Note that full maturity is not for just a few people. The goal is to "present everyone mature in Christ" (Co. 1:28, emphasis added). "Everyone" (literally, "every man," panta anthropon) appears three times in the Greek and in the ESV. In practice it may be that not everyone grows, as they should, to maturity. But that should not be the case. It is not excusable. We cannot rest until all are discipled to maturity. This is a problem with large churches unless there is a concerted attempt to ensure that everyone in the large church is in a small group. Otherwise it would be easy for people to come just as consumers. They get lost in the crowd as anonymous recipients of the programs offered by the church.
Numbers are important because they represent people who have come within the sound of the gospel. This is why Acts twice mentions the number of people who had joined the church (2:41; 4:4). But our focus should not be simply on numbers. We must ensure that everyone has an opportunity to grow. Each individual is important to God and thus to the local church also.
A minister, visiting a family in his congregation, noticed there were many children in the house. He asked the mother, "How many children do you have?" She began to count off on her fingers saying, "John, Mary, Lucy, David...." The minister interrupted, "I don't want their names--I just asked for the number." the mother responded, "They have names, not numbers."
Everyone must be cared for, and we must not rest until that is done. As a church or Christian group grows, structures have to be set in place to ensure that individuals are not overlooked. If that is not done, even thought the church may claim to have grown, it has not grown in the biblical sense. It has just become fat!
Reading this in my quiet time this morning, I was left with three questions:
1. How many churches are simply becoming "fat" and not attending to the biblical vision shared here?
2. Much is made of the decline in attendance at mainline protestant churches over the years. But if groups like the SBC were more faithful in their membership practices, how much different would the decline between evangelical and mainline churches really be?
3. How is every one of the persons in my care growing spiritually? Are they? Do we have a coherent plan for their growth?
I've long been struck by the vision of pastoral ministry that comes through in the Apostle Paul's letters. He's consistently to grow both the size of the church and the depth or maturity of the church. He has a broad kingdom-sized concern for the entire church wherever she gathers, and a laser-like, motherly/fatherly concern for every individual believer in his care. Here's just a few statements in from his letters:
Eph. 4:11-13 --"And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ...."
Col. 1:28-29--"We proclaim Him, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all His energy that He powerfully works within me."
1 Thes. 2:9-12--"For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory."
Acts 20:18-21--"You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in pubic and from house to house...."
It's challenging. But pastoral ministry ought to maintain a focus on the entire body and a keen interest in the development and growth of each saint.
How many are in our care? How many can we account for? How many are making progress in the faith? How many do we pray for by name? How many need a fatherly or motherly admonition and exhortation? How many do we really want to know in these ways?
Many of us will no doubt consider the numbers of people in our charge and instantly feel discouraged at the prospect of ever serving them all individually. We'll feel the "impossibility" of serving a large church this way. And we'll be tempted to shrink back to "manageable" activities and settle for "realistic" goals for contacting our people.
And yet, as Paul points out, we don't do this in our strength. It is His mighty strength at work in us. And even if we should fail to serve all as fathers and mothers, that's no reason to not serve any or to settle for serving a small few.
Think of it this way. The Lord himself gave His blood for each and every one of His sheep individually. Can we really imagine negotiating terms with the Savior that allow us to care for a few of that number? Can we imagine ourselves looking into the Savior's hands and side and saying, "Yeah, I think it's reasonable that we only target this number or this cluster of members for pastoral care. Let's aim at 50% and hope for the best with the rest."
No, we can't imagine that, can we? The Lord calls us to great things and places before us great challenges. Let His men rise up in faith and dependence upon His gracious aid, and strive with all His might to care for every sheep in our care so that we will deliver them mature and unblemished on the day of Christ!
Disciples are made, not born. And they're made by men who heed the Lord's call and give themselves shoulders to the plow in this great work.
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" (Matt. 28:18-20).
By the Numbers
Toward Reforming Membership Practices
Mutual Belonging As Local Church Membership