of life. If a tree is alive, it grows. If an animal is alive, it grows. Being alive means growing, and growing means increasing and advancing, at least until death intercedes.
Paul hoped the Corinthians would grow in their faith (2 Cor. 10:15), and that the Ephesians would "grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ" (Eph. 4:15 NIV; cf. Col. 1:10; 2 Thess. 1:3). Peter exhorted his readers, "Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation" (1 Peter 2:2 NIV).
It is tempting for pastors and even some members to reduce their churches to manageable statistics of attendance, baptisms, giving, and membership. This kind of growth is tangible. Yet such statistics fall far short of the true growth that the New Testament authors describe and that God desires.
How do we know when Christians are growing in grace? We don't ultimately know from the fact that they're excited, use lots of religious language, or have a growing knowledge of Scripture. Just because they exhibit an increased love for the church or display confidence in their own faith isn't determinative either. We can't even be sure Christians are growing because they appear to have an outward zeal for God. All these may be evidences of true Christian growth. At the same time, one of the most important and commonly overlooked signs of growth that must be observed is increasing holiness rooted in Christian self-denial (see James 2:20-24; 2 Pet. 1:5-11). The church should be marked by a vital concern for this kind of increasing godliness in the lives of its members.
Neglecting holiness, like neglecting church discipline, results in hard-to-grow disciples. In churches where unholy behavior goes unchecked, disciples become confused and unclear about the life that is honoring to Christ. It's like a garden where the weeds are never pulled or good things are never planted.
1. What was the last experience you had that showed you that you still have a lot to learn, whether at home, at work, in church, or in any other area of life?
This whole study is going to focus on discipleship. To be a disciple is to be a student, someone who learns from and imitates his teacher. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are all called to continually learn from him and follow him in every area of life.
Practically speaking, this means that we need to realize that discipleship is a lifelong process. In this life, none of us is a finished product. We all need to continually progress as disciples.
None of us is perfect. We all need to grow as disciples of Christ.
In Philippians 3:8-11, Paul exclaims that everything that once caused him to be proud he now considers to have been a waste of time because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. He then explains why he has gladly lost all of that and more: it's allowed him to know Christ, to share in his sufferings, and to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
But in case anyone might think that Paul was saying that he had become perfectly mature, Paul continues:
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Phil. 3:12-21)
1. What does Paul say that he is not and that he has not yet done (vv. 12-13)?
2. If this is how the apostle Paul viewed himself, what does that say about what our own attitudes toward ourselves should be?
3. What reason does Paul give for why he presses on to obtain a deeper knowledge of Christ (v. 12)?