If the Christians raise their children as Christians and the Christian man in the course of a generation also can convince only one of his pagan neighbors, and the Christian woman can convince only one of her pagan friends lastingly of the truth of their faith, he and she have done more (!) than we must presuppose in order to explain the growth of the church in the first three centuries.
Wolfgang Reinbold quoted by Alan Kreider in The Patient Ferment of the Early Church
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
I’m pretty sure I’ve written something similar in the past, but I want to reiterate the point again today. I’ve probably even provided this quotation to you. When we ask ourselves what does it look like to be a faithful church, we can err in many directions. To one side, we err on the side of relationships. We love our community. And this isn’t wrong, we ought to learn to love each other, and this has been a struggle of our churches in our day. So we ought to learn to love one another within the church. But this often turns into an unhealthy community. It means we neglect those outside of the particular community we’re a part of. We know this by experience. If you were to get married, you have to work at joining that new extended family, and sometimes, you’re not really that welcome. Another error in our churches might be that we expect growth, but it is not easy to know what kind of growth is healthy growth. If a church is in a city that is growing in population, then often that church might grow. This led to many churches in the suburbs growing into quite large churches in the recent past. Some might have thought this was because they were doing it all the right way. Many super-mega church pastors have written their book to describe how you could copy their success. Some are a little more humble about it and don’t claim the credit. I’d guess that church attendance in mega-church areas isn’t that different than say an inner-ring suburb with quite a few smaller and medium sized churches. It is probably much less than many small towns in outstate Minnesota with faithful, long-standing churches. Perhaps they are being faithful, and perhaps not. But numbers are not the guarantee of faithfulness.
I kind of imagine that evangelical-ish church numbers have ebbed and flowed but so far as I can tell from 1776 until today 25% of the population is a fine estimate for evangelical type Christians. If the number has stayed so steady over the course of the generations, then what do we say of the great revival meetings of the 1900’s? I went to two different meetings in my youth (Billy Graham and Louis Palau). Other have mentioned this, but these meetings had more to do with reengaging Christians than actually bringing in new converts though there were certainly some of those. There was a British study of the earlier London crusades that said as much. The liberal churches who had hoped for some new members in the London crusade didn’t notice much growth even though so many participated in it. I think it was the case for the conservative churches as well.
But I do think that the crusades and the reports of the crusades on say Johnny Carson that over a million Koreans had come to the Grahams Seoul crusade made evangelism seem like the work of Billy and others who were willing to simply preach cold turkey in various places. And honestly God used Billy Graham, and he used George Whitefield in a previous generation. While we rejoice in that, we can also say that this is not the normal way God has worked. In the first centuries of the church, there was no George Whitefield. After the great establishment of the church, most often God used normal Christians, the Aquilas and Priscillas of the church. They are the normal members who even were forced to move because of business and politics. And I think this is important for us as we look into the future of the church today. Pray for revival. Pray for God to save so many people. ‘We long to see the churches filled, that all the chosen race may with one voice, and heart and soul sing Thy redeeming grace.’ And yet I think faithful churches and Christians are those who take the long view. If we are in an established community, we might not grow numerically and quickly. Instead, we should pray for slow, steady growth knowing that in the early church explosive growth over 300 years happened in the most simple way. I think we could say it like this: take care of your household, and be faithfully planted where you’re at. We are not promised that our children will become Christians, but we do have an opportunity to teach them of the glory of the gospel and pray that the Lord would stir their hearts to receive it. And be faithfully planted where you’re at. Don’t move around looking for excitement. Instead, as you are able, stay planted where you’re at and learn to look with spiritual sight for the many people who are in need of the gospel of Christ. It is not just the city that is spiritually dark. It is everywhere. We have our gospel work right before us if only we look.
I’m grateful that in the hubbub of odd church stuff over the past 100 years that God was still at work. I’m grateful that in the hubbub of odd church stuff of the past 2000 years that God was still at work. I can point to examples of faithfulness still in pastors I talk to and in Christians I’ve met with. I can point to examples of faithfulness through the generations, and we can praise the Lord that he works through our odd-ness. But we can also seek to work in line with and on the path that God has laid out in scripture. And that is I think described many different ways, but today I want to remind you of being patient with the long view in mind. And may God bless our efforts. I’ve found that in being patient as we labor, one of the unexpected places of growth is actually in our own spiritual lives. I think that this has unfortunately been one of the bigger casualties of the recent past of church: Christians have not been discipled into maturity. But it is my hope and prayer that in your patience, God would mature you. And in your growth, it is my prayer also that you would carry others along by God’s grace. And in carrying others along, it is my earnest desire that many would be baptized and enter into joyful fellowship with our glorious God.