Growing pains – the source of the problem

Growth and change in church life often brings uncertainty and confusion. We find a case study of this in Acts 6. Acts 6:1 says: ‘In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.’ The external threat of persecution in Acts 3-5 is replaced by the internal threat of division in Acts 6. This is potentially as destructive as persecution. The division is along ethnic and cultural lines and could easily have led to two churches – a Hellenistic church and a Hebraic church.

The source: growth

So this is a significant problem. But the source of the problem is growth: ‘In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained …’

We all want growth. But growth brings change and change is rarely painless. Things are not the way they used to be and we often experience that as loss.

In Acts 2 it seems those in need were invited to join families at their meals (2:44-46). It was all very informal and maybe that worked OK with a church of 3,000. But the church is growing rapidly. In 2:41 the church is 3,000 strong. In 4:4 there are 5,000 men alone – so perhaps the total church is getting on for 10,000. And even after that more and more people are being added to that number (5:14).

So very quickly informal arrangements are not enough. Acts 4:34-35 says: ‘There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.’ This looks like a more formal arrangement. You can imagine people saying, ‘It wasn’t like the old days when we just hung out together.’ But now caring for everyone’s needs required some kind of central fund. But by chapter 6 even this is not enough and people are being overlooked. Tim Keller writes:

One of the most common reasons for pastoral leadership mistakes is blindness to the significance of church size. Size has an enormous impact on how a church functions. There is a “size culture” that profoundly affects how decisions are made, how relationships flow, how effectiveness is evaluated, and what ministers, staff, and lay leaders do … [The] person who goes from a church of 400 to a church of 2,000 is in many ways making a far greater change than if he or she moved from one denomination to another.

Keller goes on to describe the dynamics of different church sizes.

As a church grows:

  • We have to accept that the preacher may not be our pastor.
  • We have to work harder at welcoming new people.
  • We have to embrace the face that there’s a greater diversity among us.
  • We have to accept things won’t ‘just happen’ with organization.
  • We have to be more willing to volunteer because initially we may not be working with people we know.
  • We have to communicate better because we can’t rely on word of mouth.

It’s painful. But the source of these pains is growth. They’re growing pains. That doesn’t mean they’re not painful. But it does mean we should embrace them as a sign of growth. The only real way to avoid growing pains is to stop growing. And that’s not an option.

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