Growing Pains: How the Birth of the Church is Critical to its Growth or Decline
by Bill Henard
An important factor for a church revitalization is the way in which the church was birthed. Was it an intentional church plant, a split, a splinter, or a compromise? How churches begin can determine how they grow, why they plateau, and why they die. Once we realize the problems that have ensued, the question we are going to ask is, “How do I fix this problem?” Listen to the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 3,
13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, 14 I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus. (CSB)
The answer is simple, yet complex. The church must accept its past, embrace its importance, but move beyond its limitations. Churches and pastors make the mistake of either criticizing the past or trying to ignore it altogether. The past is the past. How the church started is how the church started. Therefore, use the church’s beginnings as an advantage. Look at what Paul says: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead. So, what is Paul suggesting? Here are some thoughts.
Allow them to honor the history
In whatever way the church began, good or bad, do not live in the past and do not allow the past to determine the future. Learn from the past, interact with the past, honor the past and those who are/were a part of it, but do not dwell in the past. If necessary, lead the church through a time to honor the history but to make a clear decision to move forward. Lead the church through a time in which they ask God to help break the hold that the past has on them and begin to move forward. If the past includes some shameful behaviors or attitudes, seek God’s healing for those times. God’s forgiveness and love for the church is clear in Scripture. Remind the church that God has not forgotten them.
Teach the church to live open-handed
If the church tries to ignore their beginnings, they are only denying reality. Paul wrote, Not that I have already reached the goal or am already perfect (3:12). Instead of being embarrassed by how the church started or why the church starting in the way that it did, embrace it. Lead the church to learn from its past and to be thankful for its founding and founders, but do not stay there. Those of us who are Pro-life believe that even a child conceived in rape is still valuable in the eyes of God. While that child’s conception is by no means a desired nor encouraged beginning, what a testimony that child and mother will have to a world that extols death and disregards life.
Pursue God’s future with zeal.
Paul declared, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus. The church must reach the point of being dissatisfied with where they are presently. They cannot go back to the past or allow the past to keep them defeated. God has a much grander plan than ominous beginnings. Richard Melick offers this explanation:
Since the Greek athletic games captured the imagination of all of the peninsula, Macedonia included, it spoke vividly to the readers. The manner of attainment is explained by two participles. First, “forgetting what is behind” comprehensively expresses Paul’s future orientation. What was done was done! Both the nostalgia of the former life and the “good ole days” of his Christian life would paralyze him in terms of what God wanted in the future. Every day was a new adventure. Second, he was “straining toward what is ahead.” This word continues the athletic metaphor. It is particularly graphic, bringing to mind the straining muscles, clear focus, and complete dedication of the runner in his race to the prize. Both mental and physical discipline were necessary.
[Richard R. Melick, The New American Commentary. vol. 32, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1991), 139].
While Paul obviously is dealing with living a victorious Christian life, his words certainly apply to the victorious church. Know the past and understand the past but find God’s future for the church and pursue it with deep discipline and absolute commitment.
A churches’ beginning can determine how they grow, why they plateau, and why they die. Allowing the church to honor it’s past without it becoming an idol, teaching the church to live open-handed in regards to the state of the church being all grace, and leading the church to pursuing God’s future with zeal are ways to lead a church through the process of church revitalization.
Bill Henard (M.Div, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Ph.D, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as the Executive Director, Treasurer of the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists, he also serves as an adjunct professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.