Growth and Development

Craig Van Gelder in “The Ministry of the Missional Church” describes six (6) things that led to growth and development of the primitive church as found in the book of Acts (of the Apostles).

#1. Growth and Development through CONFLICT. Conflict is often seen negatively— “Storming” in Group Dynamics. However, Conflict is necessary to address new situations that people were not expecting, as well as to establish norms and roles. It also helps to force people to decide levels of commitment to the group. Van Gelder used Acts 6 as the classic example of this. I might suggest Acts 5 as an example where conflict was NOT handled well. Ananias and Saphira were dealt with poorly leading to fear in the congregation. Conflict is not bad, but how we respond to conflict can be good or bad.

#2. Growth and Development through ADVERSE CIRCUMSTANCES. A crisis is an opportunity. We all (I think) know this. That does not, however, mean that any of us are likely to embrace the positive side of adverse circumstances immediately. It takes a certain conscious effort to see good possibilities in adversity. I recall a story from (former radio host) Paul Harvey. The story, as I recall it, was of an accountant who was fired from his job. He was so despondent. He did not know what he would do, and was dreading telling his wife. Finally he goes home to tell her the bad news. She responds, “Thanks be to God!” The accountant is confused but his wife leads him to a place that she had been secreting things away. In there was a staff of coins. She told her husband that little by little she had been saving up the coins in the hopes that one day her husband could stop being an accountant and focus his energy on the book idea that had been languishing. The accountant (he we are finally told was the great 19th century American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the book was his, perhaps most famous, work, The Scarlet Letter. Is that story true? I don’t really know. But adverse things happen. Persecution swept over Jerusalem and Judea in the Book of Acts, and this led to the Gospel message being scattered far and wide as people moved outward from the area. Arguably, the same thing could be said of the story of the Tower of Babel, where God confused the languages and people spread out all over the world. We look at it in terms of disobedience and punishment. However, it can be looked at in a different way as well. People were used to the status quo (homeostasis) and needed a disruption to respond to creatively.

#3. Growth and Development through MINISTRY ON THE MARGINS. This one is not as obvious. Efforts like Philip the Evangelist reaching out to Samaritans, and Christians reaching out to Gentiles in Antioch (without requiring becoming Jewish as a prerequisite to becoming followers of Christ) forced the church to come to terms with their presumptions and practices. Frankly, we rarely learn and grow by doing the ministry as it was always done with the target population one has always reached out to. Certain canned Evangelistic programs seem absolutely wonderfurl and effective— as long as one is reaching out to people who were brought up with common values about God and the Bible, within a generally Christian worldview. It is those people who reach out to people from a decidedly non-Christian worldview who discover the limitation of the methods… and sometimes even the limits of the outcome.

#4. Growth and Development through INTENTIONAL STRATEGY. Paul and Barnabas developed an intentional strategy to reach out people in Cyprus and Asia Minor. Yes sometimes some leader has a “big vision” and then inspires people to come up with a really great strategy to move the organization forward. Thankfully, that doesn’t appear to be the way things work most of the time. First, I don’t think that God subscribes to the “Great Man” Theory of History. Second, since a key part ministry is contextuality (addressing the changingness of, well, pretty much everything), it should hardly be surprising that organizational changes (or failures to change, or failures to change correctly) are more dictated by changes to the context than to “Vision.” As a not-all-that-visionary person, that is comforting. Most of the smart changes my wife and I have been a part of in ministry came from responding to changes an opportunities from outside, rather than really cool ideas that came out of our heads. Van Gelder notes that most of the positive growth and development in Acts did not come out of this source, so I am not alone.

#5. Growth and Development through Divine Intervention. Sometimes God jumps in and grabs the steering wheel. It may not always be clear when it should be considered a “God thing.” My wife and I moved from focus on Children’s Minsitry to Pastoral Counseling back in 2009/10 after two devastating storms here in the Philippines. This led to an inability to do Saturday ministry work with children because suddenly children were in schools on Saturday to make up for lost school days, and the great need for pastoral counseling of those who had suffered both tangible and intangible loss from the storms. Is that Divine Intervention or Adverse Circumstances (or even Ministry on the Margins). I don’t know for sure. But with Paul and company, Paul received a vision to begin ministering in Macedonia and Greece. This was a great stretch for them. Prior, they were innovative in their intentional strategy, but also in some ways not that innovative. Barnabas was a Hellenistic Jew from Cyprus and Paul was a Hellenistic Jew from Asia Minor. So what was their strategy? To reach out to Hellenistic Jews and Hellenistic Gentiles in Cyprus and Asia Minor. Comfortable. It took God to say that it is time to move outside of that secure zone.

#6. Growth and Development from INSIGHTS INTO GOSPEL AND CULTURE. I guess I would be tempted to group this one with Ministry on the Margins, but perhaps there is wisdom on the part of Van Gelder to keep them separate. Peter learned much about the Gospel through his interaction with Cornelius. The same could be said of his trip to Samaria in Acts. Earlier in the book, Van Gelder describes the “Inherent Translatability of the Gospel” to every culture and context. It is good news for everyone everywhere. But to be good news, it may look different. It may look different in the slums of Kampal from how it looks in a housechurch where persecution of Christians is common. It may look different in a land awash in a form of secular cynicism from a land of people in fear of malevolent spirits. Seeing the Gospel message of Christ from only one perspective (one facet), or worse denying the validity of anyone other representation or living out of the message, will stifle Growth and Development in the church. Seeing God work in unexpected ways in the lives of unexpected persons in unexpected contexts provides opportunity for the church to learn and grow.

I think it is a good list. Perhaps I would like to divide up ADVERSE CIRCUMSTANCES into three subcategories— circumstances that spring from SUCCESS, FAILURE, and NEITHER. Success puts a strain on an organization as much as failures or things that are unrelated to either success or failure. If a church doubles or triples in size in a few months, that certainly would be seen as a success in some way. However, it is also certainly an adverse condition— putting huge strains on the church to respond. It is a problem. It may be seen as a good problem (a problem that is the result of good things happening) but it is a problem nonetheless. Anyway, ADVERSE CIRCUMSTANCES is vague enough and broad enough to cover a wide range of things, and that is fine.

You can find this book by Van Gelder—- HERE.

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