The usual answer is to look at the measurables: professions of faith, adult baptisms, worship attendance, participation in small groups, stewardship, etc. These objective markers tell us much about the church, but not everything. Low numbers may indicate wrong strategies, a lack of effort, a lack of preparedness, a community already highly churched, the right church planter in the wrong place, a planter struggling with personal problems, internal conflict issues, and so on. Low numbers may also indicate that the church is focusing on reaching a difficult people group or a hardened segment of society or is facing a high level of spiritual warfare. In these latter situations, evangelistic fruit will simply be slow to come.
I suggest there might be a less quantitative, and perhaps somewhat uncomfortable way, to tell whether a church, new or established, is acting missionally and effectively reaching the lost. That is, if it looks like the Corinthian church, then it is doing its job. What do I mean?
In the opening salutation of his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul refers to his readers as “those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling” (1:2). He has no qualms about affirming their present new identity and position in Christ. His readers are definitely believers. He also does not hesitate to anticipate and affirm to them the eschatological promise that the Lord “shall also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:8). They are assured of both God’s continued work in their lives and of their eternal salvation.
Soon after that encouraging salutation, however, the apostle launches into a laundry list of sins and errors. Throughout the letter he confronts the saints of Corinth with the sins of “divisions” (1:10), “immorality” (5:1), “lawsuits” (6:7), of being “arrogant” (8:1) and a “stumbling block to the weak” (8:9), and of partaking of the Lord’s Supper in “an unworthy manner” (11:27). He also chastises them for their lack of order in the church (ch.11), abuse of spiritual gifts (chs. 12 and 14), and general lack of love toward each other (ch.13). Although followers of Christ, they are often selfish, foolish, carnal, babes in Christ, arrogant, and boastful, so that Paul has “to admonish you as my beloved children” (4:14). Saved and sanctified though they may be, the Corinthians often did not offer good Christian testimony either in the church or in their community.
How can this be? Why the struggle between whom they were in Christ and how they so often behaved? It was because this was a new church planted in a pluralistic, materialistic, and hedonistic pagan society. It was because its purpose as a new church was to specifically reach these kinds of people. It was because it was successful at reaching the lost, who were saved and sanctified by Christ, but who then had to learn daily to live as the saints they already were. In effect, the “church of God which is at Corinth” (1:2) was a mess! And the fact that it was struggling with such a mess of beliefs, relationships, and behavior is evidence that it was effective. The very missional Corinthian church was reaching the lost, penetrating the darkness, and transforming the world. And it was evident in church life.
We now live in an increasingly postmodern, post- and anti- Christian, hedonistic, pluralistic, neo-pagan world. The average person is less and less familiar with the Bible, with basic Christian doctrines and ethics, and with what church is “supposed’ to be like. Consequently, when a church is aggressively and effectively reaching lost people in great numbers, and who probably have absolutely no church background, it is likely that church will look like the Corinthian church. It will be quite messy.
For example, the pastor of a ten-year old church that has grown from around 35 to 1,500 in worship, and that has baptized the majority of those in attendance, referred to his church as a “pagan” church. What he meant was that most of his members were still babes in Christ and often quite carnal. Since most did not come from Christian backgrounds and many had been saved out of gross sinful lifestyles, they still had a long way to go. Quite literally, they had missed the first thirty years of Sunday School and were thus biblically ignorant. That is not even to mention the sinful habits they were still dealing with (somewhat like the Corinthians).
Another staff member of a relatively new church was telling me about their rapid growth over the last year. Worship attendance had grown from about 140 to almost 200. Of those, 52 were baptized within the last year. Almost immediately, he commented that those new people brought all kinds of problems with them. “Somewhat like the Corinthian church?” I suggested. His eyes widened and he said, “Yeah, exactly.”
If this is what an evangelistically effective church, new or established, will look like, then what are the implications? What must a church do?
One, the church must have, from day one of its inception, a well thought out process of accountability and discipleship to handle large numbers of new converts who are probably biblically illiterate.
Two, that accountability and discipleship process must include elements of both teaching (knowledge-based discipleship) and missional activity (obedience-based discipleship). From their very introduction into the body of Christ, new believers need to learn what the Bible says and how to put into practice what they have learned.
Three, the church must be prepared to practice a lot of love, acceptance, grace, and patience. Teaching about the Christian life must be accompanied by loving relationships, consistent modeling, and lots of forgiveness. Certainly sinful habits and lifestyles must be addressed, but it must be done with grace. Postmoderns do not want a watered down gospel; they want the undiluted truth. They do want to hear it, however, within the context of relationship and belonging, and from someone who is journeying with them.
Four, the church should be prepared to be occasionally embarrassed, and maybe even shocked, by the behavior of its new members. Remember, they biblically illiterate and learning about life in Christ.
Five, the church should also be prepared for a large number of long-term attenders who are checking out the church. Like it or not, people today often want to “belong” before they fully believe.
Finally, the church better get ready for the next wave. When a new church is effectively reaching large numbers of new converts, these will usually bring in more. That is, after all, what we want them to do. The missional church that doggedly stays focused on reaching out, without neglecting its members, will always have the challenge of turning new Corinthian-like members into mature followers of Christ.
I have often heard pastors say they want a church like that described in Acts 2:41-47. Wouldn’t we all! Remember, however, that those believers had taken a relatively small step of faith from being God-fearers, faithful Jews, and religious people to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Many in Corinth, Galatia, Rome, and elsewhere were often those who took giant steps from pagan belief and behavior to faith in Christ. They brought their baggage with them. Lesson? In today’s post- and anti-Christian world, the road to an Acts 2 church leads through Corinth.